Smart city infrastructure isn’t just some buzzy phrase used to spice up chamber of commerce breakfasts. It’s not some theoretical idea being tested out in clandestine bunkers, either.
It has become an increasingly important cog in modern growth and it is manifesting in some very real ways around Colorado and in the Denver area.
In two places on opposite ends of the metro area — Sterling Ranch in Douglas County and the Peña Station Next development near Denver International Airport — people are now living in communities specifically built around smart city and smart home technology. These are places where the garage door can be closed with a smartphone app from across town, and the local bus is driven by a computer system, not a human being.
“These communities are serving as test sites for proving out technologies and approaches,” Jake Rishavy, vice president of innovation for the Denver South Economic Denver Partnership and a co-founder of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance said of the two locations. “It’s all about de-risking that innovation process and encouraging more adoption of new technologies.”
Douglas County’s 21st Century Community
When it comes to Sterling Ranch, the long-talked about, now fast-growing master-planned community south of Chatfield State Park, Rishavy applauded the decision to install a fiberoptic network in the ground while building other key infrastructures like roads and gutters. The community’s founders and developers, the Smethills family, founded their own subsidiary company in 2014 to install the network because they couldn’t find a company in the state to do it for them. Not only are all of the 400 or so homes built there so far hooked into lightning-fast internet, but they can also be granted access to a business-class connection if needed, the Smethills said.
“When it comes quality of life for residents and economic competitiveness if you have that infrastructure you are well suited to compete,” Rishavy said. “That’s one of the best things you can do to future-proof your community.”
The Smethills have a high-powered partner in their efforts to build a smart community. The U.S. arm of European automation and manufacturing giant Siemens has been involved with Sterling Ranch since 2014. Dave Hopping, the president and CEO of Siemens Smart Infrastructure, said the company engaged in a “co-creation effort” with the Smethills to design specific technology solutions to meet their goals of building a place that was “safe, secure, efficient, connected and sustainable.”
Here are two of those custom solutions as described by Hopping and Sterling Ranch officials:
Steward: This exclusive Sterling Ranch smart home system is installed in every house. It monitors home security and allows residents to control their lighting, heating and cooling systems from their phones. It can be programmed to provide community event updates, but in place such as Sterling Ranch — described by Brock Smethills as “water constrained” — the most important feature is the real-time water and energy usage data it provides.
Smethills, son of community founders and longtime Denver area business figures Harold and Diane Smethiils, cites research by the EPA. “If you can provide consumers with real-time data on their energy and water consumption, they will voluntarily choose to save about 10 percent,” he said.
Steward is also integrated with a Rachio smart sprinkler control system that monitors precipitation and only activates watering when it is needed.
“Water only when you need the water, not based on time and schedule,” Hopping said. “It reduces waste and runoff.”
Integrated street lighting system: Energy efficient LED bulbs are only one part of the story with the Sterling Ranch street lighting system. Each light pole is also outfitted with a security camera and can change colors or function based on emergency situations. A flashing light means that the home behind it has been broken into, for instance.
“It helps enable first responders to get to a location quicker. That’s a big feature and value add for the community,” Hopping said.
Harold Smethills said when it came to Sterling Ranch, “What we wanted to do is build a 21st Century community.”
To the Smethills that means a lot more than just nifty tech. Retail that is reachable on foot, a lot of trails and multigenerational neighborhoods are all part of it. But Brock Smethills said ingrained, intuitive technology matters, too.
“I think people expect home builders and communities to evolve as opposed to just replicating what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years,” he said.
Sterling Ranch resident Bill Forsythe appreciates the touches the Siemens partnership has brought to his new home in the community. The ability to save on heating bills and having a set-it-and-forget-it irrigation system that saves water on its own has been a godsend, he said.
“Our house is almost twice as big and winter heating cost the same as our last house,” Forsythe said.
