How one Raleigh resident is creating opportunities for Black-owned businesses in North Carolina

Johnny Hackett Jr. in front of statues
Johnny Hackett Jr.

  • Johnny Hackett Jr. is the founder of The Black Dollar Corp., a retail location and online directory.
  • The directory gives Black entrepreneurs opportunities to gain exposure and customers.
  • Hackett also runs Black Friday Market, which has 90 Black-owned vendors and hosts community events.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

Johnny Hackett Jr. appreciates being a part of the entrepreneurship community in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In 2019, he started The Black Dollar Corp. to support Black-owned businesses in the state through a retail location and online directory.

“We’re trying to give a platform for African American entrepreneurs to be found, to get more exposure, to get more customers,” Hackett, 37, told Insider.

Hackett, who was recently named one of the Triangle Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” said he often partners with the city to spread the word about programs and initiatives.

“So many different opportunities exist here in Raleigh,” he said. “It’s just a place where an entrepreneur can come and get off the ground running. There’s a lot of community support and there are a lot of folks who are invested in making sure that upstart companies do have a chance here.”

Hackett moved to Raleigh just before he started high school and later attended North Carolina A&T State University. His background is in information technology, and he’s worked for Xerox, IBM, and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

He first got into entrepreneurship in 2009 when he founded the nonprofit Life Foundation to educate teens about taxes, credit, health insurance, and other life skills.

“I felt like I wasn’t utilizing my strengths to the best of my ability for the community,” Hackett said. “I started to see how many businesses and organizations didn’t have the tools that they needed to either gain access to funding or open certain doors.”

So he started building websites for business owners – and that paved the way for a directory.

Becoming Raleigh’s official Black-owned business directory

The goal of #BlackDollarNC, which features an interactive map, is to increase visibility for North Carolina-based, Black-owned businesses. Owners can add themselves to the directory for free, and it now lists about 1,100 companies. Each day, about 500 people visit the site, Hackett said.

Raleigh’s Office of Economic Development and Innovation engaged Black Dollar Corp. to expand reach, and thus #BlackDollarNC became the official Black-owned business directory of Raleigh. Hackett’s main goals are adding more businesses, turning the directory into a social channel, and expanding to other parts of the US.

Retail space gives entrepreneurs a place to sell goods

Black Dollar Corp.’s newest initiative is Black Friday Market, a department store located in downtown Raleigh where Black-owned businesses without retail space can sell their products. The store opened in December and features more than 90 companies selling clothing, beauty products, artwork, and food items. The market also hosts events.

Companies pay a fee to sell their products in the store and keep 100% of the sales, Hackett said. The store has been a hit so far, he added, and he plans to open more locations in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Hosting events engages the community

Street festivals that feature kids’ activities, musical performances, and food give businesses the opportunity to sell their products. Hackett said they saw a large turnout for their May and June events and is expecting a similar outcome for July’s.

This spring, they also hosted a scavenger hunt. Residents could earn points for posting on social media, attending events, signing up for newsletters from the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, and collecting stickers from locations for a chance to win $5,000 – but the money must be reinvested in a Black-owned company.

“It’s just awesome meeting these folks and talking to them, understanding what their talents are, and then trying to support them as best we can,” Hackett said.

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How one Durham-based foundation is investing in North Carolina’s entrepreneurs and growing the state’s innovation footprint

Thom Ruhe and Roy Cooper in suits
Thom Ruhe and Roy Cooper.

  • The NC IDEA foundation supports entrepreneurship and economic development across North Carolina.
  • Using grants, seed funding, mentoring, and other programs, NC IDEA helps entrepreneurs directly.
  • Some initiatives include the NC Black Entrepreneurship Council, NC IDEA SOAR, and NC IDEA LABS.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

From a non-dairy cheese brand and sustainable oyster-production company to many software, hardware, and social-media firms, the nonprofit NC IDEA invests in a variety of businesses across North Carolina.

Thom Ruhe of NC IDEA headshot
Thom Ruhe.

“It’s a shorter list to tell you what we wouldn’t fund than what we do fund,” Thom Ruhe, NC IDEA’s president and CEO, told Insider.

The Durham, North Carolina-based organization supports entrepreneurship and economic development across the state through grants, seed funding, mentoring, and other programs. Last year, it distributed about $3 million to entrepreneurs – and plans to provide $3.5 million more this year.

Durham is a “national case study for what an entrepreneurial ecosystem can do,” and the region has long been a center for innovation, Ruhe, who previously directed entrepreneurial programs at the Kauffman Foundation, said.

“There’s a lot of collaborative energy here, more than I’ve experienced in other markets,” he said. “It’s refreshing and productive. I know it’s cliche to say, the rising tide argument, but it really has helped here.”

Here’s a look at how NC IDEA invests in entrepreneurs, who the organization believes transform communities and boost local economic development.

Broadening its reach to help more entrepreneurs

NC IDEA is a private foundation that was created in 2006 under the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a nonprofit connecting North Carolina entrepreneurs to the resources they need. It became independent in 2015.

Unlike other foundations, such as the Gates Foundation or Kauffman Foundation, NC IDEA doesn’t have a benefactor, Ruhe said. The primary source for its endowment came from an equity investment that the state of North Carolina made in the 1990s and liquidated in the early 2000s.

To protect the investment, the private foundation was established to economically empower people through entrepreneurship. NC IDEA’s endowment is invested, and the investment income funds the organization.

Recently, the organization began fundraising, which Ruhe said is “very unusual for private foundations because we’re considered self-funded.” NC IDEA wants to increase its budget so it can fund more companies and cover the administrative cost of reviewing additional applications.

“We could see a greater return if we simply had more budget to allocate,” Ruhe said. “We’re trying to take that message out into the economic development and philanthropic communities within North Carolina to say, ‘If you think there’s value to North Carolina and the activity that we do, you can help us increase the yield by just increasing our programmatic budget.'”

Giving grants to businesses and organizations helping startups

Many foundations either operate programs or provide funding. NC IDEA is unique in that it does both, Ruhe explained.

“Our grant-making is better for what we learn in our programmatic activities, and vice versa,” he said. “All of our programs and grants are targeted at helping people live up to their entrepreneurial potential, and in a broader context, make North Carolina the best state in the nation for people to start and grow firms of economic impact.”

NC IDEA operates two categories of grants. Seed grants and micro-grants of $50,000 and $10,000 are provided directly to entrepreneurs or startup founders.

Grants are awarded to founders to whom the money would “at this particular time be very impactful in their ultimate success,” Ruhe said. It provides assistance to get ideas off the ground or help companies scale to the next level so they can create jobs and generate tax revenue for the state. The grants don’t need to be paid back, and the organization doesn’t receive equity in the business.

Another category of grants is what Ruhe calls B2B, where NC IDEA supports other organizations that help entrepreneurs, such as universities, two-year colleges, cities, counties, and others. The organization has about 60 partners in its network.

Supporting underserved communities

NC IDEA recognizes that economic development in North Carolina is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and the organization strives to support underserved communities. Grants are distributed based on what’s relevant in different parts of the state, whether it’s educational programs, access to capital, or mentoring.

“We have to meet people where they are and help them from that starting point,” Ruhe said. “The best way we could do that was the creation of this ecosystem partner program where organizations that are on the front lines in various parts of the state say, ‘Here in our corner of the state, this is what’s most needed.'”

