WCC hosts Smart Cities Symposium focused on using technology to solve urban challenges

A Smart Cities Symposium April 6 at Washtenaw Community College brought together about 140 city planners, engineers, administrators, mayors, and economic development leaders for a day of discussion on how to use technology to meet the new challenges cities face.


Michelle Mueller, vice president for economic, community, and college development at WCC, says there are a few common misconceptions about "smart cities."


"A lot of people think smart cities are about making the city digital and about technology, but it's really about solving complex community problems using technology as a vehicle to pinpoint where we are and using information to solve those issues," Mueller says.


Mueller says much of the conversation around "smart cities" has been focused on connected and autonomous vehicles. But symposium organizers wanted to feature talks and panels that included energy and smart grids, water issues, and more.


Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer at Ford Motor Co., was the first speaker of the day, "setting the stage for what's happening in the auto industry," Mueller says.


Next up was Dr. Toni Antonucci, professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research Life Course, who talked about the demographics of aging and what that means for city planners.


Other speakers included Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, on how technology and big data can make cities more inclusive and prosperous by attracting and retaining talent; Camilo Serna, vice president of corporate strategy at DTE Energy, talking about the smart grid and how to improve energy infrastructure; and Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, talking about the future of transportation infrastructure in Michigan.


The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring James R. Sayer, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute; Craig Hupy, public service area administrator for the city of Ann Arbor; and Eugene W. Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant, Maryland.


"A lot of folks think that if they're from a small town, they don't have to deal with smart city issues or don't have the competitive advantage to bring in business," Mueller says. "But Mayor Grant is from a small rural town of about 5,000 people, and he did it."


Serving as an example of gathering data for making data-driven decisions, Grant made the case to taxpayers that a vacant house pulls down the value of houses around it by as much as 13 percent. He created a business case for buying up vacant properties, fixing them up, and reselling them, investing the funds raised back into development.


"It addressed the societal problem of vacant houses and, by showing that the program would raise the value of all homes in the city, residents were really able to get behind it," Mueller says.


Mueller says WCC would like to build on the symposium's momentum by applying to the National Science Foundation to have the college designated a "regional center of excellence."


"We've done so much work in this area. I think we're positioned well," Mueller says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photos courtesy of Washtenaw Community College.

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