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Why three coastal Florida cities are turning to tech to achieve sustainability

Quick take: Smart sustainable cities invest in technology to be “future ready”

  • Three coastal Florida cities at risk of devastating natural disasters that destroy infrastructure and temporarily unhouse thousands of people share how sustainable technologies can become the digital immune system of a city.
  • Smart connected IoT devices and data platforms can help not just with more efficient city and citizen services, but they can also mitigate climate and sustainability challenges. Smart city solutions have improved quality-of-life indicators by 10–30%
  • Monetizing an open data system about shared city infrastructure, “an ecosystem”, can establish linked communities with access to real-time data that provides opportunities for new revenue streams and protects the city’s economy, its natural environment, and its citizens. 
  • Smaller municipalities should prioritize small, but scalable projects that focus on providing equitable, effective and appropriate technology, while measuring the manner and quality of its deployment and the new services.

While at lunch you notice only the smell of orange blossoms

Imagine you are heading off to work. You typically leave yourself an extra 20 minutes during peak tourist season but instead you leave right on time because intelligent traffic signals help alleviate the congestion despite the influx of visitors, and smart parking systems quickly route you to a free spot. You walk into your office and, even though the heat outside is rising, find the temperature to be pleasant because the building’s smart energy meters track and optimize electricity consumption to save costs and create a cleaner, more sustainable environment. 

Figure 1: The components of a smart city

When you head out for lunch, you enjoy the fresh air because environmental monitoring sensors alert authorities and the public to any dip in air quality. The park where you sit to eat your lunch is crowded, however, you notice there isn’t any garbage blowing around because sensors in waste bins connect to GPS systems in garbage trucks to let them know where the bins are full. As you head back to the office you see city workers preparing for an expected storm. Technology systems provided an early warning of potential flooding in the area, so you order supplies on your phone and turn on alerts so you’ll know if the situation escalates. After you finish up work for the day, it’s dark out, but smart street lights brighten the area as you walk to your car so you feel safe and secure. When you get home, you check your mail and notice the savings on your utility bills thanks to rooftop solar panels and home smart meters that enable you to better manage your usage through a smartphone app. 

While the world faces mounting environmental challenges from increasing population and urbanization to global warming, the concept of a smart city, where sustainability and disruptive technology meet, is becoming a reality. Technology has the potential to solve some of the most pressing challenges cities face today: reducing carbon emissions to slow climate change and mitigating hazards from natural disasters to ensure the safety of its citizens. In fact, a recent McKinsey study suggests that smart city solutions could improve quality-of-life indicators by 10–30% and make moderate to significant progress toward 70% of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Smart solutions approach to sustainability

A smart, sustainable city is a community built on an integrated network of physical and digital assets that combine to deliver service to citizens in the most cost efficient, equitable, and environmentally friendly way. Achieving this requires policy, governance, competent workforces, asset information, analytical tools, decision frameworks, citizens, etc. to all work together and coordinate with each other on achieving optimal outcomes across the areas of health, education, public services, personal safety and social cohesion. Sustainable technologies can become the digital immune system of a city, safeguarding its resources, to ensure it’s highly livable today and for the next generation.

The above solution examples show that digital sustainability projects protect a city’s assets, increase citizen satisfaction with their city, and save time and money. But how do we ensure going forward that projects such as these are also equitable, effective and appropriate to the citizens and employees? These three metrics are a part of global, public discussions of Equitable Technology as applied to sustainable municipality outcomes.  


While applying technology in the public sector, municipalities would be well served by measuring the manner and quality of its deployment and the new services that were created. Consideration of these three metrics should prompt project and implementation personnel to incorporate citizenry and municipality staff requirements that cross demographic, age, fiscal, and technological familiarity into account. For instance, the City of Cape Canaveral has partnered with AARP to help communicate with their constituency. Interestingly, the AARP says what's equitable for someone who is eight years old is also equitable for someone who is eighty. Taking these recommendations into consideration should ensure faster adoption, satisfaction and social support of sustainability efforts that directly impact your constituency.


Currently, most municipalities are just beginning their utilization of information and communication technologies to create the vision of a highly sustainable city. As cities become “smarter,” they’re becoming more sustainable and more responsive. Municipalities can build an ecosystem of smart devices and cloud interactions that enable digital services revenue, while creating digital experiences for citizens and visitors. Up until now, it has been widely documented that larger cities have had success with sustainability projects; so smaller municipalities may be wondering what they can do to tackle their unique challenges.