NC IDEA also created the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council and has committed $1 million to advance Black entrepreneurs in the state. The council and foundation will work together to identify and recommend programs, grant recipients, and partners.

large group of people around table in board room
NC IDEA SOAR Day May 2019.

Another program, NC IDEA SOAR, aims to support women in entrepreneurship. The program offers networking, professional development, and connections to resources to help female founders grow their businesses. There’s also a four-week program called NC IDEA LABS that’s open to anyone wanting to take their business to the next level.

Group of men around a table with laptop
NC IDEA LABS fall 2018.

SOAR and LABS are “traditional accelerator”-type programs, Ruhe said. “It’s specific business-growth assistance around market valuation, customer discovery, lead generation, revenue generation – all the nuts and bolts,” he added.

NC IDEA delivers its programs at no cost, but Ruhe said there’s a competitive application process that involves companies providing details about its founders, the company as a whole, revenue, funding, and the type of grants they’re seeking. The organization receives hundreds of applications during each application period.

Growing North Carolina’s innovation footprint

Since its beginning, NC IDEA has provided about $15 million to companies and partners throughout North Carolina. Ruhe added they’ve supported nearly 500 companies, which have created more than 3,300 jobs and brought many benefits to communities.

Marrying innovation and entrepreneurship offers the biggest economic impact, and he said the state of North Carolina does well cultivating both. As word gets out about the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and it keeps attracting major tech companies like Apple and Google, the region has even more potential for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

“The greatest natural resource that exists is the entrepreneurial spirit of people,” Ruhe said. “It’ll be entrepreneurs who will solve our biggest problems. It’s entrepreneurs who are creating the companies that create the jobs we so desperately need. That’s why we do what we do.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

How Raleigh-based nonprofit RIoT is boosting entrepreneurship and job growth in the city

Rachael Newberry, RIoT's program director, connecting virtually to a cohort of startups during pandemic gathering restrictions.
Rachael Newberry, RIoT’s program director, connecting virtually with a cohort of startups during the pandemic.

  • RIoT is a nonprofit organization driving innovation and entrepreneurship in the Raleigh area.
  • One program, RIoT Your Reality, is a competition where teams pitch AR ideas to improve the city.
  • Other initiatives include an accelerator program and a data-centric stormwater management project.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

In July, six teams will demonstrate their ideas for how augmented reality can help solve some of the challenges facing Raleigh, North Carolina, and the surrounding areas.

Through the program RIoT Your Reality, the teams are examining ways to improve diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in city programs, promote workforce development, and reinvent the Raleigh Convention Center to drive economic development.

Tom headshot
Tom Snyder.

“It’s the intersection with government,” Tom Snyder, executive director at RIoT, a local nonprofit working to advance innovation, told Insider. “The city of Raleigh and town of Cary together posed a few problem statements that they’re looking for help on. And we’re running a challenge where people are developing new prototypes of augmented-reality applications to serve those challenges.”

RIoT Your Reality is a partnership with RIoT, the city of Raleigh, the town of Cary, Google Fiber, US Ignite, and Facebook Reality Labs. It kicked off in April with several teams pitching their AR ideas. Six were selected to receive $1,000 to build a prototype, which they’ll demo during an event on July 27. A final winner receives $40,000 and a spot in the RIoT Accelerator Program to launch a new startup.

Snyder said the goal is to create a municipal pilot project and learn how to scale a startup to assist cities beyond North Carolina.

The AR competition is just one of the ways that RIoT works to drive innovation and entrepreneurship in the Raleigh area. Here’s a look at some of the organization’s other major programs.

Helping businesses create new tech jobs

RIoT was founded in 2014 as part of the larger nonprofit Wireless Research Center, located in Wake Forest, North Carolina, which works to advance wireless technology innovation.

Originally, the name was an acronym for Raleigh Internet of Things, then Regional Internet of Things. Now it just goes by RIoT.

“Our grounding thesis is that the best new jobs are created at the forefront of emerging technology,” Snyder, who helped found the organization, said. RIoT’s programs help entrepreneurs start companies and established businesses grow through new technology adoption, all of which creates new jobs.

Being headquartered in Raleigh offers advantages, Snyder said. The area is home to several top universities, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, which fosters a talent pipeline. Several major tech and data companies, including IBM and SAS, have a presence in the region, creating a “great diversity of industry” within the tech sector, he said.

“There are just massive industries and a really nice balance here that makes it a more attractive place for people to be,” Snyder said. “You can’t just job hop during your career, but you can industry hop successfully. And that brings fresh ideas and really makes us a strong place to live.”

RIoT has another location in Wilson, North Carolina, though its presence extends beyond the state. The organization hosts events around the country and is planning to establish new offices in Colorado and Virginia.

Enabling startups to get off the ground

One of RIoT’s programs to boost economic development, the RIoT Accelerator Program, connects entrepreneurs with partners in their industries and gives them access to prototyping tools and other resources.

RIoT
RIoT Accelerator winner Michael Bender, founder and CEO of Intake, a healthcare analytics company, holding the RIoT championship belt.

The accelerator is currently on its eighth cohort. Snyder said RIoT is purposeful in supporting underrepresented groups when selecting startups to participate, and about 60% of the companies involved have been run by women, minorities, and veterans.

Since 2014, the companies participating in the accelerator have created more than 200 jobs, generated more than $100 million in revenue, and earned millions in grant and venture funding, he said.

Growing the accelerator to help more startups is one of its goals. By the end of 2021, Snyder said the accelerator will be offered in multiple cities.

To help startups prototype and experiment with ideas without having to spend money on equipment, RIoT Labs offers hardware, wireless, and software prototyping tools, including a 3D printer, electronic equipment, soldering irons, and more.

“We can provide that equipment for you to go create your new connected device, do the performance testing on the front end, do the regulatory certification testing on the back end, and get it to market,” he said.

RIoT works with government and corporate partners, including Cisco and SAS. Snyder said the organization is always on the lookout for new ones willing to support the entrepreneurial community.

“We want Raleigh to be the place that anyone in the world who wants to participate knows if I come here, I can find the partners that I need to be successful,” he said.

Making Raleigh the center of the ‘data economy’

RIoT worked with Raleigh and the surrounding communities on a data-centric stormwater management project.

Partnering with local startup GreenStream Technologies, they used water-level monitoring sensors to better understand water movement and predict when to shut down a street before it floods or dispatch emergency responders before flooding reaches emergency levels.

Snyder said Raleigh has done a good job of thinking about how to make data collected at the city level accessible – and has the potential to be the “center of excellence of the data economy.” Processing and measuring data depends on the advancement of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and automation technologies.

“We’re moving from a world where the economy was driven by the internet to now one where it’s being driven by real-time data,” he said.

Through programs like RIoT Your Reality and the water management project, Raleigh serves as a testbed to experiment with new ideas and technologies.

“When we can do that successfully, not only are we solving the city’s needs in a way that they can remain focused on their day-to-day operations, but if it’s a local company that provides for those needs, we’re creating jobs here in the community,” Snyder said.

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A lifelong resident and city director reveals how San Antonio can upgrade its infrastructure to become more sustainable and equal

Frank Ramirez
Frank Ramirez.

  • Frank Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian and a member of City Council in District 7.
  • As director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure, his goal is to improve the city.
  • He wants to keep using an equity lens, invest in public transport, and improve its trails.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When you live in San Antonio, Texas, you see someone you know just about everywhere you go. That’s what lifelong resident Frank Ramirez said he loves about the city.

