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‘The Nest’ nurtures a smarter city, starting in the North End

For Charlotte residents who want to learn more about Smart Cities, the North End Smart District is a good first stop. Rob Phocas will guide the way.

On May 8, the city and at least 15 other organizations banded together to launch “The Nest,” a digital learning laboratory at Camp North End on Statesville Road. Equipped with free gigabit-speed internet service, The Nest will serve as a community gathering space and learning resource for neighbors and students.

Phocas is director of energy and sustainability for the City of Charlotte. What’s happening in the North End, he said in an interview before the launch, was shaped by a city delegation visit to Barcelona, three years ago.

“Barcelona is known as one of the smartest cities in the world, and they have a smart/innovation district there called 22@,” Phocas said. “A lot of what we’re doing in the North End Smart District is modeled on what they’re doing.” Located in a formerly blighted industrial area,  Barcelona’s thriving 22@ now hosts more than two dozen tech initiatives that respond to community needs — parking, gardening irrigation, energy efficiency, and information for tourism, for example.

Phocas’ simple definition of a ‘smart city’ is one that uses data technology and collaboration to solve urban problems.

“Collaboration is fundamental to what we’re trying to do here,” Phocas said. “When the Smart City movement got started, it was an industry-led effort. So folks like IBM in particular were creating new technologies that they wanted to sell to cities and to other companies. And the first foray was not very successful. What you’re seeing now is a realization by people in the space that it can’t be technology on its own. You’ve got to bring multiple partners in to achieve your goals, and one of those partners has to be the community, the residents that you’re serving. So where the city plays a large role in this, we can’t do it on our own. We need partners like Envision Charlotte, we need the technology partners like Duke Energy or Cisco or IBM, we need the city departments who often have the funding and the expertise to do projects. And most importantly we need our residents at the table, because they’re the ones we’re serving.

“The motto that we have for the Smart District is that we want to build with our residents, and not for the residents, meaning we just don’t want to put technology out in the public domain that isn’t serving a community’s goal. The North End Smart District has eight distinct neighborhoods within it, and each of those neighborhoods has leadership…. So city staff reached out to those folks to tell them what the idea was, what the vision was, and some potential project ideas. And then we worked over several meetings to get their feedback. We tweaked the ideas and visions and we have five, what we call kick-start projects — as opposed to pilot projects — that we are rolling out in the Smart District.”

The Nest is one of the five projects. The other four:

    • a Smart Homes project to help residents understand their energy bills and then use data and technology to reduce them, in partnership with Duke Energy, Amazon, and Intel
    • a Healthy Communities project to create healthier diets and styles of life, using less packaged and processed food, which results in less solid waste going into landfills
    • a project with CATS, the Charlotte Area Transportation System, to create better mobility and access for North End residents to the Blue Line
    • a project designed to generate a healthier, affordable, consistent supply of food to residents of the neighborhoods, in an area that could be described as a food desert.

In a launch ceremony for The Nest, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said it resulted from thinking that looks forward, and from an effort to create spaces that people enjoy.

“We could always be a city of a suburban model,” Lyles said. “But the people on the Charlotte City Council have stepped up and said, ‘no, that’s not enough. It’s not enough to continue what we’ve always done. We’ve got to prepare for the future and the way we’re doing it is by looking at every part of the neighborhoods in the community, and bringing back what was original and truthful about it.’

“We’re acknowledging our history. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good,” Lyles said. “But we’re willing right now as a city council to talk about it openly. And that’s what I see all of us doing today, talking about what can be the future, and what is going to happen…. We’ve collaborated, we’ve been innovative, we’ve been inclusive, we’ve talked about building connections. And what I believe that means is that all of us today stand bound together, in a way that we can be proud of.”

Organizations behind ‘The Nest’

ATCO Properties, BLKTECHCLT, Digital Charlotte, Google Fiber, Hygge, Red Ventures Road to Hire, TechCLT, and the eight neighborhoods of the North End Smart District: Optimist Park, Lockwood, Graham Heights, Druid Hills, Greenville, Park at Oaklawn, Brightwalk, and Genesis Park.

Above: Mayor Vi Lyles with North End residents at the May 8 opening of ‘The Nest.’ Photo by Andrew Au.