South Florida Turns To Smart Technology To Overcome Obstacles
COVID-19 is revealing a new metric for cities: resilience. For those areas of the U.S. that are more prone to natural disasters, familiarity with unpredictable events may result in a heightened ability to react and respond to this current global pandemic.
With 40% of all U.S. hurricanes striking Florida, the sunshine state is no stranger to the disaster dynamic. This may explain why South Florida, in particular, is turning to innovation as a way to approach COVID-related challenges.
On a recent Digi.City webinar, two South Florida local leaders – Christine Johnson with The Beacon Council and Jason DeSouza with Hanwha Techwin America – explain some of the forces at work in the region that are contributing to economic recovery. Johnson describes this approach as becoming “Crisis Proof” which is a unique re-framing to resilience. Here is how South Florida is dealing with the current state of crisis.
Invest in Technology and Innovation
Johnson describes the current environment as the Pandemic “catapulting us into the future”, thereby accelerating the urgency of smart city applications. As a significant global business center, South Florida already has a demonstrated commitment to technology by way of the foundational elements of network connectivity, IoT and data collection.
DeSouza explains, “Our networks are mature. We have a blessing in that there is lots of fiber and already some 5G connections available.”
This head start positions the region well to recover more quickly as they are not building from zero.
The region has also done a solid job of introducing technology to the community and showcasing the benefits such as the ability to make smarter decisions based on insights from ethically-collected data. This activity becomes especially critical in high-stress, high-pressure situations and so COVID has further accelerated that cycle of acceptance.
But acceptance is not equated with blanket permissions. DeSouza acknowledged that it is critical for this kind of effort to be led by those who understand the potential negative impacts of technology and are able to come up with effective solutions. “Welcoming the art of the possible comes with being able to anticipate the challenges and then mitigate those risks.”
For example, as some of the early tech was deployed – including cameras for temperature measurement – certain applications had to be refined. Instead of prescribing the technology, it was more important to ask the right questions.
Yet another challenge to face is on the policy side as government regulators can’t always keep up with the pace of technology. It can be uncomfortable to navigate so many partners and moving pieces in the middle of high-impact events. Which is where long-standing partnerships built on trust come into play.
Demonstrate a Commitment to Cross-Sector Collaboration
South Florida is a collection of 35 municipalities. The strength of the region is only realized when there is a significant effort to openly work together. COVID-19 put the model to the test but DeSouza proudly shared that their collaborative approach yielded positive results, specifically in the education sector. School systems were able to quickly and effectively communicate, mobilize online learning, provide support for teachers working remotely and distribute much-needed resources such as laptops, material and even meals for the region’s most vulnerable students. Technology played a critical role such as releasing an app to support planning, data to support coordination efforts, electronic alerts, all fueled by an open data platform.
This kind of team approach does not happen by accident and depends on economic partners such as The Beacon Council which focuses on building local innovation ecosystems. Johnson explained “Because we work across sectors, we can see that we have all that we need right now, right here.”
Linking government, academic, corporate partners inspires conversations across industries accelerates progress. Johnson explained that while technologists, industry and government haven’t traditionally been partnered with local volunteers and local talent, now all of this is possible and needed now more than ever.
Other examples of this type of effort include CoMotion Lab focused on Innovation and Mobility, Tech Gateway which elevates and markets a three county region, the South Florida Tech Association and US Tech Future Miami. Each organization has a focus on how technology can improve the lives of local residents.
Double Down on to Talent Development
The region views talent development as a leading force related to economic recovery. As COVID exposes the vulnerability of small business and tourism, making sure the workforce has the right skills to quickly adjust to market realities is an imperative. Johnson offered helpful advice for other city leaders, “We have to ask ‘where are the gaps?”.
As education is being forced to evolve at an alarming rate, area institutions are responding. For example, Miami Tech Works combines a unique assortment of partners to prepare and mobilize a new workforce which welcomes those that are new to tech. Miami Dade College offers programs to upskill those who are displaced and offers student stipends in addition to free, online courses designed around skills needed in real-time such as how to design contact tracing technology.
This openness to design courses that reflect reality encourages the creation of a diverse, tech-enabled workforce development. This is a key factor in the region being able to attract as well as retain top talent which Johnson acknowledges is both a regional and a global play. Miami is a global hub with two international airports within 30 minutes of each other. This results in an automatic diversity which informs a propensity to support new voices and perspectives.
In addition, leaders have figured out how new entrants can supplement a cross generational workforce. Johnson stated, “For the younger generation, they understand the importance of data and they are challenging us. They have an aptitude towards data science and the ability to apply that data to solve problems.” DeSouza also acknowledged the need to leverage the experience of the area’s substantial retired community. “In order to accelerate tech adoption, leaders are committed to identifying what is holding people back from participating and then removing those barriers.”
Connecting the Dots
COVID brings very real challenges to the forefront that forces communities to figure out how to responsibly use technology to solve problems. South Florida is doing the work to support open source, entrepreneurial, collaborative approaches that connect the dots between technology, innovation, economic development and talent development. DeSouza stated, “COVID is like an incubator.”
If the old adage is true and “disruption breeds innovation”, then the dynamic, creative, diverse community of South Florida can be an example for other regions to turn to for advice on how to best prepare for a future that is characterized by change, uncertainty and rapidly advancing technology.