“It’s the biggest little city out there,” Ramirez, 27, told Insider. “I think it’s one of the friendliest cities in Texas, if not the entire nation. From all the places I’ve been, nothing is like San Antonio. Nothing ever will be. It’s home.”

Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian who grew up on the south side of the city and moved away only to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in government. He said he always wanted to return home to make a difference.

Now, he works with the San Antonio City Council in District 7 – which covers the city’s northwest area – as director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure.

“I get to learn a little bit more about the criteria that the city uses to prioritize where they put specific types of infrastructure and how to implement it,” he said.

Here’s a look at what Ramirez considers most important for San Antonio as it adapts to a growing population.

Using an equity lens to distribute projects and funds will help eliminate infrastructure disparities

San Antonio has been investing in infrastructure, including recently expanding broadband internet access to students and debuting a smart-streetlight project. But Ramirez said there’s still work to do.

“Infrastructurally, San Antonio is not as good as it could be quite yet,” he said. “But we have really good city leadership that’s paving the way for us to catch up and to be the best that we can be.”

Historically, Ramirez said expansion and commerce have been centered downtown and on the north side, while the south, east, and west sides of San Antonio have been underfunded and are home to marginalized populations. Those areas of town had “some of the largest sidewalk gaps in the city” and deteriorated streets, he added.

In 2017, San Antonio began prioritizing funding and infrastructure projects using an “equity lens.” The budget-equity tool is designed to consider racial and economic equity in the budgeting process, account for the impact of decisions made, and ensure that all programs and projects help reduce disparities.

“Instead of equally providing the same amount of money to districts, we started looking at other criteria, like Census tracts, Sidewalk Labs, the average score of these streets in specific districts,” Ramirez said.

The city’s also working to select more diverse contractors and businesses, such as minority and women-owned companies, to perform the work on these projects.

Investing in public transportation is necessary to solve traffic issues

San Antonio is among the top 10 largest cities in the US, and it’s growing fast. Ramirez said traffic is getting worse and the city needs better transportation infrastructure.

“The prevailing issue is that San Antonio has a traffic issue, not as bad as LA or Austin or any other large city, but it’s there and it’s a compounding detriment because we don’t have a robust public transportation system,” he said.

More transportation alternatives for people who don’t own vehicles would make the city more equitable, Ramirez said. San Antonio’s mass-transit agency VIA Metropolitan Transit does well with its existing infrastructure, he added, but he believes more investment is needed.

A light-rail system is something Ramirez said he would love to see in San Antonio someday.

“It would be the biggest game-changer,” he said. “Not only intracity travel but also intercity travel. Going from the south side of San Antonio to the medical center in a matter of five to 10 minutes, as opposed to 30 to 40 minutes.”

In September 2020, the federal government approved a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston that would transport passengers in 90 minutes, but San Antonio wasn’t included in the route. A train line between San Antonio and Austin has been studied since the 1980s, and local experts hope the idea might be revived if the new Dallas-to-Houston line is successful.

Biking and walking trail improvements are needed to integrate transportation and recreation

One of Ramirez’s favorite infrastructure projects in San Antonio is the newly improved Mission Trail, a biking and hiking trail connecting five historic missions: the Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

Investments created shared bike paths that increased the amount of foot and bike traffic that could travel on the trail, which runs through a “significant part of the city’s history,” Ramirez said.

“That was one of the coolest improvements that I’ve seen in my lifetime because I walk and bike there as often as I can, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” he added. “It’s a perfect example of how you can integrate safe transportation and recreation at the same time.”

Another favorite is the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System, which is a growing network of trails that now encompasses about 80 miles throughout San Antonio.

“They’re continually expanding the greenway, which is to the benefit of a lot of people in San Antonio,” Ramirez said.

As San Antonio keeps growing, Ramirez said the fabric of the community as a “caring and loving city” will remain.

“San Antonio has changed a lot, but it’s also been persistent, and it’s also been adaptive to the times,” he said. “It’s a modern San Antonio, and it’s something that’s only getting better, in my opinion.”

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How San Antonio-based CPS Energy is helping the city recover from the winter storm and making its energy systems more resilient

Residential Solar 2548 4
CPS Energy installing residential solar panels.

  • CPS Energy is working to make energy and electricity more affordable and reliable in San Antonio.
  • Efforts include revamping infrastructure and increasing sustainability after the winter storm.
  • It’s also one of the city’s partners in its smart-city initiative to pilot smart streetlights.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When a winter storm hit the state of Texas in February, millions of people lost power, including hundreds of thousands in San Antonio.

IMG_20210215_095626__01
The February 2021 winter storm.

Three months later, the city is still feeling the effects. Electricity bills have been much higher than usual, and the event highlighted the vulnerability of the power grid.

Long before the winter storm, CPS Energy, the electric utility for San Antonio and surrounding areas, had been surveying residents to understand what they considered most important. Affordability and reliability usually topped the list, with resiliency a lower priority, Paula Gold-Williams, the company’s president and CEO, told Insider.

Paula Gold Williams portrait 5x7
Paula Gold-Williams.

“Right now, we are in the middle of an affordability tsunami for customers,” she said. “Every time we surveyed them resiliency was always last. Most people thought that was something that the utility needed to focus on, not anything that would ultimately affect them.”

High natural-gas prices and systemic issues with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s electrical grid, trickled down to residents across the state, Gold-Williams, a lifelong San Antonio resident, said. Texas is the only state to use its own power grid, meaning it doesn’t have to adhere to federal regulations.

The winter storm put resiliency at the forefront. Gold-Williams said the industry needs to reimagine power grids and revamp aging infrastructure. CPS Energy is also working with the city of San Antonio on sustainability and smart-city projects.

Here’s a look at some of their biggest initiatives.

It’s supporting measures to minimize the impact of the storm

Supply and demand issues have contributed to the high energy bills following the February storm. Extreme cold weather knocked out generating units and froze natural-gas stores, causing skyrocketing prices for natural gas, which CPS Energy uses to generate heat and electricity.

CPS Energy, which was established in 1860 and is owned by the city of San Antonio, has worked to minimize the effects on residents. Gold-Williams said they’re looking for ways to spread out the costs over the next decade.

The utility also issued one-time credits to residents who lost power for 24 hours during the storm of $8.75, the amount of a flat monthly service charge. Customers who were without electricity for 48 hours or more will receive an additional $50 to $100. More than 250,000 residents are eligible for the credits, which are costing a total of $3.5 million.

In March, CPS Energy filed a lawsuit against ERCOT for its “lack of oversight, preparedness, and failure to follow its own protocols that resulted in $16 billion in overcharges to market participants and customers,” a news release said. EROCT made a $16 billion pricing error the week after the winter storm and allowed the 30-day timeframe for corrections to pass.

Gold-Williams said the utility has been working to better winterize its plants for the past decade, but the state just wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented and prolonged freezing temperatures that it saw in February.

In response, President Joe Biden recently announced plans to devote $8.25 billion to modernize the nation’s electrical grid and support clean-energy goals, a move Gold-Williams applauds.

“We need innovation” in power generation and distribution systems, she said.

It’s piloting smart streetlights to save money

CPS Energy is one of the city of San Antonio’s partners in its smart-city initiative to launch more data- and technology-oriented projects.

“It’s helping us look at technology from an applied standpoint,” Gold-Williams said. “We’re trying to make things happen and not just talk about strategies.”

