'Smart city' pitched for Arkansas

Rick Webb, the director of Bentonville-based Grit Studios, believes Northwest Arkansas has everything in place to become a "living laboratory" for technology-enabled communities.

The former Walmart Inc. executive and president of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council said that with five main cities spread across two counties, hospitals, an airport and innovative businesses, the region is ripe for the development of a smart city.

"I think it could be a differentiator for our area," Webb said Tuesday. "How do you actually think about all of those working together across the region? Those are things that, when we talk to people at other big cities, they say, 'That would be really cool.' Nobody has done that yet. So that's the vision."

Smart cities -- and the potential role Northwest Arkansas could play in the creative process -- were the topic of discussion during the Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit meeting Tuesday.

Erik Bjontegard, the chief executive officer of San Diego-based Total Communicator Solutions Inc., was the guest speaker for the monthly gathering and shared some of the work SparkCompass -- his tech platform created to enable intelligent communities -- had performed for clients around the world.

The smart city concept is one that relies on a network of connected devices and sensors to collect and analyze information across the area's infrastructure. That information is used by authorities or other stakeholders to manage assets and resources more efficiently. The overall purpose for connecting a community through technology is to improve the quality of life for residents, according to Bjontegard.

Smart streetlights, for instance, can determine whether someone is approaching the area and dim or brighten accordingly to conserve energy and improve safety. Sensors can monitor traffic congestion and determine available parking spaces. Others have been implemented in applications like trash collection, identifying how much trash is in a can to optimize collection routes.

The number of applications are unlimited and, like Webb, Bjontegard believes Northwest Arkansas has the potential to be a leader in technology-enabled community development.

"This has an opportunity to leapfrog into revolutionary smart city design rather than the evolutionary trickle that's going on elsewhere," Bjontegard said. "There are smart people here. There is education here, there are [smart city] evangelists here, there are thought leaders here and there is an infrastructure that can benefit from something like this."

Bjontegard and Webb acknowledged that creating an integrated, intelligent community would require collaboration from local officials, companies, residents and others. So the early part of the mission is education. Webb said he wrote a white paper about what an intelligent region looks like and has distributed it to leaders.

He and Bjontegard are scheduled to meet with University of Arkansas officials to discuss potential uses on campus. Bjontegard has worked with other universities on projects, including the development of a mobile application intended to drive attendance at University of Mississippi sporting events. The app, Rebel Rewards, awards points for event attendance that can be exchanged for shirts, hats or other items.

Webb believes the "brainstorming session" with University of Arkansas officials is a logical place to start talking about the opportunity for a world-class, technology-enabled community. He said the university is thinking about ways technology can enable a more enhanced experience for students.

"I think it's just a matter of building that collaborative problem-solving environment and inviting people to participate," Webb said. "I think they'll jump at the opportunity to be a part of a living lab that gives them a chance to test it, prove it and then introduce it to the rest of the world."

There are barriers, including privacy concerns regarding data collected from residents through devices such as mobile phones or wearable technology. Another big issue to tackle is how smart city projects would be funded, and Webb said he's not sure what that would look like at this point.

But the goal is to find a way to move forward and develop a concept over the next year to "put it out there, start to learn and start to tell people about it."

"We have a grand vision," Bjontegard added. "The hardest part is to start."

Business on 03/28/2018

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