Welcome to Chattanooga - the world's smartest city
Chattanooga isn’t a place that often looks back these days.
The Gig City – ‘a playground for pioneers’ as it proudly proclaims itself - is heading towards its connected future at amazing speed.
Mayor Andy Berke says it wasn’t always like that.
“This is a city that hung onto the past for too long,” he told BusinessCloud. “In the 1970s our city died because we were reliant on the foundries and steel mills, industries that were dying.”
Chattanooga is in Tennessee and has been reborn by an almost evangelical drive to become the world’s smartest city. It has even been described as the city that was “saved by the internet”.
Its population of 175,000 people is the first in the western hemisphere to be offered 10-gigabit-per-second fibre internet.
Berke is passionate about the smart city concept and its importance to Chattanooga.
“We’ve taken the ball and run with it,” he said. “To be a successful city we have to have a diverse set of industries that are going to be vibrant from here to the next 20 years. That is why having a smart city is so important.
“We have an automobile sector and financial services and healthcare. We also know that information tech is going to be a part of every industry for the foreseeable future.
“We want to have those companies here that will be driving some of that growth.”
Super-speed connectivity has helped attract companies like Volkswagen into the city. A university study revealed the service had helped deliver between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs over the first six years. The city’s employment rate has halved in three years to four per cent.
The fibre network driving Gig City was installed by Chattanooga’s publicly owned electric power system EPB to “support the most advanced smart grid system” in the USA, and it stretches across a 600 square mile area.
The initial cost of the project has been put at around $330m – about a third of which came from federal stimulus funds, the rest through municipal bonds.
It is money Berke believes has been well spent. “Smart cities provide a whole quality of life and a more reliable environment for businesses,” he said.
“They allow people to access services to ensure they move about the city in a more efficient way and connect up with fellow residents in the best way possible.”
The Gig City concept isn’t just about the smart grid – pivotal though that is. There are physical signs of its impact across the city, no more so than in its bourgeoning ‘innovation district’ – a 140-acre regeneration drive in the heart of downtown Chattanooga.
Banners proudly welcome visitors to the area, which was established in January 2015 and which is already home to a host of accelerators, incubators and start-ups.
At the corner of Market and 11th Streets, The Edney Innovation Center, a 10-storey building renovated at a cost of $4.4m, sits as a focal point of the emerging district.
Long-standing Chattanooga developer Ken Hays heads the Edney Center project, which has already become home to a host of start-up companies being forged by young entrepreneurs, as well as a public-private accelerator.
Hays describes the innovation district is a “collaboration bringing creative people together” and the centre as “a place for all kinds of anything that is to do with innovation”.
He believes there is no doubt that the super-fast connectivity is a big benefit in attracting young entrepreneurs to the city, as well as stopping the traditional drain of local talent to bigger cities.
“It’s bringing in a lot of young people who went away to college,” he said. “They now feel comfortable coming back to their own home town.
“There is a great, great sense of pride in Chattanooga that the community is really the most connected and fastest connected city in the world.”
Sheldon Grizzle is a member of Chattanooga’s growing community of tech entrepreneurs. Originally from Boca Raton, Florida, the two-time All-American soccer player arrived in the city to study applied psychology and stayed.
Founder of The Company Lab, one of Chattanooga’s start-up accelerators, he is now a managing partner of web and mobile technology business Spartan Ventures, which has staff based across the USA.
He said: “I firmly believe Chattanooga is in the position to do things that very few other cities are positioned to do in the US and maybe even the world, because of its mid-size nature.”
The smart gird and ultra-fast internet it delivers are at the heart of his own business operation which relies on connectivity with remote workers and clients based in States all over the country.
“The really beautiful thing for us is we never have to worry about reliability or downtime, or the day-to-day workflow,” Grizzle explained.
“If we weren’t connected to such a highly reliable, high speed and genuinely very affordable solution like that we just couldn’t operate our business like we do.
“When we first started The Company Lab we would tell people we were in Chattanooga and we’d get the look, ‘Why would anyone want to start a business in Chattanooga?’
“Now I can go anywhere in the country and there is always somebody who says they’ve heard such great things about Chattanooga.”
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