A Smart Streetlight Technology pilot recently debuted in partnership with the city, AT&T, and Itron. Existing CPS Energy lighting will be equipped with sensors in four areas of the city that allow them to be controlled remotely and test air quality, temperature, ambient noise, parking, and flooding.

Brooks 4
A smart streetlight.

The goal is to gather data to enable the city to save money and address community needs, Gold-Williams said. Research shows installing smart streetlights can save cities money and reduce energy use.

Based on what they learn from the data, the project will be expanded and scaled to the rest of the city.

It’s promoting renewable energy

One way CPS Energy is addressing aging infrastructure and sustainability in San Antonio is through the Flexible Path strategy, which aims to reduce coal and gas usage and increase renewable energy by 2040. This year, the utility is launching a “community-wide dialogue” for the strategy.

Renewable energy use in San Antonio increased 69% from 2010 to 2018, and will increase another 127% under the plan, according to CPS Energy. Gas usage will decrease 72%, and coal will be reduced an additional 61% after dropping 44% from 2010 to 2018. Other initiatives include expanding solar and wind resources and integrating battery storage and electric vehicles.

EV Charging
An electric vehicle charging station.

CPS Energy is currently evaluating request-for-proposal (RFP) responses for the FlexPOWER Bundle. The program will replace gas steam units that are near the end of their lifecycle and increase the number of solar resources, energy storage, and “all-source firming capacity,” or any technology that can be utilized when renewables aren’t available. The company plans to announce the projects selected this summer.

In March, the utility launched another RFP to develop the next phase of its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), focusing on conservation and energy efficiency. The FlexSTEP RFP aims to strengthen CPS Energy’s reliability by blending “Tried & True” programs, like rebates for being energy efficient, with “Innovative & New” solutions to help customers save money and learn new, more efficient energy-use behaviors.

The Flexible Path strategy emphasizes not relying on what’s been done before, being open to new ideas, and embracing technology and change, Gold-Williams said. Modernizing aging infrastructure and decreasing reliance on nonrenewable energy are issues utility companies worldwide are facing.

“We all have the same problems,” Gold-Williams said. “Our customers are trying to live their lives and they want it to be enabled by advances in technology. We have to embrace all that. We have to partner. We have a lot to learn from technology, but we have a lot to offer in terms of the complexity of our products and services.”

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How one millennial resident in Honolulu maintains a simple and sustainable lifestyle to help fight the climate crisis

IMG_1030 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu.

  • Texas-native Jennifer Lieu moved to Honolulu 20 years ago and says Hawaii feels like home.
  • She’s focused on reducing waste and living sustainably to help preserve Hawaii for generations.
  • Her habits include shopping locally, biking instead of driving, and volunteering with local farms.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When Jennifer Lieu moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, 20 years ago, she said she felt a sense of “coming home.”

“I feel very, very fortunate and lucky to live in Hawaii,” Lieu, who’s originally from Texas and in her mid-30s, told Insider. “There’s so much natural beauty, and I’ve always been attracted to the ocean.”

During her time in Hawaii, Lieu has become dedicated to protecting its natural resources. She said she spends as much time as she can outdoors – swimming, running on the beach, or hiking. She’s passionate about giving back to the community by volunteering with sustainability-minded organizations, such as local farms and ecological groups, and strives to reduce her own carbon footprint.

IMG_0108 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu hiking.

And she’s seen other Honolulu residents also become more aware and involved in supporting issues of sustainability over the years, and the local government working to solve these challenges.

“It’s so special when you can eat, live, and play in a place that has the same values as you – it just seems it comes together, it’s much more natural,” she said.

Embracing minimal living

Lieu works as a program manager at a boutique information technology firm, but said yoga is her passion. She’s been practicing since childhood and became a yoga teacher in 2016.

“It gives me the ability to connect with my body, breathe, and be in Hawaii,” she said. “There’s a lot of like-minded yogis here. Part of that, they talk about minimal living. It’s just using what you have, and that also is a stepping-off of how I feel about sustainability.”

Hawaii is more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, Lieu said, because it’s surrounded by water. So she’s focused on reducing waste and living sustainability to ensure it’s a great place to live for generations to come.

“There’s a lot of things as a resident I can’t control,” Lieu said. “I can’t control energy costs. I can’t put a solar panel up because I live in an apartment. But things I can control are my carbon footprint and knowing that I can walk safer and I can bike safer on the roads.”

Before the pandemic, she used ride-sharing apps, she said, but she became nervous about jumping into an Uber during COVID-19.

Another way she lives sustainably and supports her local ecosystem is by shopping at farmers’ markets and buying locally produced foods.

“I usually buy local coffee because I want to support the coffee farmers,” Lieu said. Other meals usually consist of sustainably caught fish and locally grown vegetables, and she dines at restaurants that support local farmers.

Volunteering with local farms and organizations

On many of her weekends Lieu enjoys volunteering at local, “like-minded” organizations that support the causes she’s most interested in, such as local farming and cultivating native plants.

IMG_0060 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu volunteering.

Protect & Preserve Hawaii is one of these organizations. The group works to preserve and restore Hawaii’s native ecosystem, and Lieu’s volunteer work with Protect & Preserve involves planting native plants back on the island.

“There’s a lot of invasive plants in Hawaii, and unfortunately, they take over really quickly,” she said. “It takes away from the beauty that Hawaii has to offer.”

Lieu also volunteers at a local taro farm, which aims to restore native agriculture and ecology. Taro is a root vegetable that was a food staple for ancient Hawaiians.

She’s inspired by “ahupua’a,” an ancient Hawaiian term that means “mountain to the sea.”

“The way they built their taro farms, it was surrounded by water and the ability to have it self-sustaining,” Lieu said. “That was something that I was very drawn to, the fact that this one group of people could have such a sustainable plan as far as food and land and then, as things got industrialized, that got taken away.”

Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on clean energy and climate change solutions, is another organization that Lieu volunteers with.

“I think it’s important as a resident if you can give back, whether it’s time or money,” she said.

Putting state goals into practice

As a Honolulu resident, Lieu keeps an eye on how the local government is tackling sustainability and climate change, especially in areas like sea-level rise, plastics in the ocean, transportation, and energy costs, which are especially high in Hawaii.

She said she’s benefited most from the city’s efforts to promote multimodal transportation, such as the bike-share program Biki and initiatives to convert citywide buses to clean energy.

In general, she appreciates how the city and state governments are setting sustainability goals and holding themselves accountable through programs like the Aloha+ Challenge, which lets residents track the state’s progress on meeting these goals.

“The fact that the government is standing behind what they’re saying,” Lieu said, is really cool. “It’s not just nice to say – they’re truly putting in actions and doing things to support what they believe in.”

The biggest challenge is getting residents to put some of the sustainability programs into practice in their own lives. Lieu said residents often agree that initiatives to fight climate change, like cutting down on plastic or converting to electric vehicles, are needed. But since Hawaii is an expensive place to live, actually making these changes to meet these goals takes an investment of time and money.

“I think that people really need to own and love where they live,” Lieu said. “But I think to really have a full life is to love where you live and to really be passionate about these issues that not only affect you as a person but affect the future of the island or wherever you live.”

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Honolulu-based energy storage company Blue Planet Energy hopes to bring sustainable, renewable power to Hawaii – and the world

Henk Rogers Hawaii Big Island Ranch Lab
Henk Rogers, founder of Blue Planet Energy.