Addressing the stressors of geography and tourism in coastal Florida

A stressor is a chemical or biological agent, environmental condition, external stimulus or an event that causes stress to a city and its infrastructure. A stressor can be events or environments that citizens and employees might consider demanding, challenging, and/or threatening safety. Coastal municipalities, like the cities of Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach, have unique stressors that offer both opportunities and challenges. The source of these stressors is often related to the cities’ geographical advantages and features that attract many visitors each year and generate considerable revenue for its citizens. 

The following are six stressed areas that can be improved by smart sustainable technologies:

  1. Energy and utilities 
  2. Natural hazards and climate change
  3. Community and quality of life
  4. Data privacy
  5. Infrastructure
  6. Transportation and mobility

How can a city, with a fraction of the population of its global smart city counterparts, dramatically improve sustainability while managing the unpredictable challenges of mother nature? Let ‘s discuss what opportunities there are to address the many challenges.

Firstly, there’s a growth-related challenge. Thanks to its famed shuttle and rocket launches, Cape Canaveral has seen visitor numbers rise from 100,000 in 1961 to 1.7 million in 2016. According to the City of Satellite Beach Sustainability Action Plan (SAP), population growth, urban development, industry, and agriculture pose short and long-term dangers to the barrier island’s terrestrial and marine habitats. Given that these land and water systems are highly interconnected, a change within one has the potential to greatly affect the other: for example, threatening a major source of revenue for these coastal communities, the Indian River Lagoon.

Another dominant challenge is the weather: for Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach, their geographic distinctiveness and exposure also make them highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. The same weather that can prevent a carefully planned rocket launch can wreak havoc on the city’s infrastructure, its energy and transportation systems and the safety of its citizens. In 2018, Cape Canaveral was awarded a grant to assess natural current and future vulnerabilities and was provided the opportunity to develop strategies to enhance the City’s short and long-term resilience to climate-related hazards. Flooding, sea level rise, storm surge, and storm surge combined with sea level rise could significantly damage roadways and surrounding lands impacting everyday activities, economic vitality of the area, utilities, and emergency operations. Also at risk, Cape Canaveral’s private and publicly-owned properties, with figures exceeding $1.4 billion dollars in current property value, and government operations and facilities that are vital to life, safety, health and the continuity of operations City-wide following storm events.

Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach are focused on implementing a smarter, more resilient infrastructure; projects are geared towards making the city “future ready” to better support visitors, citizens and the city itself.

‘Pluggable’, ecosystem-oriented, projects can work in concert to exchange data, inform staff and citizens, and optimize the operations of infrastructure across a city. For example, advanced notice is the first step toward better preparedness and recovery operations for natural disasters, but what about during the emergency when public safety is paramount? There’s often a lot of confusion, communication challenges and location issues. Where are our first responders deployed? Are they deployed to the appropriate areas? Do we have them spread too thin or not widely enough? An ecosystem building-block project can be to deploy a city-wide network — for instance Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) — so that personnel and equipment can be instantly located and environmental monitors give you real-time updates on conditions. This means you reduce response time for emergency callouts and improve the safety of personnel and the public. Thoughtworks has delivered solutions using this type of technology to a number of commercial companies that want to track field staff for scheduling reasons or isolated, dangerous conditions to monitor their safety.

Coastal communities often fall victim to devastating floods that destroy infrastructure and temporarily unhouse thousands of people. An Oxford startup, Oxford Flood Network, is working to improve flood protection around the UK through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and TV whitespace. Another pluggable ecosystem solution is a citizen-focused initiative that aims to monitor water levels in local areas through the deployment of open-source, wireless water sensor networks in remote locations. Sensors are installed everywhere, from bridges to underneath floorboards, with the subsequent data collected so that the Environment Agency and local authorities can act quickly when water levels run high. 


