With an arsenal of private sector enterprises propelling it forward, Miami is uniquely positioned to become a model smart city – not just for South Florida, but for the nation.

Resiliency, a term echoed throughout new initiatives spearheaded by Mayor Francis Suarez’s administration, is key as Miami taps technology to fight what many say are the most imminent threats to its future: sea-level rise, affordability and transportation challenges.

Ultimately, the goal of a smart city is to make its residents’ lives better through innovation. A bonus of Miami’s tech-driven evolution will be a boost for its business sector,with benefits that include better transportation options for its workforce and more high-paying jobs created by local companies using smart technologies to fuel their growth.

“We are on the leading edge of solving Miami’s sustainability challenges, which are also the sustainability challenges our country is facing,” Miami-Dade Beacon Council President and CEO Michael Finney said. “We, as a community, are engaging innovations in technology and embedding them into our culture as a way of moving our community forward.”

Miami’s transformation into a smart city won’t look like a scene out of “The Jetsons.” Flying cars aren’t on the to-do list. But open data, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence are.

The city is already deploying advanced technologies to reduce crime with gunshot detection project ShotSpotter.Another project now underway will measure flood levels in real time. A third explores the use of video analytics to understand more about pedestrian flow and gridlock.

Miami is in talks topartner with some of the largest cellphone carriers in the U.S. to create a “mesh of data” that flows in real time from their cell sites – possibly equipped with crime sensors, flood sensors or traffic sensors – as telecommunications giants put their fastest networks to work in the city.

Miami’s new website may not seem like a big part of its modernization plans, but with features like the now-live Electronic Plan Review and City Knowledge Graph (a database of the city’s services and processes combined with a digital map) in the works, it has the potential to expedite processes such as permitting, which can keep new businesses from opening for months.

“We need to show the companies starting out here that they can continue to thrive here,” said Michael Sarasti, CIO and director of innovation and technology for the city. “We’re great at being entrepreneurs, but we have a scale up problem. If we don’t make an adjustment, that will continue to happen.”

Company of the future

Miami accelerated its smart city initiatives with the election of Suarez, who has championed the city as a growing technology hub. Under his guidance, in 2018 the city created a new department focused on technology and innovation strategies, which Sarasti now leads.

Sarasti, in turn, has forged invaluable partnerships with the private sector as he charts his part of the city’s path forward.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has invested millions of dollars to support the city’s startup community, and recently put more money toward initiatives that could spark citywide solutions in IoT, transportation and advanced planning.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, Microsoft and AT&T are also on the long list of partners and backers of Miami’s smart city initiatives.

“We feel excited about what Mike [Sarasti] and his team are doing,” said Raul Moas, the Knight Foundation’s Miami program director. “Folks may not think of a website as being part of a smart city, but it’s a huge change in the way that the local government is engaging with residents, and a good example of some things that are being done in town.”

In one such partnership, Sarasti tapped Miami’s Wyncode Academy for a program that’s bringing city employees’ technology skillsup to speed. The company holds a weekly three-hour user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) workshop at the city’s Planning and Zoning building that focuses on improving projects such as Electronic Plan Review, the online permitting submission process.

Microsoft provided a grant for a Wyncode graduate to work with the city to follow up on the ideas produced in the workshop and implement future tech-driven projects.

“Every city across the entire world is in a race to be innovative and make sure they’re not falling behind,” Wyncode co-founder Johanna Mikkola said. “This is a great example of taking your internal team and giving them the training so they can continue to be innovative and relevant. This has a real economic impact.”

Wyncode’s research about the Electronic Plan Review found that the city of Boston began working with Harvard University on a similar project about a year ago.

“I think it’s so impressive that here we are in Miami, and we’re on the heels of Boston and Harvard,” said Gessica Tortolano, the Wyncode instructor who leads the UX/UI workshop for city employees.

How smart is Miami?

A 2018 study by the Eden Strategy Institute identified the Top 50 smart cities worldwide. Just 12 U.S. cities made the list, with none in Florida.

The No. 1 city, London, has the fastest free Wi-Fi in the U.K. from an investment that aimed to reduce the number of people without internet access nationwide by 20 percent every two years.

The No. 2 city, Singapore, has a four-year, $1.75 billion budget devoted to integrating technology into its citizens’ lives. Its ample incentives and programs don’t just bolster cutting-edge startups; they also seek to bring its existing workforce’s talents into the digital age with tech skills training.

The top city in the U.S. to make the list was New York City, at No. 4, following Seoul, South Korea. New York City began its smart city focus in 2007 with a vision that extends through 2040. Its current plan, OneNYC, is behind initiatives such as a real-time bus arrival system.

But cities with technologies that are years ahead of Miami’s are not necessarily utopian digital societies. Their advancements have come with downsides, said Calvin Chu, author of theEden study.

For instance, some Asian cities that made the list have little to no privacy laws. Heavy data collection encroaches into residents’ everyday lives, and social media is strictly monitored. “Excellent facial recognition technologies have cut out crime comprehensively. You try to jaywalk, you get fined immediately,” Chu said. “The question cities need to ask is if that’s the model they want to emulate.”