  • Energy storage company Blue Planet Energy is focused on energy independence and sustainability.
  • It was founded in 2015 by Henk Rogers, who acquired the rights to Tetris in the 1980s.
  • It’s part of Hawaii’s climate change initiatives and hopes to make renewable energy more accessible.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

Residents and businesses in Hawaii pay more for energy than just about anywhere else in the country. Honolulu-based Blue Planet Energy is one organization that’s attempting to ease that energy burden.

Blue Planet Energy has created an energy storage system to encourage energy independence and broaden the use of renewable power. The company has about 25 employees and a network of more than 250 certified dealers that have installed thousands of its energy storage products.

“We want to decarbonize our energy system,” Chris Johnson, the company’s CEO, told Insider. “However, climate is changing. Storms are getting more intense and knocking out the grids, and so that’s where we need to deal with it.”

2   Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson, CEO of Blue Planet Energy.

Climate change conversations typically focus on mitigation and adaptation, he said, and the company aims to make the homes and businesses that use renewable energy, such as solar panels, more resilient.

Since 2013, Honolulu has ranked first in solar power per capita among the country’s 50 largest cities and third in the amount of existing photovoltaic solar power, which generates electricity directly from sunlight, installed as of 2020, according to a report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center and the Frontier Group.

“With renewable energy, you can’t control when the sun shines or when the wind blows,” Johnson said. “But we need steady, reliable energy for our homes, for our businesses, for our critical infrastructure, and so we create energy storage solutions that allow the energy to be consumed when you need it. And they’re also resilient, so even if the grid goes down, you can still stay up and running.”

Blue Planet Energy Bamboo Living Big Island Hawaii
Blue Planet Energy solar panels on a home on the Big Island in Hawaii.

Here’s a look at how Blue Planet Energy’s renewable energy systems work, and how the company’s mission aligns with Honolulu’s sustainability goals.

The Blue Planet name has influenced climate change policy in Hawaii

Blue Planet Energy was founded in 2015 by Henk Rogers, who discovered and acquired the rights to the video game Tetris in the 1980s. More recently, he’s been committed to expanding clean energy and reducing and ultimately eliminating dependence on fossil fuel.

Henk Rogers Founder Blue Planet Energy 2
Henk Rogers, founder of Blue Planet Energy.

Rogers also founded the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit working to solve climate change by leading the way in the transition to 100% clean energy. The organization has been influential in clean-energy policy adoption in Hawaii and Honolulu, including a bill requiring the state’s utilities to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable energy, which Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed into law in 2015. Hawaii was the first state to have such a law.

Blue Planet Energy’s energy storage systems are an extension of Rogers’ vision. While the company was founded in Honolulu and has a strong footprint in Hawaii, Johnson said it now has installations in more than 30 states, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean islands, and is growing its presence in Mexico, Central America, and Canada.

Blue Planet Energy Violeta Reyes Perez School Puerto Rico 2
Violeta Reyes Perez School in Puerto Rico.

“Henk, our founder, really thought that if we can achieve this in Hawaii, we could take that as a model to other places,” Johnson said. “It’s essentially a learning laboratory for sustainability.”

Energy storage solutions offer homes and businesses more resilient power sources

In March 2021, Blue Planet Energy launched a new product, the Blue Ion HI. The new energy storage system joins the company’s Blue Ion LX.

“Those are basically similar in approach and functionality but designed for slightly different situations,” Johnson said. “The LX is for larger installations, including commercial and industrial or community resilient infrastructure. Our HI offering is residential and small commercial.”

The Blue Ion LX accommodates on- or off-grid requirements for facilities like warehouses, corporate headquarters, and manufacturers. The battery stores excess solar energy or adjusts to traditional energy sources to avoid power interruptions, and increases the value of a company’s investment in renewable energy.

Blue Planet Energy Blue Ion LX Brick Warehouse
Blue Ion LX by Blue Planet Energy.

The Blue Ion HI is a solution for homes and businesses. It captures energy from renewable and traditional sources, easily switches from grid to battery power, and provides on-demand energy. The products are also stackable and can be configured in different ways to suit the needs of the property.

Blue Planet Energy Blue Ion HI Stacked
Blue Ion HI by Blue Planet Energy.

Henk, Johnson said, “likes things to be able to fit together nicely,” so they made the batteries stackable and easily scalable.

Blue Planet Energy’s customers mainly use its batteries to store excess solar energy, either displacing their use of a grid or a generator, Johnson said. This is a valuable service as energy bills continue to rise and natural disasters impact power grids.

Hawaii has some of the highest energy costs in the nation, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding, and tsunamis, causing a loss of electricity. The cost of power is also going up across the country, where natural disasters also knock out power. For instance, Texas saw massive power outages after a major snowstorm and unusually cold temperatures hit in February.

“We need to have resilient infrastructure so we can bounce back quickly,” Johnson said. “If we put a lot of renewables out there without balancing it out with energy storage, the grid could be unstable or not available when you need it, and so we’re part of making sure that the grid can absorb a lot of renewables, it can recover and always be on.”

Expansion plans aim to make renewable energy more affordable and accessible

Helping to create more resilient and affordable energy systems aligns with the initiatives of Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, Johnson said. Blue Planet Energy has worked with the office on developing renewable energy and resilience best practices, and the company plans to continue this work with the city’s new administration under Mayor Rick Blangiardi, which just took over in January.

To further address affordability, Johnson said the company recently launched a new financing product to make its energy storage systems more accessible to commercial customers. It doesn’t require a down payment and offers instant energy savings on solar power and Blue Ion storage installation.

The cost of Blue Planet Energy’s installations vary depending on a property’s energy needs and can range from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands for large buildings with extensive power needs, according to the company. Energy storage installation costs roughly the same as solar installation.

The average cost for solar panel installation in the US varies by state, but averages $17,760 to $23,828 after the federal solar tax credit, which lowers the cost by 26%, according to EnergySage. Some states and local governments also offer rebates and tax credits for solar systems.

Blue Planet Energy Life Edited Maui Hawaii 1
Blue Planet Energy in Maui, Hawaii.

Blue Planet Energy is in a period of “scaling and acceleration,” Johnson said. Over the next decade, the company plans to expand and strives to alleviate the effects of climate change, which are expected to worsen.

“This is really crunch time,” he said. “How do we deliver the highest-quality, most reliable, safest solution at scale as fast as we can? Get it out on the ground, into homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure so that we can stabilize the grid and we can stabilize our climate.”

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How Honolulu, Hawaii is working toward sustainability and supporting its residents in the process

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Solar panels on top of homes in a Honolulu neighborhood.

  • Honolulu has been focused on sustainability and climate change since receiving a grant in 2016.
  • Its resilience plan has promoted access to renewable energy and expanded clean transportation.
  • Other initiatives include reducing energy bills and addressing hunger by supporting local farmers.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

In his first state-of-the-city speech in mid-March, Rick Blangiardi, mayor of Honolulu, Hawaii, emphasized the city’s commitment to “climate resilience.”

“From sea level rise, rain bombs, and increasing temperatures, we’re taking steps toward a climate-ready Oahu,” said the mayor, who was sworn in at the start of 2021. The island of Oahu is home to the city and county of Honolulu.

“We’re shifting from talking about policy to doing something about it,” Blangiardi added.

Sustainability and climate change are issues that Honolulu’s leaders have been working to address for years. In 2016, the city was awarded a 100 Resilient Cities Initiative Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to help fund the hiring of a chief resilience officer to work with the city on crafting climate change and resilience plans.

