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Smart City-Designated Racine Looks At Ways To Become 'Smarter'

Chuck Quirmbach
Monument Square in downtown Racine.

Racine is moving ahead with trying to live up to the Smart City designation it was awarded earlier this year. A conference this week is showing that several changes in education, transportation and technology may be in store for what used to just be called "the Belle City of the Great Lakes." 

The Virginia-based Smart Cities Council promotes harnessing technology to improve livability and sustainability. It awarded Racine and four other North American cities the Smart City designation in April, beating out dozens of other communities that applied. Racine is Wisconsin’s first Smart City.   

Racine Mayor Cory Mason says since the announcement, there's been local enthusiasm and confusion. "People say, ‘That is great, we are a Smart City!’ And right after that, in sort of a hushed tone, they say, 'What does that mean, exactly?' " he said Wednesday.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Racine Mayor Cory Mason

Mason said Racine has been moving in the "smart" direction for years, by improving energy efficiency in city buildings and starting other sustainability projects. But he says things are about to ramp up on a broader scale.   

At a Smart Cities conference at Racine's Memorial Hall, the mayor and his staff are sharing their vision, partly by inviting in three dozen guest speakers. Michael Pegues is chief information officer for Aurora, lllinois. He said his city is striving for digital government.

In public safety, Pegues says that means more video analysis, and the Shot Spotter gunfire detection system, which is also used in parts of Milwaukee. "It's basically increasing the situational awareness of our first responders. That's fire, that's police and that's also emergency management," he said.

Pegues said Aurora is also trying to steer more data into the local non-emergency number citizens can call to get information or report things like potholes. He and others urge training of local government employees to make sure the privacy of citizens is protected.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
This interactive information kiosk will be installed soon in downtown Racine. Milwaukee may get several of the kiosks next spring.

Racine is also talking with transportation experts at UW-Madison about the future of autonomous, or driverless vehicles. While widespread use of those buses or cars may still be several years away; Andrea Bill of the UW's College of Engineering, said in the meantime, Racine and other communities are making more use of an extensive fiber-optic cable system.

"The fiber-optics out on the roadway transfers information from our signals back to a control center, or other type of data analysis," she explained. "So, it will improve your traffic signal timing, so you don't have to wait at the signal as long. We've all been there, like, 'Oh my, this signal will never change.’ "

Bill says smart roadways can also help re-route traffic in case of an accident.

Racine says its effort to be a Smart City will also include more retraining of adults for the digital age, as well as teaching of young people. Michael Brock is co-founder of Dream Hustle Code, a Chicago-based non-profit that's been working with the Racine School District to instruct more students in computer science.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Michael Brock (left) and his son, Ian Brock, of the Dream Hustle Code group.

He told WUWM: "We're not saying every kid is going to become a computer scientist. But every job they have in the future will at some point, have something to do with computer science. So, just being aware of how computer science interacts will give them a leg up."

Brock said if more young people are trained in tech, Racine employers won't have to go elsewhere for skilled workers.  

There is considerable corporate interest in Racine being a Smart City. Wednesday, U.S. Cellular announced Racine will be one of the first cities to have the company's 5G higher speed internet service next year. 

At the conference, other tech companies set up displays. Local sales manager Tom Frank of the Florida-based firm Ubicquia showed off a cylindrical sensor that can go on a city light pole. He says the sensor can provide data in a hurry.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Tom Frank of ubicquia holds a sensor that could better detect and report power outages.

"If there was any outage, the city would know it immediately, because the sensor would let the utilities know there's a problem. It would be better all the way around for the neighborhoods because of that," Frank said.

Racine Mayor Mason said he isn't looking to spend a lot of additional taxpayer money on being a Smart City. But he said he hopes through partnerships with local universities and maybe even tech firms like Foxconn, the city can become a place for modern innovation.

"Most importantly, [we want] to improve the lives of our residents here — whether that's access to internet, or better transit options, or helping us achieve our sustainability goals," Mason said.

Racine's Smart City Conference wraps up Thursday.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.


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