Startups play key role

Billion-dollar corporations aren’t the only businesses shaping Miami as a smart city. The startup community is also in play, and it could become its most critical ally.

In 2017, Miami-based software company Gridics began working with the city’s Zoning Review Department on software that could check proposals more quickly for code compliance. Since then, the startup’s partnership with the city has evolved.

Before employing Gridics’ code management software, Miami was using printed-out PDFs and sticky notes to keep up with zoning changes made throughout the year, Gridics CEO Jason Doyle said. Zoning codes that the public could access were overhauled every six months, and developers and residents had to trust that the codes were updated. With Gridics’ technology, zoning codes can be updated instantly.

“It’s a combination of time savings and cost savings, as well as transparency,” Doyle said. “You had all these rules that covered lots of different properties, but it was a challenge to see how those rules applied to each parcel. That’s a real chasm we’ve bridged.”

Real estate technologies like Gridics’ don’t just upgrade the processes by which the city’s developments are reviewed. They could also improve the developments themselves.

Gridics’ technology was used to understand the impacts of The Underline, a 10-mile linear park under construction beneath the Metrorail. With the company’s software, the city was able to quickly analyze the hundreds of properties that sit along the planned site, and identify opportunities that could mitigate losses.

“We’re trying to help make cities better,” Doyle said. “A lot of times, a path of rules has been written in a vacuum by attorneys and planners without visualizing how it applies to the real parcels that are out there.”

Most startup founders interviewed for this story say Miami is ahead of the curve nationally in its progress as a smart city.

EcoSystems, a Miami-based startup, hopes to enter talks with the city to deploy its water-efficiency technologies. The company has already partnered with Denver Water, Denver’s water utility, on a citywide program that identifies properties with the most water waste and offers free upgrades such as high-efficiency toiletsto owners.

Since its 2013 founding, EcoSystems has helped save 725 million gallons of fresh water locally, mostly through work with the private sector, according to CEO Richard Lamondin Jr.

The company currently doesn’t have a deal with any public water management body in South Florida, but that could change as the pressure to conserve the region’s fresh water grows.

“We are on the front lines of sea-level rise, and one of the biggest threats to us is saltwater intrusion in our aquifers,” said Lamondin, who launched the company with his sibling Lawrence. “My brother and I are Miami natives. We want to have more of an impact in our backyard.”

Taking advantage of tech

Government funding is hard to come by for startups working to make cities smarter. That’s because economic development dollars are typically allocated to more established companies that can create ample jobs and agree to large capital investments. But regions with state-allocated funds for early-stage companies are seeing returns, the Beacon Council’s Finney said.

“If I could ask this state to do one thing, it would be to make a pool of resources available to organizations working to grow tech-based businesses in our communities for things like pre-seed funds and supporting businesses accelerators,” he said. “It would make a huge difference.”

Finney cited the SmartZones initiative in Michigan and the Ben Franklin Technology Partners program in Pennsylvania as examples.

“We are like the Lamborghinis you see around Miami all the time. The horsepower is there. We need to step on the accelerator and shift into second, third and fourth gears,” he said. “I just don’t think there’s another community as well-positioned as we are to take advantage of everything tech. But we need to provide more resources, both private and public. That’s what’s going to move this region forward.”

Smart moves in South Florida

Efforts to create smart cities can be found throughout South Florida:

• Doral is one of few cities in the world to receive the World Council on City Data’s ISO 37120 Platinum Certification, recognizing it as part of a global network of cities effectively using data for decision-making while remaining transparent and keeping resiliency at the forefront of its planning.

• Coral Gables has a comprehensive set of smart city initiatives detailed on its online Smart City Hub, from the IoT sensors on the Giralda Avenue promenade to its Crime Intelligence Center, which uses data to address and curb crime in the city.

• Fort Lauderdale tapped transportation tech company Passport to manage its entire parking operation. It’s credited as the first city in the U.S. to partner with the company.

• Sunrise is in talks to employ automated shuttles for residents.

• Palm Beach Gardens secured a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to fund smart city initiatives such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.


What’s your definition of a smart city?

“Being a smart city has a wider definition that includes everything from affordability to sea-level rise. [The] ability … to handle data is fundamental to being a smart city. But more data doesn’t mean a smarter city. It’s how we use data to be able to make better decisions about everything, from how we’re building buildings to how traffic is moving through our streets.” – Michael Sarasti, director of innovation and technology, City of Miami

“A smart city is focused first on the community. It’s building technology around citizens’ needs, such as better mobility. It elevates the conversations around … the power of technology improving the life of everyday people.” – Lucas Hernandez, Miami civic engagement,** Microsoft**

“It’s a city where entrepreneurs are able to innovate and to improve traditional sectors to make a better quality of life for citizens.” – Laura Maydón, managing director, Endeavor Miami

“Our approach toward smart cities is finding innovative ways to use technology to elevate lives and close the gap between residents and city leaders.” – Raul Moas, Miami program director, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

“I view the idea in a pretty traditional way: taking advantage of leading-edge technologies to help us run our city.” Michael A. Finney, president and CEO, Miami-Dade Beacon Council