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By Kate Bell, Program Manager, MiNextCities

Focusing on sustainability and resilience could not come at a more auspicious time here in Michigan.

With climate-related emergencies increasing annually, the release of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, and an unprecedented amount of federal funding available to address these issues through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan, the state is at a juncture where critical need meets critical opportunity. No community is immune to the effects of climate change. And every community, regardless of size, can benefit from a just transition to decarbonization and reaching the state’s ambitious energy goals.

As Michigan moves toward carbon neutrality, forward-looking cities ready to integrate next-generation energy and mobility solutions into their planning and operations will be critical. The MiNextCities program, a new initiative announced by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), aims to help Michigan cities do just that.

What Is MiNextCities?

“MiNextCities works to equitably distribute access to, and benefits from, the technology solutions among residents and regions, particularly those chronically underserved and most at-risk.”

Spearheaded by NextEnergy, a Detroit-based leader in demonstrating and piloting clean energy and mobility technologies, and Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy consulting firm, MiNextCities is a first-of-its-kind program that seeks to identify and deploy tailored solutions that improve energy efficiency, reliability, sustainability, and quality of life in Michigan municipalities.

Powered by a $3.5 million state grant, MiNextCities is a central component of EGLE’s Catalyst Communities Initiative. The program expands upon EGLE’s existing work in providing local public officials with knowledge and resources to prepare for a just transition to decarbonization, albeit with a unique focus: integrating smart city technologies—such as connected LED streetlights, grid-interactive building systems, or advanced energy storage—into community sustainability efforts.

What differentiates MiNextCities from other smart cities initiatives are the program’s three core principles, the first of which is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the sustainability problems our municipalities face. Every community is unique in its history, its needs, and the resources it can use to drive impact. That is why MiNextCities does not enter cities with a technology solution already in mind. Rather, the program centers thoughtful engagement and prioritizes working directly with municipalities—local officials and residents alike—to identify what their greatest sustainability challenges are and how to address them in ways that make the most sense for their budgets and their futures.

MiNextCities is also guided by the belief that smart cities are equitable cities. Access to smart city technologies can often be restricted to the most affluent and privileged, and communities facing the greatest climate and energy risks are frequently the last to fully realize these technologies’ benefits—sometimes after significant damage has already occurred. From the community engagement stage to the deployment phase, MiNextCities works to equitably distribute access to, and benefits from, the technology solutions among residents and regions, particularly those chronically underserved and most at-risk.

The third guiding principle of MiNextCities is that with the right tools, all Michigan cities—not just major population centers or resource-rich areas—can integrate smart energy and mobility solutions into their sustainability initiatives. The challenge is in demonstrating exactly how communities of varying sizes, regions, and demographics can use their resources to design, access, and deploy next-generation technologies that meet their climate and sustainability planning goals.

With these three principles in mind, the MiNextCities program team is working to develop, design, and drive input for an ultimate smart cities roadmap: a consistent process small to midsize Michigan cities can use to craft successful solutions that meet each municipality’s sustainability goals.

Inaugural Communities

The work begins in Dearborn, Flint, and Marquette. Why these three cities?

“The program’s inaugural communities of Dearborn, Flint, and Marquette emerged from this analysis as three cities that represent Michigan’s remarkable diversity of landscapes, residents, and lived experiences.”

To develop a comprehensive smart cities roadmap, it is essential that the program’s proving grounds adequately represent the diversity of our state. The program team considered static, location-based variables such as geographic region and utility service areas along with current population-based indicators like racial and ethnic demographics.

The MiNextCities team was also tasked with incorporating social and environmental justice criteria into the analysis, particularly those aligned with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s Justice40 Initiative that aims to have at least 40 percent of energy, environment, and infrastructure investments accrue to communities historically and disproportionately impacted by adverse climate, health, and economic impacts. Resources including U.S. Census data, the Department of Energy’s Low-Income Energy Affordability Data set, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool enabled the team to consider additional factors like linguistic isolation, household income spent on energy costs, and pollutant exposure.

The program’s inaugural communities of Dearborn, Flint, and Marquette emerged from this analysis as three cities that represent Michigan’s remarkable diversity of landscapes, residents, and lived experiences. Their participation will sketch out a smart cities roadmap that can provide Michigan cities with best practices for incorporating smart cities technologies into their climate planning activities.

What’s to Come

Over the course of the next two years, the MiNextCities team will work with local project groups to identify primary issue areas and implement deployment strategies for the smart city technologies selected by each participating city. The team will collect and analyze deployment data and consistently solicit community input to assess the impacts of each technology in real-time. At the end of the program, the metrics, assessments, and lessons learned from Dearborn, Flint, and Marquette will contribute to a smart city’s readiness and deployment guide for cities across the state to utilize when making plans for an equitable and sustainable future.

The moment for building equitable, forward-looking, and sustainable cities is here. And with programs like MiNextCities, Michigan cities can lead the way.


** This article was originally published in The Review: The official magazine of the Michigan Municipal League, September/October 2022, Volume 95, Number 5 ** [View the PDF]
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