In transitioning to an EV fleet, there’s an opportunity for cities to create an open data system of shared infrastructure, between buses, cars, charging stations and power sources — and to use that data for better city planning. Thoughtworks worked with a China based electric grid power company that wanted to build a clean energy network for the country’s EV fleet. This pluggable ecosystem solution allows charging software to connect to the telematics box (T-Box) in vehicles and to the driver’s smart device (e.g. iPhone). Battery levels are shared in real time and the power grid is able to accommodate its workload by adjusting the unit price to encourage more EVs to recharge when power is plentiful. In the future, a city’s vehicle batteries can be repurposed into local electricity grid storage, potentially saving money for a city.


As cities resolve to move to renewable energy, they should consider how clean sustainable power can be made affordable and generate revenue. Thoughtworks helped an organization in India realize their vision of bringing clean energy to low-income off-the-grid households by developing a custom SMS-enabled revenue system, transforming energy expenditure by the government to reach some citizens, into an asset purchased by billions of citizens. 


A waste management pluggable solution is also possible. Thoughtworks built a next generation bidding system for Madras Waste Exchange, a waste trading system in India. The open, but securely accessible software solution, or “platform”, allows recyclers to post data about the sale of existing waste stored in Recycling Recovery Centers and enables green manufacturing business players to access extended producer data throughout the product lifecycle.


Cities should also look at how increasing networking, data, intelligence and automation of services, processes and machines can increase employee productivity and efficiency. Ensure that your municipality partners with a technology company that is experienced, capable, and has the breadth to handle the diversity of these types of technologies. The partner should not only be versed in deploying efficiently across the municipality, but in the transfer of project information to the municipality’s employees.


Our next pluggable solution is for an energy demand response provider. Thoughtworks built a real-time data system to analyze IoT sensor data from building HVAC systems. The data system determines the root cause of any performance issues and proposes recommendations that drive profitability, sustainability, and transparency. This allows facility operators to improve tenant comfort, reduce equipment wear and tear, reduce energy use, and impact the bottom line. An open data system about shared city infrastructure can do the heavy lifting and drive high-value results.

A Data First Approach

The key to addressing these combined challenges and demands is to provide a cost-effective mechanism for real-time data capture and monitoring. Not all cities can afford to build and operate proprietary network infrastructure necessary to support real-time capture of data from devices such as CCTV and environmental sensors. Public/private 5G networks are also not mandatory for city-wide networking that enables smart cities, though they are a part of the solution. 

As the first responder example showed earlier, an alternative approach is to combine multiple, lower-cost (or free) data sources to provide the same result. The combination of smartphones (with location), existing data sources (weather, traffic etc.) and Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) sensors — for location, air quality monitoring — are now enabling communities of all sizes to build sensing capability using a low-cost, crowdsourced data model. LPWANs are great for applications requiring devices to send small amounts of data over great distances for many years on a single battery.


Many of these projects have been built using The Things Network, an open software ecosystem, to create “connected” communities accessing real-time data for applications designed for city employees, citizens, tourists, businesses and planners. Monetizing applications (e.g smart parking) can also help to fund further development of the initiative. Most importantly, IoT solutions or platforms such as The Things Network (TTN) are designed with public data security and privacy in mind. 


We’ve seen that such initiatives have ignited a volunteer citizen community willing to build and support these projects to create a safer and more connected community that uses data provided from its own residents. Tackling safety and right-to-use policies of data from the public is a key challenge to be addressed. DECODE (Decentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystems) Barcelona tackled this challenge through a series of pilot projects for which Thoughtworks served as a technology advisor. DECODE wanted to determine how people could freely contribute information or data while, at the same time, retaining the ability to decide with whom the data is shared and under which conditions. 


One DECODE pilot involved placing environmental sensors to detect noise levels and pollution in residents’ homes and neighborhoods. Thoughtworks helped tackle the technical challenges of collating and storing a stream of citizen-sensed data. Access to data was controlled by aggregating datasets and encrypting them with a key so that only an authenticated person is given access to it, enabling citizens to share encrypted data anonymously with their communities using a mobile app. 


A second pilot focused on an open-source community petition software platform that enables citizens to elicit change in their communities. The encrypted solution was used to build a dashboard to visualize community data, enabling residents to have a personalized yet private experience to self-organize democratically at scale, and bring their most pressing issues to city officials to take action. This sort of “crypto-magic” was a big public/private proof point for how smart cities can begin to democratize knowledge.


