Ron Ponder: ‘Smart cities’ need smart leadership

It might seem that, all of a sudden, the whole world, including our community, is talking about “smart” cities.

What is a smart city, and why does it seem everybody in Canton and Stark County is charging full steam ahead to make us a smart community?

There are as many definitions of smart cities as there are people talking about them. Broadly speaking, a smart community is one that is using technology to become safer, more efficient, more productive and more economically sustainable while maximizing existing infrastructure.

Many cities and communities around the world are attempting to make themselves smart, and many of them have been successful, to varying degrees. These communities are seeing benefits of job creation, efficiency and safety while increasing quality of life issues.

Those are admirable goals to achieve, and it’s no wonder that Canton/Stark County are attempting to do the same. And, fortunately, in our quest to be a smart community, we have several advantages that many of the other cities/communities don’t have: allies who are thinking ahead.

First, we have a Kirt Conrad, CEO of the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. Conrad is a visionary who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. He constantly shares his vision as he builds his agency into one the world is noticing.

What is Conrad’s vision? For Stark County to be a model of how renewable energy can be generated, used and stored to support a local community in a sustainable manner while expanding job opportunities for displaced and under-employed county residents.

While being the leader of SARTA, he has used grants and other forms of financing to update his fleet of buses to alternative energy sources, and he has vast plans to re-invigorate SARTA’s backyard in Canton’s southeast section.

His ideas and successes have become noticed internationally, as he has been invited to speak in France, Canada and many locations in the United States. In his presentations, he talks about leveraging public/private partnerships as a major impetus to smart city status. He notes the urgent need to build and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including electric grids, sewer and water systems, bridges and highways, yet he questions if that can be done absent political and community leadership and their will to do such.

It is appearing more and more like our community, Stark County and northeast Ohio, has those attributes.

Leaders with vision

Tom Bernebei, mayor of Canton, says, “a ‘smart city’ is a city that embraces technology. We in Canton, through numerous IT and engineering projects, are constantly upgrading our technology and becoming ‘smarter.’ This is an ongoing challenge and opportunity.

“Cities need smarter infrastructure, more energy efficiency, better communications and more sustainability — all of which technology can provide.”

Bernebei points out that Canton’s Innovation District is an example of a “smart” public/private partnership: “bringing high-speed internet connectivity (100 gigabyte) to our downtown for economic development.”

Another ally in Canton/Stark County’s voyage to become a smart community is the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Its president, Denny Saunier, says, “We have an exciting opportunity to align our public and private sectors for a prosperous economic future.

“We can start to reverse the trends identified in ‘Strengthening Stark’ through achievable, actionable steps that not only make us more prosperous, but safer and more secure.”

Saunier was referring to the study, sponsored by the Stark Economic Development Board, which concluded Stark County is getting older and poorer with many people leaving for greener pastures.

Another ally in Canton/Stark becoming a smart community is the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the coming Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village. This billion-dollar project, which is now back on track, will bring thousands of people to our area and will be a showcase for the rest of the world.

David Baker, president and CEO of the Hall, notes the contribution of Johnson Controls, and says, “Johnson Controls shares our values and vision and has become ingrained in our community. We are proud to support them in all they do to spearhead change and alter the landscape of Stark County in a way that will make it safer, aligned and thrive forever.”

Technology pacesetter

Johnson Controls, known for its technology, is another ally in making us a smart community. Its massive sponsorship support for the Hall and our area is a direct indication of its belief something positive is going on here.

Lisa Brown, senior national director of municipal infrastructure and smart Cities for Johnson Controls, will be the keynote speaker at the Chamber of Commerce’s Stark Forum on Dec. 11. The main topic will be smart communities.

“Many communities are leveraging smart street poles and water infrastructure technology to assist with planning, including traffic and parking management, as well as evacuation planning, air-quality monitoring, icing awareness and so much more,” Brown said.


Part of Johnson Controls’ presence in Stark includes becoming closer to our community, our culture and our citizens. The company has dispatched a team to our community that has fanned out to educate others and to offer technology and support. They have met with municipalities, school systems and private businesses. One of the company’s engineers, Jenny Richardson, has joined the Greater Stark County Urban League as a board member and has been involved in other positive community-based activities.

It appears all of the needed partners in this public/private partnership are working together for the same purpose: to make us a smart community.

Conrad points out that public policy is needed to help communities become smart cities. Just as Conrad, Bernebei, Saunier, the county commissioners and our state-level elected officials are important to the process, other communities might not be as fortunate. Local leaders must possess the vision that, so far, our national leaders don’t seem to have as they have been mired in self-survival and the survival of their respective political parties. That leaves a void in many communities that local leaders are called to fill — as ours are doing.

And just as SARTA, under the leadership of Conrad, had to take on more upfront risk in its successful ventures that allowed the private sector time to work out a business model, the same has to occur in all plans for a smart city.

When you have the diversified support that Canton/Stark County enjoys, paired with the existence of the Hall of Fame, our community will benefit. But more than anything, our citizens, from all economic levels, also will benefit.

Stark County is about to show the world how to do that.