Q&A: Michelle James, CTIA: On best practice for smart cities and the impact of Covid-19

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

If you take a look at any news site whose coverage focuses on smart cities – of which IoT Newsis a very good example – then you will see many different areas under the microscope, from transportation and driverless cars, to smart buildings, to robotics. Central to making this work, therefore, is a viable plan – and the wireless communications trade association CTIA feels as though it has one.

The association has a smart cities playbook (pdf), which in its own words helps bring about the CTIA’s ambition to be ‘committed to helping communities of all sizes become the cities of the future.’ Given its membership covers everything from broadband and network providers – noting the promise of 5G – to smart grid and infrastructure companies, the CTIA is in a strong position if it gets all stakeholders involved.

Michelle James (left), VP strategic industry programs at the CTIA, spoke at IoT Tech Expo Virtual North America last week on the topic of ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow: a smart cities assessment.’ You can watch the session on-demand by registering here. James spoke with IoT News to discuss the CTIA’s wider smart cities initiative, as well as the impact of Covid-19 on such projects.

IoT News: Hi Michelle. Tell us a bit about your career to date and current role/responsibilities at CTIA?

Michelle James: I cannot believe it, but I have been in the wireless industry for more than 20 years! I started at Nokia and found myself organising a group of close-knit wireless repair professionals many years later. I have always been encouraged by the creative ingenuity in the wireless industry, particularly at the adoption of new technologies by new stakeholders and innovation that positively impacts change in the overall ecosystem. I have been connected to CTIA since 2014 and became a permanent part of the CTIA family a few years ago as VP, Strategic Industry Programs that supports our smart cities, RSLQ programs, and more.

I feel very lucky to be working with such a great association with amazing member companies, still building close-knit groups who rally around the industry’s common challenges and find ways to solve together with integrity.

IoT: What does CTIA’s smart cities program encompass in a wider context – what is its mission, who are the stakeholders with whom you are looking to engage, what is the overall goal?

MJ: The CTIA Smart Cities initiative is special in terms of its mission—as the wireless industry trade association, CTIA acts as a facilitator, bringing the wireless industry leaders together to collaborate and educate each other as it relates to live smart city use cases and the discussion of best practices. The output of this collaboration has been very exciting. The quality and content of the educational materials and their applicability to communities both large and small has been very well received. Whenever we are able to spark even the smallest interest in wireless solutions for smart city deployments to help make communities safer, smarter, or more connected to their citizens, our working groups know we are helping facilitate positive change.

IoT: What are the potential hurdles cities and communities have to climb with regards to achieving scalable and sustainable smart city initiatives, such as connectivity, and collaboration between stakeholders and departments? How does CTIA help in this regard?

MJ: Cities face many hurdles when it comes to transitioning from pilot or testbed programs to scalable deployments. One great way to start is by conducting a self-assessment to identify where the greatest challenges are, the state of your current infrastructure, and how to write a successful RFP with prescriptive requirements to yield the best responses. In our first Smart Cities Playbook, we captured RFP tips to support city stakeholders—whether elected officials or their agencies—in asking the critical questions and demystify some of the longer-term hurdles. As a next step, our smart city subject matter experts are drafting an assessment tool to help identify the areas that have the easiest deployment path as well as the areas where smart city solutions are needed most. Big picture, our goal is to clarify the challenges and help prepare communities for making the right investment and deployment decisions to fit their individual needs.

IoT: How important is education in this process, particularly with regard to changing and expanding standards and best practices?

MJ: Understanding the technology and infrastructure requirements are critical. It is important to do the homework necessary upfront and seek a wide range of expert feedback to make sure short and longer-term plans are on the best path possible to minimize surprises along the way.

IoT: How has the Covid-19 pandemic altered thinking and development in smart cities, both from a wider industry perspective and from CTIA’s perspective?

MJ: Most of us are acutely aware of how COVID-19 has affected our communities. What may be surprising to note is all of the innovation taking place today so we can graduate from our quarantine status and resume whatever the ‘new normal’ becomes post-pandemic. Smart cities are taking shape everywhere, even while they may look different in 2021 than imagined in 2019. Out of necessity, many city departments have adapted to remote procedures and found new ways to increase the connectivity and communications processes across their communities. We’ve seen many use cases over the past six months highlighting distance learning successes, eHealth visits, and increased connectivity even in the most basic city services.

CTIA is proud to be a facilitator among our member companies who are collaborating during this unprecedented time and engaging in deeper conversations with city leaders on how to leverage wireless technologies to solve for some of our most immediate challenges in keeping people, processes and services connected.

IoT: Do you agree with the idea that smart cities encompass several distinct areas (street lighting, smart buildings, driverless cars etc) and, if so, how can these different projects co-align long-term?

MJ: Many groups are still trying to define what a smart city is, however, for our working groups we view a smart city as simply a geography of IoT solutions that connect communities. People are connected via IoT. Industries and businesses are connected via IoT. Many venues are connected via IoT.

Today, cities are becoming more and more connected to their own operations and their communities via IoT. City operations will become even more and more interconnected as cities continue to mature in their smart cities roadmaps. City operations will continue to streamline their central operations with multiple monitors displaying real-time data, predictive analysis, and alert systems. Smart meters and sensors are changing the way communities manage natural resources, city assets, and traffic management systems, just to name a few.

IoT: What can we expect going forward with this project?

MJ: The CTIA Smart Cities program is constantly looking for new partners and ways to support the adoption of wireless smart city technologies. We hope to work with other leading associations to help promote this adoption and continue to create standards and best practices. We host an online platform called Town Square, where we share our collaborative work. It’s available to the entire marketplace so that members and non-members can find more about our work and access tools that can benefit cities. Stay tuned, much more to follow at smartcities.ctia.org.

IoT: What did you speak about at IoT Tech Expo and what will the audience take away from your session?

MJ: Our keynote session focused on a smart cities assessment tool—the Smart Cities Maturity Model―and the key takeaway for the audience is actually a question, “How smart is my community?” The model was developed by the wireless industry experts in CTIA’s Smart Cities Business & Technology program and helps city leaders map the geography of IoT into three domains of wireless technology—utilities, transportation, and public services/safety. Within these domains, we explore various sub-domains to provide a comprehensive overview for how communities are adopting connected IoT solutions today.

Across the country, IoT is changing the way citizens interact within their communities. For city managers, local DOT officials, utility specialists and all the stakeholders that keep communities running every day, this assessment tool provides a 50,000 foot overview of their smart city status. Each community is different with unique strengths and opportunities for growth, and this tool helps summarize those strengths and opportunities so leaders can research, plan, and invest in the right intelligent solutions for their communities today. We believe the Smart Cities Maturity Model will be a tool cities can use to assess their journey from yesterday and today and plan for tomorrow.

In addition, our panel discussion will highlight a few of the deployments taking shape today that help communities become more connected, safer, and smarter.

Editor’s note: You can watch the session on-demand by registering here, while you can also take a look at CTIA’s Smart Cities Playbook here.

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the IoT Tech Expo World Series events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

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