Connecting an Innovation Ecosystem: The Future of Smart Cities in the Arctic

Tina Pidgeon, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Senior Vice President, Governmental Affairs, GCI


Like most people involved in moving the U.S. Arctic forward, I attend many Arctic conferences.  They are a wonderful place to hear all the great ideas and possibilities surrounding the Arctic. It’s inspiring to learn from the many companies and entrepreneurs who are engaged in thoughtful and responsible innovation. Yet, so often I walk away wondering what more can we do to advance these ideas. And taking that to heart, I ask what my own company, GCI, can do to help advance technology in a way that is effective and lasting and improves people’s lives with the aid of their tablet or smartphone.

A panel at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsö this past January got me thinking about Smart Cities.  “Smart Cities” is an idea that has been around for over a decade, and one with which many are familiar. Recent successful initiatives have been undertaken in major metropolitans like New York and Los Angeles, as well as in smaller cities like Gjesdal, Norway and Anchorage, Alaska. So what is the potential to build smart cities in the Arctic to improve quality of life, safety and increase efficiency?

While I am no “Smart Cities” expert, I have spent the last 15 years leading policy initiatives for GCI and how to bring ideas to reality. So when I had the opportunity to present on this topic at the 2018 North-by-North festival in Anchorage in April, I dove right in.

While not a definitive list, the following framework on connecting an innovation ecosystem represents some of the important building blocks to make Arctic Smart Cities a reality.

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  • Define goals. Like any good initiative, understanding and defining the goal is critical. Looking at being a Smart City through a technology lens, taking steps to become one can improve the quality of life for residents through connected devices and sensors used to collect, analyze, and share information for community value.  It is important to determine: what does being a Smart City mean to your community?  What benefits are sought and will be valued by the residents?  The answers will differ from community to community. 
  • Assess technology. The foundation for any smart city initiative is broadband, so it is important to assess the infrastructure and services that are available. Many Alaska communities are actually ahead of others in the accessible broadband capabilities. Some 70 percent of all Alaskans have access to 1 GIG. To provide some perspective, less than 20 percent of Americans in the rest of the continental US have access to 1 GIG speeds. Additionally, GCI has deployed more fiber and microwave throughout the U.S. Arctic than any other provider. That means that 91 percent of the population of Alaska has access to broadband speeds of 25Mpbs or more. With those speeds, most communities in Alaska could implement a Smart City initiative, both within and among communities.
  • Research. Part of evaluating an initiative is pulling from relevant research. What can be learned from prior experience and from those that have launched similar initiatives? There are some special considerations in the Arctic like lower population and challenging service conditions.  Though each community will be different when drilling down into the details, two universal considerations are 1) understanding community needs and 2) breaking down silos and sharing data.
  • Exploration. There are many available programs and grants to support building smart cities. Anchorage is participating in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities to use open data to share information, fuel engagement and drive innovation. It also received a grant from the 2016 Smart Growth America for technical assistance to explore discrete projects.
  • Build support. Rallying support within a community helps to promote partnerships and create a shared vision. As an example, the Mat-su Borough has established a vision to use emerging technology to help everyone make better decisions and is looking for ways to improve its data collection, tools and partnerships to build a smart city. 
  • Pilot projects. Pilot projects are a great way to experiment on a small scale and evaluate the feasibility over time. It also allows organizations to look for areas of improvement and explore partnerships. For example, Gjesdal in Norway is piloting an automated bus line.
  • Develop the ecosystem. Another building block is developing the connected ecosystem. Oulu, Finland, sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Finland,” has successfully developed a seamless integration between all the central players related to innovation. From basic infrastructure and services to world class research and support for businesses, all aspects of innovation support are in place. This ecosystem has attracted the tech industry and many start-up companies.  
  • Revisit and refine. Along the road to building a smart city, it is important to also find opportunity to revisit plans and adjust. Are there opportunities to establish public/private partnerships? What are the internal resources available? Who is going to lead? There are dozens of questions to ask and opportunities a long the way to refine and learn from experiences.  
  • Share learning. The final piece, and possibly the most important from a big picture perspective, is to share the learnings and knowledge with other communities. This gives others the opportunity to take these learnings and expand the benefits more broadly.

We can see the possibilities in front of us, in improved safety and efficiencies with smart streetlights, smart metering, and smart transportation to alleviate congestion and even more broadly in broadening opportunities and saving lives through distance learning and telemedicine.  The possibilities and benefits are literally endless. By learning from our neighbors, both in the Arctic and across the globe, and building partnerships between communities, enterprise, and citizens, we can reach the full potential of building smart cities in the Arctic.