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Gwinnett County’s newest city is also bidding to become one of America’s smartest but its roots go back more than five decades. Assistant city manager Brandon Branham talks to SmartCitiesWorld.
We think of smart cities as relatively new but back in the 1960s, businessman Paul Duke pitched the idea of creating a place where people could live, work and play in the same “quality-controlled environment,” reducing the need for long commutes. He envisioned it on the area once known as Pinckneyville, around 30 minutes from the city of Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1967, he initiated planning for a campus of low-rise buildings that would house low-pollution, high-tech industries to employ, among others, engineering graduates from Georgia Tech. The first neighbourhoods were built in the 1970s and were joined by a station, school and chapel.
These were the early beginnings of Peachtree Corners, officially incorporated as Gwinnett County’s newest city on July 1, 2012, following a referendum of its residents. Mike Mason, a resident of the Peachtree Corners community for over 30 years, was selected as the city’s first mayor in March of the same year.
Today, around 40,000 people live in the 17-square-mile city, the technology park is home to Fortune 500 businesses and this year marked another significant milestone in its development when it officially opened its 5G-enabled smart city living laboratory, the Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners.
The lab, which features a test track for autonomous vehicles, is putting Peachtree Corners on the map as one of the US’ up-and-coming smart cities.
“Peachtree Corners’ focus is on being the premier innovation hub for smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies – where companies from all across the nation can come to prove these out, using real-world smart city infrastructure,” says Brandon Branham, assistant city manager and finance director, whose role includes facilitating collaboration between the private sector and the city to help companies developing next-generation smart city technology.
“Ultimately, we’re helping them make critical decisions related to scaling and deploying those technologies and solutions,” he said.
“Using technology to gain insights that a city did not have before, and using data to find ways to better serve its constituents, is what makes a city a smart city.”
Thanks to Duke’s original vision, Peachtree Corners, which borders on the Chattahoochee River in the west, has always been built around the community and preserving residents’ quality of life, and this underpins its approach to technology in the city.
Branham likes to hear questions about what the term “smart city” really means because he says you never get the same answer: “To me, it means bridging the gap between the rapidly expanding world of IoT technology and how these technologies are used to best serve the communities they’re in.
“There are a lot of incredible devices and programmes being created, but they may not always be what’s best for particular communities. And deploying a technology for the sake of it does not make a city a smart city.
“Using the right technology to gain insights that a city did not have before, and using that data to find ways to better serve its constituents, is what makes a city a smart city. And this takes the entire team across a city to accomplish, not just the technology team.”
Peachtree Corners has two distinct drivers for its smart city initiatives: using technology to solve real, current problems and ensuring the long-term economic development of the city. As an example of the former, Branham cites the introduction of a smart parking application in the city’s newly constructed centre (previously it didn’t have a “proverbial downtown” he says).
“We realised that we would be hosting events that would draw more than 5,000-person crowds, but we only had a little more than 1,000 parking spaces on-site. So we challenged ourselves to find a way to effectively manage the on-site parking, including a new way to tell our residents and guests when it was full, in addition to diverting vehicles to overflow parking,” he explains.
A combination of parking sensors and cameras was used to achieve this and information is pushed to the City App, where residents and visitors can see exactly how many parking spaces are open in the city centre, eliminating the need to spend time driving around looking for one.
“The emphasis here is on real-world smart city infrastructure, where buildings and other city fixtures are enabling, and connecting with, devices and solutions.”
Underpinning the future economic development of the city is the Curiosity Lab. A technology office park was part of Paul Duke’s original vision for the community and the original one that was still in existence when the city was incorporated. It had once been a burgeoning tech hub and its credentials included being the site where the first modem and colour printer were created and the telecom equipment company, Scientific Atlanta, now owned by Cisco, started life there.
“But in 2012, it had a vacancy rate of more than 35 per cent,” says Branham. “Our elected body has had a strong focus on rebuilding this area around technology – and challenged our executive staff to find a way to make Peachtree Corners the innovation hub of the East Coast. Out of this call to action, Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners was created.”
The living laboratory has been designed specifically as a proving ground for technology that has “graduated” from a closed laboratory environment. It consists of a 5G connectivity-enabled 1.5-mile autonomous vehicle test track and smart city laboratory located within a 500-acre technology park where thousands of people and vehicles interact with the test track and smart city technology every day.
“The emphasis here is on real-world smart city infrastructure, where buildings and other city fixtures are enabling, and connecting with, devices and solutions,” says Branham.
The lab’s mobile 5G network, combined with direct short-range communications (DSRC) roadside units, enables companies to test vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications, while intelligent traffic cameras and traffic signals, along with smart streetlights and data sensors, provide video coverage and data collection that can be monitored from a network operations centre. The lab is available to use free of charge.
Branham, who came to Peachtree Corners in 2013 and was previously involved in Atlanta’s City of Sandy Springs, says never in his “wildest dreams” did he think working in local government would lead to being involved in such a “revolutionary” project.
One of the challenges, he says, is setting up the processes when creating something that no one has ever had before: “We operate much like a start-up company: every day we learn something new and adapt our model based on what we have learned that day, which makes for very exciting, fast-moving work.”
“We’re serving as a model for how the private sector and government entities can work best together to move toward building out true smart cities and smart regions.”
“And working with an incredible team, getting to serve the public and explore new ways to better enhance the community every day is one of the greatest jobs ever.”
If he could make one change to the city tomorrow, if money was no object, he would install a fibre system that “touches every part of the city”, which would ease the deployment issues of smart technologies, while ensuring that all residents have connectivity/access.
Following Curiosity Lab’s official opening, though, he says his number-one priority is to continue to build and foster relationships across the smart city ecosystem.
“We’re serving as a model for how the private sector and government entities can work best together to move toward building out true smart cities and smart regions,” he says. “So that those in this space know they have a place where they can prove, test and demonstrate their products in a real-world smart city environment.”
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