Since then, Honolulu has debuted a Resilience Strategy and a Climate Action Plan, which have helped inspire citywide legislation to reduce the energy burden on residents, promote access to renewable energy, expand clean transportation, and support locally grown food producers.

Here’s a look at some of Honolulu’s sustainability initiatives.

Codifying the Resilience Office’s responsibilities will help Honolulu meet its sustainability goals

Oʻahu Resilience Strategy Steering Committee members meeting during development phase of the strategy, which includes Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
Oahu Resilience Strategy Steering Committee members meeting during the development phase of the strategy, which includes Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.

The Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency was created by a city charter amendment that was approved by the public in 2016. A new bill signed into law in December 2020 “codifies the duties, responsibilities, and reporting requirements” of the office to ensure Honolulu meets its climate change and sustainability goals. 

Bill 65 establishes an energy benchmarking system, requiring Honolulu to create and report energy and water use benchmarks for city-owned buildings. The rule is estimated to save the city $7 million over the next decade. The bill also specifies that the city will transition to 100% renewable energy and become carbon neutral by 2045.  

It also addresses many other climate change and sustainability measures, including a One Water policy, examining efficiencies across the city’s water system. 

The Resilience Strategy addresses affordability and climate change

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The Resilience Office engaging community members on their perspectives of “Resilience.”

One of the central initiatives of the Resilience Office is the Oahu Resilience Strategy, which aims to address “long-term affordability and the impacts of a climate crisis that is already driving islanders from their homes,” according to the office’s website. 

Planning began in 2017 when the office met with Oahu’s 33 neighborhood boards to survey residents about what concerned them most about climate change and how they thought it could be addressed, Matthew Gonser, chief resilience officer and executive director of Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, told Insider. 

Hundreds of ideas were gathered from the community. Those concepts were narrowed down into 44 actions, comprising the Resilience Strategy. The strategy focuses on four broad subjects: long-term affordability, natural disaster preparedness and response, climate change, and local community leadership. 

By the end of 2020, significant progress had been made on about half of the 44 resilience actions, Gonser said.

The Climate Action Plan outlines what’s needed to address climate change long term

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The City and County of Honolulu Climate Action Plan open house community engagement session with Hawaii Pacific University and the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.

Honolulu’s Resilience Office released the city’s Climate Action Plan in December 2020.

The plan was developed based on scientific evidence and community input to fight climate change and reduce fossil fuel emissions on Oahu. It spells out the needed programs, policies, and actions for the city to become carbon neutral by 2045 — and includes nine strategies to focus on over the next five years, including increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

To develop the Climate Action Plan, community meetings with Honolulu City Council members, Hawaii Pacific University, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii were held, and working groups with stakeholders were set up, Gonser said. 

During the first few months of 2021, the public had the chance to share their opinions and concerns about the plan before it goes to the city council. Gonser said the Climate Action Plan will likely be adopted this year. 

Honolulu updated parking ordinances to promote walkability and the use of clean energy transportation

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Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet, speaking at the signing of Ordinance 20-41, related to off-street parking and loading.

At the end of 2020, former mayor Kirk Caldwell signed Bill 2 to update Honolulu’s mandatory parking requirements for new developments. It gives developers more flexibility in how much parking to build and allows opportunities for the land to be used for other purposes, such as affordable housing. 

“It’s making sure that our rules and regulations don’t force overbuilding of parking, empowering more choice and leaving it to developers to determine what’s needed,” Gonser said. 

The bill supports walkable neighborhoods and cleaner transportation options, such as biking and public transportation, which Honolulu plans to transition to clean fuel. 

It could also make housing more affordable since constructing and maintaining parking is sometimes a hidden cost for renters, according to an analysis by the Ulupono Initiative, a Honolulu-based organization that provides grants, investments, and advocacy to support renewable energy, locally produced food, and other sustainability-minded projects.

For urban Honolulu renters, up to 37% of their rent may go toward parking, which, for decades, has often been built based on city regulation rather than actual need.   

“The bill makes progress in the right direction, better aligning with city climate and community goals, while allowing parking to remain accessible for those who genuinely need it and not requiring it of those who don’t,” Kathleen Rooney, Ulupono Initiative’s director of transportation policy and programs, said when the bill was signed

Making solar power more accessible eases Honolulu’s energy burden

Solar array installation on top of the Board of Water Supply, City and County of Honolulu
Solar array installation on top of the Board of Water Supply.

Hawaii has one of the highest average electricity retail prices in the country, according to the US Energy Information Administration, and the state relies on petroleum for most of its electricity generation. 

Reducing the energy burden is a key focus area of Honolulu’s Resilience Office. In December, the city enacted Bill 58 to streamline the permitting process for residential clean energy products, such as solar power, energy storage, and electric vehicle chargers. The goal is to cut down on the costs and time it takes to install solar systems. 

Creating more equitable access to renewable energy is an important component in making Honolulu an affordable place to live, Gonser said. 

“We have one of the highest energy burdens in the nation,” he said. “It’s updating our energy code and making sure that all new things that are being built are ensuring long-term affordability for residents and that they can benefit from progressive infrastructure so that we can reduce the energy burden over time.”

New performance-based regulations could lower energy bills for residents

Infographic HPUC Timeline with PBR
A timeline of the Hawaiian Public Utilities Commission.

As another initiative aimed at reducing energy bills, Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission approved a new Performance-Based Regulation Framework in late 2020. The framework would transform utility company Hawaiian Electric by making its operations more efficient, lowering electricity rates, improving services, and meeting the state’s clean energy goals. 

“That’s really groundbreaking,” Amy Hennessy, senior vice president of communications and external affairs at Ulupono Initiative, which provided research and other information to guide the framework’s adoption, told Insider. “The impacts toward changing the incentives for our utility to transform into a renewable energy future are significant.” 

The new structure provides financial incentives for the electric company to meet certain goals, like creating savings for lower-income customers and reducing greenhouse gases. It also separates the utility’s profits from capital investments, creating a cost-of-service approach. 

Matching grant provides $1 million to fight hunger and support local food producers

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The Hawaii Farm Bureau.

Hunger has been an ongoing problem for many communities, but the pandemic worsened the situation, as unemployment increased and many families have faced new financial struggles. 

To address hunger in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige announced in October 2020 that the state would provide a $500,000 matching donation to the DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles the amount of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, that are spent on locally grown food. 

Several private-sector organizations raised $500,000 for the program, including the Stupski Foundation and Ulupono Initiative, which each provided $200,000. The state match offers $1 million total for the program. 

Addressing hunger and providing incentives to encourage residents to buy more locally grown and produced food are part of Honolulu’s Resilience Strategy. The DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program also aims to strengthen the local economy because it keeps residents’ food budgets on the island.

“A million dollars going out into communities for not just those who need access to food, but also our local farmers who needed a market — it’s actually putting dollars in their pockets while they’re growing to help provide healthy options for the community,” Hennessy said. “So it’s really a triple win.”

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10 US cities paving the way for the future by investing in technology, sustainability, and infrastructure

Atlanta, Georgia
The population of Atlanta is expected to grow by nearly three million over the next few decades.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic exposed cracks in infrastructure, mobility challenges, and a digital divide.
  • These US cities will remain resilient due to investing in things like sustainable technology and innovation.
  • As a result, places like Raleigh-Durham, Denver, and Atlanta are some of the fastest-growing cities.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

If city leaders across the country learned anything from the past year, it’s the value of resilience. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed cracks in infrastructure, posed mobility challenges, and revealed a digital divide. The places that have fared the best are the ones that have been investing in the future, specifically in areas like digital transformation, manufacturing, sustainability, infrastructure, and innovation. 