While low cost, off-the-shelf solutions like sensors are easy to deploy to collect data, securely integrating those point solutions is where real value is realized. Projects are started to integrate the data on a data platform, use machine learning to identify patterns and, most importantly, decide how users, stakeholders and citizens can act on those patterns. Creating this type of connected ecosystem requires collaborative development between cities and practitioners in smart sustainable technologies.

Incremental investment approach for smart sustainable cities

Sustainable technologies investments don’t have to be done in a big bang way. A strategy of planting small investments within a larger design can be used to build up towards a larger ecosystem (or shared infrastructure) of value, rather than the acquisition of point solutions, where the sum isn’t greater than individual parts. In order to create this ecosystem, solutions need to all use compatible or translatable data standards, preferably open standards. The below picture provides a scale up sustainability maturity model for smart solution technologies.

The CityVerve project in Manchester was a 2016 landmark venture that pioneered the use of IoT technologies across four major use cases: travel and transport; health and social care; energy and environment; and culture and the public realm. Its holistic design tackled over 120 proof-of-concepts and included a consortium of over 20 different partners. CityVerve’s jump into creating an ecosystem right from the start, shed light on the myriad complexities likely to be encountered; around technologies, governance, innovation, community engagement, policy, and regulation. Its legacy highlights important lessons and guidance for other smart cities.


Smaller municipalities should prioritize pilot projects and focus on providing the basic technology foundation to enable the organic development of new services. At the beginning of any smart cities project, the local government needs to have clarity on objectives and demonstrate agility in management. Existing high-level plans and goals, like the Satellite Beach Sustainability Action Plan and Green Achievement Targets, are a good place to start. Technology can be layered on to enhance solutions. For example, consider the recommendation to convert all municipal building lighting to more efficient and longer-lasting LED lighting. In addition to LED lights, RFID tags could be used to let you know when the lights need to be replaced and motion detecting sensors could be installed so that lights only turn on when pedestrians walk by. Now, not only are you optimizing utility efficiency, but you’ve also collected anonymous, aggregated data on how the community moves. You can use insights on pedestrian traffic to identify safety risks or opportunities for new recreational space. Data insights gained from this can be used to build future business cases. Partners across all workstreams need to come together at regular intervals to connect and align on strategy. Consider assigning a dedicated resource to manage the communication program and use existing channels to create an ongoing dialogue with the public.


While Manchester didn’t necessarily become the smart city blueprint it hoped to, its open data system was an undoubted success. “Platform thinking”, that is, securely accessing and linking software applications together across a wide range of use cases, is critical to achieve scalability, replicability, and open innovation. CityVerve’s “citizens’ needs first” approach is also a notable concept. Lastly, but importantly, marketing investments were made to raise awareness — particularly among residents who don’t naturally engage with technology — to educate and gain support from its citizens. 


As smaller cities mature from point solutions to open data systems about shared city infrastructure, they should extend their ecosystem to neighboring communities to create greater value. Consider the algae bloom parts of the Indian River and the Banana Lagoon are experiencing along their shores. Currently, cities are reliant on Water Management Districts, State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions (FWC), Departments of Environmental Protection or NGO's (Universities and Non-profits) for data. Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach could use cameras that detect color changes in the water to track progression of the algae. That information would then be fed into a data platform to monitor and track if the algae is heading their way, giving them time to respond and protect a big part of their economies. Another example: if you implement smart traffic solutions to understand traffic patterns in Satellite Beach, that is certainly helpful. However, imagine how much smoother traffic could flow or how coordination could improve during weather emergencies if these traffic solutions were available to be linked and coordinated along SR A1A, the major thoroughfare on the barrier island. 

Smart city success factors for municipalities

There are various opportunities and challenges in implementing smart city capabilities for smaller and coastal cities such as Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach. Municipalities that have already ventured down this path have paved the way for others to follow in their wake. Similar communities around the globe are taking advantage of open standards and community driven data initiatives that don’t necessarily require the funding of traditionally expensive capital networking projects. These community initiatives follow the sustainability maturity model to develop iteratively with minimal capital investment. 

Recommended smart city approach

We’ve boiled our recommended smart city approach down to eight key design themes you can use as a guide as you map out your strategy.

Community engagement primer


Another common thread we’ve discussed is how to achieve buy-in and adoption from the community. We’ve summarized a primer below to get the support and backing needed for smart city projects.


