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Smart City Solutions: Michigan’s Industries Embrace Digital World

Energy, telecom and health care are key players in delivering efficient services to communities

By Dawson Bell

It is impossible not to marvel at the tools that technology has put into the hands of consumers in the 21st century. Smartphone apps locate the nearest pizza joint, map the journey to its door, and measure the number of calories burned to get there. Automotive technology removes human error from parallel parking and lane changes. Cloud-connected devices remotely control home appliances and security cameras and send alerts to watches and phones.

The pace of change is dazzling.

Another technological revolution, less visible to consumers but equally transformative, is also underway — the development of complex systems to connect devices and deploy the infrastructure necessary to power and integrate them into daily life. Some fall under the near-universal linkage of physical objects, or the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Others are more straightforward building projects, e.g., the expansion of broadband internet and the proliferation of charging stations for electric vehicles.

The Detroit region is a hotbed of activity in this wave of technological innovation necessary to connect smart cities. Here is a look at some of what is happening in different industry sectors:


Technology holds the promise — and has already delivered — significant efficiencies in energy consumption. Increased utilization of electric vehicles, which automakers regard as inevitable, presage a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels. Smart, connected, electrical grids deliver less costly, more reliable electricity.

But the transition will involve significant investment, said Liesl Clark, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council. Deploying sufficient charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) — necessary to allay EV user concerns about getting stranded — is a challenge, Clark said. But one she believes will be met by the combined forces of vehicle manufacturers, utilities and government agencies.

Camilo Serna, DTE Energy’s vice president of corporate strategy, notes the transition to EVs will increase demand for electricity. But Serna said the company is hopeful the costs will be minimized. One distinct re-fueling advantage EVs have, he points out, is that it can be performed when the vehicle is not in use, during off-peak, and less expensive, power generation periods.

DTE and other utilities will have a role in easing the transition, Serna said, by working with customers to understand the needs and opportunities of EV use, and working to build out necessary infrastructure. That means incorporating charging technology on the residential level, and increasing the availability of so-called Level 2 charging stations (those at which an EV can recharge more quickly) outside of the home.

Of the 621 Level 2 charging stations currently operating in Michigan, more than half (364) are in DTE’s Southeast Michigan service area.


Weisong Shi, a professor of computer science at Wayne State University (WSU), believes the future is connected. Devices for transit, health and safety (and almost everything else) have the potential to generate data that can be compiled, analyzed and utilized, he said.

“These days are coming very fast,” Shi said, limited only by human imagination and the reality that some will require speculative investment.

Telecom giant Comcast is making some of the latter in Detroit, one of the early regions selected for the rollout of its IoT project called MachineQ. The infrastructure, planned to eventually cover most of the city of Detroit, will allow users to collect and transmit data to the cloud, without massive upfront investment or power requirements, said Alex Khorram, Comcast’s vice president for business development.

The potential uses for MachineQ are openended, Khorram said, but are aimed mostly at low-power applications. Transmitters installed in municipal water systems, for instance, could relay information about leaks and pressure failures for years without battery replacement.

Khorram said the company’s goal is to create a system that potential users will regard as “a sandbox,” where they can unleash their imaginations to address solutions for the city’s needs.


Connectivity in the delivery of health care treatment and services is another area for opportunity. Joseph Jankowski is a senior advisor at Henry Ford Health System’s Innovation Institute, which is testing and deploying new technologies to improve patient satisfaction, streamline the delivery of care, and contain costs.

At Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital, for example, medical staff implemented widespread deployment of proprietary communications technology, developed in conjunction with Detroit-based tech firm Vision IT, that allows providers to more readily address patient needs and share information internally. Jankowski said CareTrail gives medical professionals a new way to securely communicate with each other in real-time in ways not possible through traditional medical record-keeping.

WSU’s Shi, collaborating with university colleagues and various outside agencies, is working on an experimental program  to connect emergency medical responders directly to treatment centers. The prototype, dubbed STREMS, would allow EMS workers to transmit patient information — such as an EKG reading — prior to arrival at the hospital.

Shi hopes to obtain funding for a full-blown clinical trial of STREMS, one of dozens of initiatives being developed by WSU’s Wireless Health initiative in the coming year.

Across the region, technological innovation is shaping the world in both obvious and unseen ways: parking garages are wired for EV charging, while looking at a future with less demand for parking space; utility towers serve double and triple duty as transmitters of information about traffic and crime; and new construction, like Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert’s 800foot tower at the site of the old J.L. Hudson’s store in Detroit is poised to become both the tallest and smartest building in the city. In the new Detroit, technology is everywhere, and, increasingly, it is connected.

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.