“I don’t think we talk about resilience enough,” Diana Bowman, co-director of the Center for Smart Cities and Regions at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, told Insider. “Resilience talks about our capacity to respond in a quick way to address whatever those external challenges are.”

While investing in technology and infrastructure is key for cities of the future, Bowman said that resilience also depends on strong partnerships across the public, private, and local university sectors. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen in this last 12-month period is if you take your eye off the ball at any single one of these, then your ability to have a fully engaged school system, fully engaged workforce is really challenged, and everybody suffers as a consequence of that,” she said. For example, the influx of people working and learning from home revealed a lack of access to high-speed internet in some places. 

Cities of all sizes should be thinking about building a better tomorrow through investment and policy, or risk getting left behind. 

The need for cities to innovate and be more sustainable is coming, whether they’re prepared or not, Zachary Schafer, CEO and executive director of United for Infrastructure, a nonprofit working to modernize and repair the country’s infrastructure, told Insider. “It’s better to be developing frameworks early to understand how to deploy them, how to use them, how to benefit from them, and how to talk to residents about these technologies.”

Several US cities are already leading the way. Here’s a look at 10 places making big strides when it comes to innovation.

The cities are listed in no particular order.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, March 2020, after lockdown order
Chicago is using digital trackers to collect data on the environment and activity to help improve city conditions.

The city of Chicago has several programs in the works aimed at updating infrastructure and advancing manufacturing. 

One example is the Smart Lighting Program, which some have referred to as the largest streetlight modernization project in the nation. It involves installing wireless, LED lights across the city, which can be dimmed or controlled remotely. The goal is to cut energy costs and improve public safety. 

To function as a kind of “fitness tracker” for the city, the Array of Things (AoT) project included placing sensors throughout the city to collect data on the environment, infrastructure, and activity. The purpose is to address traffic safety and flooding, reduce costs, and make the city more efficient and equitable. 

Both the streetlight and AoT programs come with interactive elements, so residents can track their progress and view the data collected. 

“Chicago has a good program for launching projects using digital technologies to transform the city landscape,” Schafer said. “You’re building the foundational infrastructure for a smart city or for a city to use to make smart decisions.” 

On the manufacturing front, Chicago is home to MxD (Manufacturing times Digital), which opened in 2015 to focus on digital design, automation, and digital in manufacturing. MxD is part of the Manufacturing USA initiative, which established institutes across the country to focus on different areas of technology and digital transformation in manufacturing and supply chain. 

MxD helps educate manufacturers about digital tools and processes. It has a mock production line, projects to help digitize equipment, and cybersecurity technology developed with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawi Wind Farm at Upolu Point, the northernmost tip of Hawaii Big Island on the Kohala Coast.
Hawaii launched the Aloha+ Challenge to address six metrics from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, including clean energy transformation.

The entire state of Hawaii is leading the charge on sustainability, Bowman said. Two years ago, Gov. David Ige issued a declaration of commitment to sustainability — though the state’s focus on sustainability started long before. 

In 2014, Hawaii kicked off the Aloha+ Challenge to address six metrics from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, including clean energy transformation, local food production, management of natural resources, solid waste reduction, creating smart and sustainable communities, and building and educating a green workforce. The initiative comes with an online dashboard that allows the public to track the progress the state is making in these areas. 

Bowman said the program is a great example of the state legislature in Honolulu working with nonprofits and private companies to achieve sustainability metrics. “If you don’t measure it, you can’t act upon it, so it’s crucial in terms of sustainability and resilience,” she added. 

The city of Honolulu has a resilience strategy and set up a Resilience Office to track how climate change is affecting the city. It’s examining “shocks” and “stresses,” such as hurricanes, tsunamis, infrastructure problems, cost of living, and vulnerable communities.

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta
The population of Atlanta is expected to grow by nearly 3 million over the next few decades, adding to traffic woes.

Atlanta has been growing exponentially, and the city is expected to add nearly three million more residents over the next couple of decades. 

To handle the growth, city leaders and stakeholders have been focusing on traffic and transportation infrastructure. Part of the plan is to add more express lanes to highways, put sensors on some roads to detect traffic patterns and weather problems, and adjust traffic lights to help with flow. 

Smart streetlights are also being added, and the city is testing a gunshot detection system that would send alerts to 911, police patrol cars, and residents’ smartphones. Other systems would help drivers detect parking spots. Atlanta partnered with Georgia Power, AT&T, and Current by GE for the project.

“There’s a lot of activity going on just in general around transit and Atlanta, in and around the larger metro area,” Christopher Le Dantec, associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing and School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, told Insider. That means thinking through the transportation of people and goods around the city and its suburbs. 

“It’s a very difficult problem to solve because there are so many different agencies at play,” he added. 

Other initiatives center on reducing the number of cars on the road. Atlanta is expanding its walking and biking plan, providing grants to help communities become more pedestrian-friendly and encouraging different types of commuting like carpooling, flexible work schedules, and working from home. 

Incorporating more bike infrastructure has been several years in the making and involved collecting and analyzing data, Le Dantec said. “It was part of a transformation within the urban core of Atlanta, where there is now a lot more people moving around on bicycles, even prior to the past year’s events,” he added.

San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio, tourists by the River Walk
San Antonio’s Office of Innovation is focused in part on digital infrastructure.

Through its Office of Innovation, San Antonio has several infrastructure and technology projects in the works.

Some are still in the development phase, but so far some city vehicles have been equipped with sensors to gather real-time data on infrastructure and identify problems like potholes and then report them to the appropriate agency for repair. The goal is to reduce calls to the city and provide upkeep to areas that tend to be neglected. 

Recently, San Antonio launched a Smart Streetlight Project that will have remote controls and sensors to monitor parking, air quality, temperature, noise, and flooding. The city also installed interactive digital kiosks at its transit hub and other locations to give residents and visitors real-time access to information about traffic, transit systems, and attractions, like local restaurants. The kiosks also provide free WiFi and access to city services. 

Cities should view digital infrastructure as a way to rethink how people interact with their government and policymakers, and give residents easy access to details about what’s going on in their city, Le Dantec said. 

“Being able to actually show what those outcomes look like becomes a really powerful way to mobilize people toward addressing these issues,” he said. 

Technology in manufacturing is another key area for San Antonio. CyManII (Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute), a Manufacturing USA institute located there, is focusing on cybersecurity and secure automation in manufacturing. These issues are critical today, as the manufacturing sector saw an uptick in ransomware attacks in 2020.

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

RIoT Accelerator Program pitch nights in Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh-based nonprofits like RIoT support entrepreneurship through pitch competitions and other events.

The tri-city area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill has long been known as a hub for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship.

In fact, Raleigh ranks third on Forbes’ list of the “Best Places for Business and Careers” for its economic and job growth and educated workforce. 

Being a tech hub and supportive of entrepreneurs and startups has attracted new residents, making Raleigh one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. 

The three cities also form the Research Triangle, along with North Carolina State University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Wake Forest University. The Research Triangle Park is home to several major tech companies and known as a center for innovation and technology. 

The presence and partnerships with universities is a central part of a smart, resilient city, Bowman said. 

“You have world-class universities that have been fundamental to driving the innovation agenda,” Bowman said. “It has attracted leading tech companies and other multinationals to that space. Not only is there the benefit of having universities in terms of being able to engage with them and co-create and co-test, it becomes a supplier of high-quality talent to those companies.”