Forsythe admits his main motivation moving with his wife and three kids from nearby Roxborough Park is their new home backs up to what eventually will be a lake. But as a residential real estate appraiser, he also understood that buying early in a modern community would mean getting a good price on a property that will see its value rise quickly, something he has already noticed when it comes to prices of other homes in the neighborhood.
He doesn’t mind that Sterling Ranch residents pay extra property taxes to fund the infrastructure there.
“It’s just the price of doing business,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the neighborhood and the experience.”
Some of the smartest dirt in the country
Peña Station Next is a different side of the smart city coin.
The more-than-200-acre development is transit-oriented, just off of the 61st and Peña Station rail stop. It’s development priorities are different.
The first residential project to come out of the ground there is a multi-phase apartment community with 20 percent of the units dedicated to affordable housing. About 30 tenants have moved in now, according to Ferd Belz, president of the community’s master developer LC Fulenwider. A 220-room, seven-story hotel is expected to open there in the coming months.
Anchoring the whole thing is a 112,000-square-foot facility housing Panasonic North America’s CityNow business. Inside the building is a showcase space where smart technologies including autonomous vehicles and smart street lights are demoed.
“The big thing is we bring our stakeholders here and give them formal training on a number of topics,” said George Karayannis, vice president of CityNow. “It allows for touching and understanding — much more deeply understanding — these smart city applications. The real benefit comes from much more informed discussions about their needs, about potential solutions and about the costs and benefits.”
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Panasonic North America has already rolled out some big smart infrastructure initiatives in Colorado. It worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation to deploy 100 vehicle-to-everything transmitters along the Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor, collecting and feeding real-time road condition data to state officials and property equipped vehicles. It is the first statewide deployment of connected vehicle technology in the country, Karayannis said.
At Peña Station Next, Panasonic’s facility is served by an autonomous shuttle operated by French Company EasyMile. The building operates on a “microgrid” power supply generated entirely by solar energy collected by an array that shades the rail station’s parking lot.
Development of that project is an example of Panasonic’s approach to smart city innovation. Three stakeholders — Xcel Energy, DIA and Panasonic — came together to build the microgrid. DIA paid for the steel framing for the shade structures, providing cover for people who pay to park in the lot. Xcel provided the solar panels. And Panasonic is hooked into the supply which also feeds a battery, allowing the company to avoid buying an expensive and carbon-emitting diesel generator. As of now, its facility is net power positive, Karayannis said.
Belz expects other portions of the development to be plugged into Panasonic’s infrastructure as work moves forward. Peña Station Next is slated to eventually be home to 1,500 residential units, a million square feet of office space and 300,000 square feet of retail space.
“It’s some of the smartest, most sustainable dirt in the country,” Karayannis said.
More “living labs” coming
As outlined by Rishavy, Sterling Ranch and Pena Station Next are what smart city advocates call “living labs,” places where new technologies can be applied and proven out in advance of more widespread adoption. They will soon have company.
Arrow Electronics is in the process of building its “Colorado Open Lab” in its Centennial headquarters. Set to debut in the second half of 2019, the lab will serve as a testing ground where companies can leverage Arrow’s equipment to test new technologies and ready them for market. In turn, participating cities, counties and state bodies — 19 of which have already signed up — can volunteer to serve as test markets for the technology. The can test and validate projects through the Open Lab without paying consulting fees.
“We like that word, ‘open,’ because we believe it is the only way advancement can happen today in a collaborative environment,” said Aiden Mitchell, the head of internet of things technology research at Arrow.
In addition to governments and agencies, Arrow is working with 25 major tech companies and at least two colleges in the state on its efforts. It doesn’t plan to duplicate projects like Panasonic’s work on autonomous vehicles but collaborate with companies like Hitachi on how technologies like the firm’s video management solutions system can be deployed to help with traffic counting and traffic management or other challenges.
Mitchell credited the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance for seeing that need for smarter approaches to big problems like transportation, food security and resilient energy and bringing together partner cities willing to become smarter.
“I think (cities) are seeing unprecedented growth in Colorado,” Mitchell said. “They’re understanding that they can’t just build their way out of this.”