Fairfax County draws an innovative future that will deliver for generations to come
By Kevin Ebi, Smart Cities Council
In many ways, Fairfax County, Virginia, has a lot for others to envy. It is home to seven Fortune 500 companies. It has one of the highest median incomes in the U.S. Pick almost any measure and you will usually find it among the leaders.
But smart cities — or counties, as the case may be — don’t rest on their laurels. Fairfax County, a 2018 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge finalist, used its Readiness Workshop to identify steps it can take to improve mobility, optimize its street infrastructure and reduce obesity.
During the interactive event, attendees learned about smart cities principles and best practices, and explored case studies of projects that are delivering results elsewhere. Then they took part in smaller working groups to apply that knowledge to deliver meaningful results for the community — tomorrow and for generations to come.
“One of the core values of smart cities is to provide services without stealing from future generations,” said Fairfax County Chairman Sharon Bulova. “Sometimes we are concerned that generations are leaving behind challenges and problems that the next generation is going to be saddled with. … We will focus on a common goal for setting up future generations for success.”
A smart cities beacon for the U.S.
Workshop participants described the future of the community they wanted to build, concepts that were put together in an infographic (shown below). They emphasized using innovations to improve the well-being of all residents, lifting all regardless of their neighborhood or situation.
Former Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson urged the more than 200 attendees to think of Fairfax County as a potential showcase for the rest of the country.
“We want to be on the forefront of developing smart communities,” Jackson said. “The world is moving forward. Internationally, there are smart communities. We want Virginia to be that beacon in the continental U.S.”
Like virtually every metropolitan area, Fairfax County would like to make it easier for people to get to where they need to go more efficiently. The Washington area ranks as one of the most congested in the world.
Using data to understand where people need to commute and why they make the choices they do is key to developing an effective strategy. And as Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny pointed out, “Everyone is a consumer of transportation.”
The mobility breakout group encouraged the county to consider commuters’ mindsets. If someone has to drive to a Metro stop, will they get out of their car to use Metro or will they just continue to drive? The answer to that question could have a dramatic impact on how well certain solutions will work.
They also suggested the county look at potential partnerships to streamline mobility options in a region where one commuter, for example, may need to use three different parking apps.
Smarter street infrastructure
It’s much less expensive to fix issues before they are issues, and Fairfax County is looking to smarten its street infrastructure, in part, to identify problems well before they become problems.
Public Works and Environmental Services Director James Patteson told participants there’s a significant opportunity to do better. He said a problem that costs $1 to prevent could cost $7 to fix or — worse yet — $70 to rebuild after a failure.
In the short term, the group suggested the county look at its own fiber networks, buildings and other assets to make streets smarter and safer. Longer term, they suggested the county forge partnerships with utilities and the private sector to make more substantial progress faster.
Promoting healthy living
Nationwide, obesity is responsible for as many as 400,000 deaths per year. While Fairfax County does better than average in measures of the percentage of residents who are overweight, it does want to make an effort to do even better. And the county can play a role.
“The majority of health does not happen inside a clinic,” said Dr. Sallie Ann Keller, Director and Professor of Statistics for the Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory within the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech University. “It happens where you live, learn, work and play every day of your life.”
Early research suggests that early intervention — helping children adopt healthy habits from the start — can have the biggest impact, and data may be able to direct the county’s efforts so that they’re even more effective. But that kind of data can be very sensitive.
The health outcomes working group suggested the county create a data governance group and a data sharing policy with the explicit goal of improving youth health. In addition to getting all organizations that may hold helpful data to collaborate, the group emphasized the need for data policies that protect how the information is used and communicate to the public how it could help save and improve lives.
Kevin Ebi is the Global Managing Editor of the Smart Cities Council, which helps cities become more livable, workable and sustainable. Attend Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley, May 7-9 in Santa Clara, CA.