Several nonprofits exist across Raleigh-Durham, including Innovate Raleigh and RIoT, that are devoted to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. The tech focus also extends to the manufacturing sector. The area houses a Manufacturing USA institute, PowerAmerica, focusing on semiconductor technology and electronics.

Madison, Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin - Madison students 2020
Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are encouraged to participate in sustainability initiatives.

The Wisconsin state capital has an ambitious sustainability plan to reach zero-net carbon emissions and use 100% renewable energy for city operations by 2030. The plan sets specific goals for slashing overall energy and fuel consumption and making half of city buses electric by 2035. 

Other city initiatives include increasing solar power by training unemployed and under-employed people in solar panel installation. 

The city also has goals to improve air and water quality and transportation systems, support sustainable construction, affordable housing, and local food systems, economic and workforce development, and more. 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a number of sustainability initiatives, too, like housing and grants for students who have ideas for enhancing sustainability on campus. The university is also working to align its sustainability goals with academics and research. 

A part of its efforts are engaging key stakeholders, including universities, nonprofits, local business, and members of the public. Interviews, public meetings, and a new website in development will keep citizens informed of the progress and promote transparency. 

Local governments too often overlook the need for communication, especially in innovation and digital transformation projects, Brian Chidester, head of worldwide industry strategy for the public sector at information management firm OpenText, told Insider.

“[Madison] has really embraced that piece of it,” he said.

Phoenix, Arizona

Waymo
A Chrysler Pacifica outfitted with Waymo’s self-driving technology.

Phoenix, and the entire state of Arizona, has been working to become a leader in autonomous vehicles since 2015, when the governor signed an executive order to support the testing of driverless cars. 

Phoenix has partnered with companies like GM and Lyft to allow hundreds of driverless cars to be tested on their roadways. Recently, the city began working with Waymo to launch a self-driving taxi fleet in nearby Tempe and Chandler. 

“You just see the vehicles everywhere, the Waymo vehicles in particular, and we now have a long history, and it’s just part of the landscape,” Bowman said. 

The state also created the Institute of Automated Mobility with Intel, Arizona State University, and other universities and organizations to research autonomous vehicles. Part of the goal is to create a regulatory framework that other places can model. 

One setback to the self-driving initiative was a 2018 incident when a driverless Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe. Bowman said city leaders handled the investigation in a transparent way that regained community trust and investment in the program. 

By investing in autonomous vehicle infrastructure and innovation, the hope is to cut down on traffic fatalities, help older people age in place, reduce traffic and the need for parking, and protect the environment, she explained.

“Integrating autonomous vehicles into your fleet has the potential to reduce congestion within cities, and that brings an environmental benefit with it,” Bowman said. 

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles traffic
Traffic and road safety are the primary infrastructure topics in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has emphasized its commitment to sustainability while addressing some of the city’s biggest infrastructure concerns, like traffic and road safety. 

A digital dashboard, called the pLAn, debuted to track and measure its Green New Deal sustainability plan. It keeps tabs on metrics like water and electricity usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and other sustainability efforts. And the data is open to the public. 

“One of the things I really like about what we see in LA is not only do they make this public — and they have a fantastic dashboard that any citizen or any individual anywhere in the world can go to and see how they’re doing based on hundreds of metrics — but they also have held themselves accountable,” Bowman said. “They’ve done a voluntary review of how well they’re doing, and the results of that review has then gone on to inform the next step.” 

Governments holding themselves accountable in this way is something other metros can learn from, she added. 

Mayor Eric Garcetti has also set a goal of reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2045, and has a number of other goals to make the city more sustainable and reduce traffic. 

For example, they’re working on a network of bus-only lanes, adjusting traffic lights to put trains first over cars, launching an electric bus fleet, creating better traffic light synchronization, and debuting bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects. 

Los Angeles is also home to one of the Manufacturing USA institutes, CESMII (Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute), that focuses on smart sensor and digital process technology to make manufacturing more efficient.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston street sign illustrating its innovative approach to traffic management
A Boston street sign highlights its Smart Vision project.

One of Boston’s many innovation, infrastructure, and sustainability projects is the Vision Zero initiative, a smart-street project with the goal of reducing traffic accidents and fatalities through data gathering and analysis.

Through the program, Boston is investing in new infrastructure on the streets, including LED lights, surveillance cameras, sensors, and a public dashboard. The data collected will inform future decision-making on roadway improvements, like safer sidewalks and streets and advanced signage. 

Other traffic-centric innovative infrastructure programs include giving drivers real-time information about where to find parking spaces or suggestions for taking another form of transportation. The point is to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions. The city is also working on driverless car testing, smart parking sensors, and IoT. 

Additionally, Boston is working to modernize information systems and technology in utility infrastructure to make utilities more affordable, equitable, and sustainable through the Smart Utilities Vision project. 

“[Boston] has been trying to position itself as a technology hub, so that’s part of what’s driving a lot of their digital transformation infrastructure,” Chidester said. 

Investing in innovation and infrastructure tends to attract larger companies and a highly skilled workforce, which boosts the economy, he added. Specifically, Boston has developed an environment to draw and support fintech companies. 

The Boston area has the advantage of having several universities, including Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which the city partners with to test new technology and other projects. 

“One of the things you see is cities with large, very advanced universities with good engineering programs are some of the furthest along, simply because they’ve got the partnership between academia and city government,” Schafer said. “You’ve got engineering programs going to the city to say, ‘Hey, we’re working on this technology to be tested in our city.'”

Denver, Colorado

Denver .JPG
“Love My Air” dashboards are installed in Denver schools, relaying real-time data from area sensors to a TV display.

Denver’s population has increased 20% over the last 10 years, so the city has seen more construction and traffic, which has worsened its air quality. 

To address the issue, they launched Love My Air, a program to measure air quality in real time using pollution sensors.

The city is tackling its transportation issues by participating in Vision Zero, like Boston. This includes launching an intelligent transportation system to address traffic and road safety. The program will deploy connected vehicle technology to allow trucks to communicate with traffic signals and connect city vehicles. 

And to address and manage data around its infrastructure, Denver is creating an IoT platform to gather data about transportation, environmental health, weather, and freight. The data is pulled from road and weather sensors, street lights, universities, and other city infrastructure, which the city will use to drive future projects. 

Denver also has a partnership with Panasonic on a project called CityNow. It’s creating smart city infrastructure in a remote area that includes high-tech highways and driverless vehicles. They’ve installed WiFi, LED street lights, pollution sensors, security cameras, and a solar-powered microgrid. 

One challenge cities face in their digital transformation and innovation initiatives is that they start small, maybe with specific neighborhoods. While this makes sense, Chidester said it often creates disparate technologies, giving cities an additional challenge of making everything work together for the benefit of residents. 

“You’re not going to drop a whole bunch of technology to encompass the entire city,” he said. “Ultimately, as you crawl, walk, run, there’s the need to ensure interoperability, and the ability to take information and analytics and drive value on behalf of their citizens.” 

Data and analytics are necessary for sustainability and infrastructure efforts. But another issue cities will need to address revolves around the data they’re collecting through sensors and other means, Schafer said — specifically, who owns the data and what it’s all used for. And do citizens have the right to take their data back? 

“That’s a thorny issue that a lot of them are going to have to deal with,” he said. “Whether they like it or not, it’s coming.”

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