Atlanta BeltLine Will Soon Be Home to Smart AgTech Pods
Around the world, urban populations are rising. Metro Atlanta, for example, is projected to double by the year 2040. This rapid growth puts pressure on cities in terms of resources like food, water, housing and more.
Technology, particularly in the category of smart cities, can provide solutions to some of these challenges. But innovation needs the opportunity to test itself, to iterate until we know what works and what local government should spend time and money investing in.
A coalition of Atlanta public and private organizations are offering up a new opportunity for startups to test solutions for food shortage. Selected startups will be able to pilot their products and solutions in smart “living lab” containers along the highly-trafficked Atlanta BeltLine.
“The goal of this is to see how we can bring our food closer to home,” explained Amol Naik, Chief Resiliency Officer for the City of Atlanta. Naik recently participated in a panel discussing the agtech project at the Technology Association of Georgia’s IoT Converge event.
The City of Atlanta is just one partner in the coalition helping to launch the project. The Metro Atlanta Chamber, Invest Atlanta, the BeltLine, and Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility company owned by Southern Company, are also leading the charge.
“Public-private partnerships are really the key to making smart cities work,” says Cynthia Curry, the Metro Atlanta Chamber (MAC) Director of IoT. She explains that the city really began to focus on collaborating between organizations with the launch of IoT.ATL last year, a focused think tank of engaged stakeholders including all the project participants.
The much-talked about “Internet-of-Things”, or IoT, simply means developing physical products that talk to each other, allowing for better efficiency in operations, collection of data, and real-time analytics. Think smart traffic lights that talk to your car so it knows when to move, or gun sensors that can alert police headquarters when an officer in the field has fired.
These smart living labs — three on the Eastside Trail and three on the Westside — will be 20 square feet and use hydroponics (which allows for a 90 percent reduction in water usage versus traditional soil), LED lighting, and a controllable climate to minimize their energy use and maximize their efficiency.
Each container can hold multiple agtech solutions, and Curry says they have not placed a limit on the amount of startups they will accept into the pilot. They have committed to a minimum of two Metro Atlanta-area companies, but will source the remainder from around the country and globe.
Startup applications open this week and will be accepted until November. The companies will be chosen in December by a panel of judges including representatives from all the participating organizations.
The actual pilots will kick off in February 2019 to coincide with Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Michael Britt, Vice President of Southern Company’s Energy Innovation Center, explained that the timeline is intended to generate maximum visibility for the startups and the project. In 2017, at least 2.3 million walked along the BeltLine, and the attraction is sure to see heavy foot traffic during Super Bowl week.
“This brings visibility to Atlanta as a center for smart agriculture and smart technology,” said Britt.
Naik also shared that the location of the containers was intentional to address inequality issues that the changing demographics in BeltLine-adjacent neighborhoods are exacerbating. One report conducted by Georgia Tech researchers last year found that housing prices near the BeltLine rose 40 to 68 percent over four years, much faster than anywhere else in the city. Neighborhoods on the Westside have been some of the hardest hit.
“This pilot will show how we can use smart city technology to push against the forces of gentrification,” said Naik during the panel. All of the participants agree that they would like to find a way to distribute the food grown in the labs to local residents, though the exact mechanism has yet to be determined.
The pilot will run for 12 months once it kicks off. Each startup will receive local mentors to get them connected to the city’s innovation ecosystem, as well as additional resources (they do not have to relocate to Atlanta during the pilot). Following the conclusion of the project, Curry says they hope to have found solutions that can actually be scaled to help address food insecurity issues in a growing city.
The IoT.ATL coalition hopes to continue to host a different smart city project every year, with the overarching theme being one of equity and inclusion. Curry says the aim is to develop a reputation of Atlanta as a place where cutting-edge smart city technologies can thrive — and actually carry out that mission.
“Most European cities have a place where startups can test their technologies on a small-scale,” she says. “This is our version of that.”
“Invest Atlanta’s Demonstration Project provides startups with opportunities for proof of concept, which can be helpful in a critical stage of a startup’s life cycle,” says Dr. Eloisa Klementich, President and CEO of Invest Atlanta. “Engaging the next generation of agricultural technology startups in the IoT.ATL AgTech Challenge gives entrepreneurs the chance to test and validate their technologies over 12 months in a real-life urban setting. Our partnerships with entrepreneurs have the potential to not only to improve our city’s health, environment and economy, but also to change the world.”