Kevin Comstock is an innovative and dynamic thought leader, strategist, and implementation specialist in Smart Cities and Advanced Transportation Technologies. He serves as the Smart city Director for the City of Chattanooga. His position comes within the department of transportation for the city, and so has worked on many transportation and mobility-related projects. He also manages the internal and external collaborations and provides strategic vision to Chattanooga’s Smart City programs.
In light of your experience, what are the trends and challenges you’ve witnessed happening in the Smart City space?
Mainly a lack of a unified vision on how to go about deploying the “smart city,” is hampering the projects. I want to ensure the technologies and the interoperability of those technologies once they are deployed. And be assured that the systems that are installed here work the same as they do anywhere else in the country. If somebody comes here, I want them to utilize our systems the same way as they would if they were back home. For instance, the cell phone; it doesn’t matter which brand the cell phone is and who your carrier is. We can still communicate with each other, and it’s almost seamless, which is how the smart cities’ types of applications should operate.
Every journey begins with the first step, which is the way how we have to approach this
In recent times I have been contacted by the World Economic Forum. They’re starting to think about this from a global perspective and beginning to develop some guidelines and policy and governance documents. They are working on how to deploy these systems and study interoperability as to how these systems work. So they are setting that platform where there’s going to be a degree of universal interoperability between how disparate systems get connected.
Could you elaborate on some exciting and impactful projects/initiatives that you’re currently overseeing?
We are currently working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy (NREL) Laboratory, and a company called Siemens. It’s a partnership where we’re trying to work through creating a digital twin for our transportation network in a specific area of town. And because we are a government agency, we have specific protocols that we must observe and be mindful of local, state, and federal laws. As an energy laboratory, OakRidge and NREL are bringing a different set of skills and data computation and how to utilize data and manipulate data to create a better environment out there. They’re working with the manufacturer of the actual OEM software that we use on the street to accomplish that. So the three of us are working together to figure out how to do this in a universal sense. It’s one of the first instances where the local government, a research organization, and the manufacturer are working together to discover how they can best develop these systems for future implementation.
What is the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Smart City space?
Although we are working from home and there have been many budget cuts due to the current pandemic situation, but fortunately, this hasn’t impacted the operational capabilities for our team. We’re working through this situation and are finding efficiency in working from home and also focusing on how we go about operating and working collaboratively. Ultimately, this will help from workforce development and strategic thought processes so that we can prove that we can all work from home relatively quickly. We’re seeing benefits communally in air quality and reduction in fuel usage as a result of all of us working from home. So the federal government is going to start taking this into account as to how we can utilize this and have the ability to collect a heap of data. And then be able to support a lot of these decisions as we move forward.
How do you see the evolution of the Smart City arena a few years from now with regard to some of its potential disruptions and transformations?
One of the critical aspects and the success that we have here in the City of Chattanooga is the fact that we have an excellent telecommunications network. We can utilize this to communicate with the vast majority of our sensors and resources out there in the environment. In my opinion, more cities are going to start to see the benefit of deploying technologies. This will help get them better communications and access to their sensors and infrastructure to get more data coming back in and utilizing it.
And then we’re going to start to see a lot more creative thought process about how to utilize that data and what can you glean from that data as it begins to come in. We were looking at traffic counts and revenue from our sales tax and so on and can start to tie those two things together when there is a traffic drop off. That’s when most sales tax revenue started dropping off, and then as they begin to increase, you can correlate that sales tax revenue increased again. So you wouldn’t typically tie traffic with taxes, but it’s a metric that we thought we discovered in this environment before.
What would be the single piece of advice that you could impart to a fellow or aspiring professional in your field?
Be geared up to start small; it doesn’t have to be an earthshattering project. Do things that get you that first bit of information you’re looking for and the ability to move forward. Every journey begins with the first step, which is the way how we must approach this. At our organization, we continue to work ahead and trying to learn from as we see things come out.