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The first smart state? The quest to link up the Land of Lincoln

Illinois is centralizing investments in technologies such as the Internet of things, while allowing cities to prioritize according to local needs. Texas may be next.

Name a U.S. hot spot for tech innovation. The first name on your lips probably isn't Illinois, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, but it’s time to emancipate yourself from that skepticism.

This is, after all, the land that helped invent plasma displays, graphical web browsers and the cell phones that most of us clutch every day.

In fact, Illinois is well on its way to becoming the first U.S. state to support a coordinated, government-approved strategy for diverse smart cities initiatives. Tech-centric initiatives already have cropped up across the state from Peoria, home of giant equipment maker Caterpillar, to Rockford, the most populous city outside Chicago. It’s a plan that rests heavily on a unified approach to information technology, while also honoring each community’s local priorities.

The initiative, mandated by Gov. Bruce Rauner via executive order in January 2016, essentially created a statewide agency charged with overseeing investments in everything from smart lighting projects to Internet of Things technologies. To spearhead the effort, Rauner looked outside politics as usual and hired a former private sector Internet of Everything strategist from networking technology giant Cisco, Hardik Bhatt.

Traditionally speaking, Illinois hasn’t had a great reputation for using information technology well — just three years ago it ranked in the last quartile of states when it came to using IT efficiently, a legacy of its heavy dependence on old mainframes. 

Leapfrogging from legacy to leadership

"Illinois is aggressively reducing the 45 years of technology debt in only four years by boldly and strongly engaging the private sector and other partners in this effort," noted Bhatt in late 2016, commenting about the state’s progress so far. "We have the opportunity to leapfrog from legacy technology to global leadership, by getting a head start in becoming a smarter state."

The rationale is pretty straightforward. Many "infrastructure" investments required to make municipal real estate more energy efficient, construct new urban mobility systems or digitize public services for health care or law enforcement are of the technology persuasion — such as data analysis software and sensors that collect all manner of information about the world around them. That includes information on temperature, air quality and pedestrian traffic patterns, among other data points.

The state also will invest in strategies that clarify digital privacy concerns that could bog down progress. Establishing central resources and best practices for emerging technologies centers on the blockchain and cybersecurity, among other topics, will be high priority.

By coordinating purchases, the state seeks to accelerate this modernization and establish better pricing, according to Bhatt. In January, for example, the state issued a request for proposals encouraging technology companies to bid on a master contract under which they will be able to sell Illinois cities smart street lights. Bids are due by the end of March.

The governor positions this as a move to help cut taxes, which helps with short-term support, but the technology will also serve as the foundation for a range of new longer-term services.

"With property taxes in Illinois the highest in the nation, any way for our local municipalities to achieve savings should be explored," Rauner said. "LED street lights have been shown to result in savings of up to 50 percent and offer ease of use and flexibility to municipalities."

Many 'infrastructure' investments required to make municipal real estate more energy efficient, construct new urban mobility systems or digitize public services are of the technology persuasion.

Bhatt said the move is one of several "equalizing" contracts that will help small and midsize cities invest in the Internet of Things. The state has also put its muscle behind ensuring that broadband data communications services are more broadly available. "We can make Illinois a globally competitive, more compassionate state," he said.

Bhatt’s team orchestrated a two-day workshop in late 2016 in collaboration with the Smart Cities council (its second such gathering) to refine the state’s priorities. They include: 

  • Adding sensors and other Internet of Things technology to buildings and streetlights
  • Enhancing mobile apps and services
  • Establishing volume discounts for a broad range of technologies and cloud services
  • Embracing standard policies for smart city approaches
  • Creating "centers of excellence" for various technologies, including the Internet of Things and blockchain (more than 200 technology "incubators" are across the state)

Kitty Hawk of driverless vehicles

Stuart Cowan, chief scientist for the Smart Cities Council, described the state-wide movement in Illinois as a natural extension of early pilots — one that ironically will be informed by local-level ideas. "Cities tend to innovate more than states," he noted. "It takes more time to move an entire state."

While Illinois may be the first U.S. state to embrace a coordinated approach, it may be able to look abroad to places such as India for inspiration. Two years ago, the country adopted a national goal of creating 100 smart cities by 2020. Its mission: "Drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local development and harnessing technology as a means to create smart outcomes for citizens."

As of about one year ago, very few of the 1,300 or so town, villages and cities in Illinois actually had a smart city under way. About 7 percent of the 45 small and midsize municipal CIOs and business leaders surveyed by the state had committed to this, although about one-quarter of them hoped to have a strategy in place by 2018.

It takes more time to move an entire state.

Market research firm IDC Government Insights suggests that states can play three primary roles in the smart government movement by: 

  1. Collecting better data about government "assets" such as municipal buildings, grid infrastructure, roads and resources for law enforcement and health care
  2. Adopting policies that support innovation and updating regulations to better accommodate models for things such as urban mobility services
  3.  Connecting communities across a region so that they can benefit from best practices and investments

While Illinois still stands alone in official "smart state" declarations, a similar movement is afoot in Texas to establish coordinated strategies with a special focus on one very specific area, transportation. Last December, 10 Texas cities and three universities met at the "Texas Mobility Summit" with the goal of establishing a state-wide strategy. In particular, these cities hope to position as a welcoming place for connected and autonomous vehicles.

"The very first fully driverless vehicle trip took place in Austin last year when an automated Google Car took a blind man to the doctor in one of our residential neighborhoods," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, commenting on his interest in self-driving cars. "Austin is now the Kitty Hawk of driverless vehicles because we are a creative and innovative city. We should all be proud that a Texas city is where such a huge leap forward can take place, and I look forward to working together with other Texas cities so we can pioneer creative partnerships with other innovators."

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