  • Generate community awareness. The starting point is to create a seed for advocacy of such initiatives by engaging in marketing activities within the community. Larger cities have traditionally struggled to gain traction across a wide citizen audience. The City Council is in an ideal position to drive this effort and thus avoid the pitfalls encountered by trying to address a larger audience.
  • Be transparent. Be completely open and honest about the project objectives. More importantly, be concise and avoid the use of overly-complex technological terms. For smart initiatives to be successful, citizens and key stakeholders must be fully aware of the benefits and implications of new solutions, and understand the details of how their data will be used. Many of the challenges of obtaining a successful outcome are generally people, not technology, related. 
  • Engage the community from day one. We have witnessed the greatest outcomes when councils engage citizens at the very beginning of the project. To guarantee community investment in the direction of initiatives and transparency of your intentions, involve the community in the initial planning phases. The potential list of solutions to be evaluated must incorporate community input both for ideation and approval.
  • Achieve wider collaboration for a shared investment model. Neighbouring towns, cities and regions can and should be part of the community initiative. Certain opportunities can benefit from “strength in numbers” by engaging with adjacent communities. Smart traffic and environmental monitoring systems can greatly benefit from a shared investment model. These benefits are not restricted to just technological areas but to the collaboration and community-building that has been clearly demonstrated in empowering citizens in shared initiatives. 


Four rules for the road


And finally, cities should have checkpoints during both planning and execution phases of their smart initiatives to ensure they are following the below protocols.


  • Be patient. The downfall of many smart city projects is becoming overly-focused on a specific solution in order to move more quickly, to the detriment of everything else. This will not only increase your risk of failure but will also alienate the community when they consider projects that follow. Communities must not try to rush the ideation and discussions. Some of the most interesting and effective solutions are not always the most obvious ones. Unfortunately, unsuccessful projects are generally the only ones that most people remember.
  • Don’t boil the ocean. Many smart city projects have failed as a result of trying to do too much. Work with the community to identify and prioritize a small number of initial projects to start the momentum. This will allow you to learn and evolve as more projects are considered. The exact number of projects to be considered depends greatly on community participation and budget but the goal is to try and address a small, yet significant, aspect of a few given problems as opposed to exhausting all available resources on a single area.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is a tremendous amount of experience and collateral available to you to help evaluate what can work and what is difficult. There are multitudes of both successful and unsuccessful smart city initiatives from around the world that have been well documented. The learnings from the unsuccessful projects can be as helpful as the successful examples. This treasure trove of information and experience will provide your community with an invaluable resource of knowledge, technology and more importantly, contacts, to help your own community smart city journey.
  • Dare to be different. When smart city projects and experience begin to mature, Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach, and Cocoa Beach will all be in a prime position to explore more innovative solutions to their unique challenges. At this point, your experience and successes should be shared and evangelized to other regions globally with similar challenges. However, failures can’t always be avoided and the agile mentality of “fail fast” (meaning the ability to learn fast and adapt plans if necessary) applies to smart city endeavors. As long as you properly consider where to invest your efforts you should not be derailed by any failures you encounter on this exciting journey.


Technology can help solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. While a connected, smart, and sustainable city may seem like a futuristic idea, you can start taking the foundational steps now to progress toward making it a reality. Start small, take an iterative and citizen-centered approach, agree on data standards across point solutions, and collaborate with neighboring communities and the private sector, to build a data platform that will create scalable ecosystems of value between linked and synchronized city components. The future is a lot closer than you may think.


Additional contributors

This article was created with generous assistance from the sustainability teams of the cities of Cape Canaveral, Satellite Beach, and Cocoa Beach, who we'd like to thank for their time, patience and incredible insights. In no particular order:

Zachary Eichholz; Jared Francis; Kelsey Mack; Nicholas Sanzone; Brenda Surprenant; Alexis Miller.



References1. This AI traffic system in Pittsburgh has reduced travel time by 25%2. The Equitable City – A New Name For New York3. Barcelona Could Be The World’s Leading City With The Extensive Use Of IoT4. Asset Management Is An Essential Asset For A Smart City5. Seestadt Aspern on path to smart, renewable future6. https://lagoonloyal.com/indian-river-lagoon/ 

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