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Smart Cities technologies expected to grow in central Illinois

The Town of Normal has been working behind the scenes on Smart Cities options for many months. Work sessions to help the council make decisions on new tech may come early next year.

The town of Normal is preparing to work on new technologies that will make things run smoother, faster, and at less cost. Work sessions are likely early in the new year. But it's hard to say which so-called Smart Cities initiatives will work well in any given city.

The Illinois Smart City and Region Association (ISCRA) is an organization that says it can help with that. Joe Gallo is the CEO.

Smart cities can mean better administrative processes, better connectivity to smooth the way for municipal services to work, and increased transparency for taxpayers. It can mean a variety of things. Gallo said the question of what spaces offer opportunities is a very broad one, but it might be in optimizing municipal operations.

"The narrative is that cities or towns or villages are in a position to operate lean with few staff and limited resources. And so any opportunity that a community could utilize to automate a given process or increase sensors or software to create efficiencies within those operations, would be beneficial for a community through the lens of a city administrator or a municipal decision-maker," said Gallo.

Something as prosaic as road salt is one example that is apt as winter arrives. It's a significant expense for any city or town. And crews have to be on call at all hours and with overtime to put it out when snow and ice arrive.

"If we were to deploy these precipitation sensors in our roadways, that would enable our street plowing teams to have a real time understanding of which roads are accumulating more snow than others. Because there's also climate conditions that play a factor, there's a level of traffic on a given road that can reduce the level of accumulation.

"We can target the roads that require more salt than others, as well as then be more specific in our deployment of salt, which then translates to smarter buying for future years. In addition to that, we can map out the critical roads in our infrastructure, and ensure that those are receiving pre emptive, salt or maintenance salt as we go through them," said Gallo.

More judicious use of salt also can improve ground water quality, he said.

A lot of high tech tools are hitting the marketplace. They have different methods, costs, and trade offs. And the landscape is changing rapidly. Cities like Bloomington and Normal may have difficulty making choices. But Gallo said municipalities are becoming a lot less siloed than they used to be.

Professional associations of city administrators are getting better at sharing information. Yet, what works in one town may not suit the needs of another. And to turn to the vendors risks an unbalanced sales pitch in a field that is so very new. Gallo said that's where organizations like his come in.

There isn't a singular space where municipal leaders can go to speak specifically about tech that impacts a broad facet of the community. And so ISCRA has created is an agnostic ecosphere, where those municipal decision-makers can converge and solicit information and guidance on tech analogy initiatives for their community, said Gallo.

"And when you have multiple vendors discussing this in front of municipal decision-makers simultaneously, we then stay away from the individual lens of the one vendor and through the lens of their singular solution, opening up these conversations," said Gallo.

One recent example deals with the pandemic and a need to boost online library services in a suburban library district.

"In Caseyville, the library district is more than just the library. They offer license and license plate services as well as other social service and welfare issues through their district. And we were able to connect to them through the dialogue that they were having through ISCRA's platform with an organization that could enable a quick pilot for Caseyville's library districts to maintain their continuity of operations.

Another area in which Smart Cities ideas are percolating is access to information in municipalities, with various methods adopted in the U.S. and Europe.

"One suburb is utilizing the electrical smart grid and its network capacity to tie in their water meters or their gas meters. This enables the community to not have to build redundant networks," said Gallo. "But it enables the community to piggy back on an existing network, which then offers the resident or the citizen the ability to log into a dashboard and see real- time information usage of their water or gas. .... Having that information enables either party to make decisions or judgments about how to pull back or throttle forward."

Smart Cities technology spending reached about $80 billion in 2016. It was expected to grow to about $135 billion by this year, according to a report from the International Data Corporation. Gallo said he sees that growth only accelerating dramatically given the state of government and society.

"The climate in which we're currently living in terms of how we go to work on a daily basis, or how we don't travel to work on a daily basis. The need to be more accommodating and amenable to adopting technology is becoming something that we can no longer just recognize we have to embrace and start acting toward. So I see strong growth," said Gallo.

Municipalities may be hesitant to get on board because they may not see the return on investment immediately, or the investment benefits businesses that then develop at some point in the future. That is a harder thing to quantify for cities and towns concerned about judicious use of taxpayer dollars.

"Advancement and progress are planted in the seeds of education and cultivated through criticism," said Gallo. "Progress (in) an area cannot be done unless those who are are going through those motions are completely and fully educated on what they're about to experience. Once they're fully knowledgeable. They can step back and take a critical examination of it that they're doing or other that they're experiencing and say there has to be a better way."

Whether it's coordinated traffic signals that connect to real-time traffic flow data, or something else, Gallo said as more cities adopt new tech, these solutions will be compounded by neighboring communities, adopting them at the same time, and offering their experiences to officials in other cities.

"We'll see those municipal decision-makers become more eager to engage," he said.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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