From Teslas to terabytes – and what the heck is 5G? – technology is moving fast these days.

Self-driving cars, “smart” traffic lights, and other innovations promise to change our region. And this future is right around the corner.

That’s why about 400 local elected officials, planners, and transportation experts from around the region gathered last week for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s second ConnectATL summit, co-hosted by Georgia DOT.

The event focused on transportation technology and how our local communities can prepare for it and create the quality of life their residents want. Attendees heard from leading national and regional experts about connected technology and the opportunities and challenges to come, including implications for local governments, the workforce, infrastructure, equity, and more.

Here are six takeaways from this year’s ConnectATL summit:

Put People First, Not Technology

New technology like driverless cars and connected traffic signals grabs headlines. But keynote speaker Ashley Hand of consulting firm City Fi said technology should not drive community planning. Instead, communities should determine the future they want and use technology to realize those goals, making sure to put people first.

Autonomous Vehicles Offer Solutions – and New Challenges

The rise of shared, autonomous vehicles promises numerous benefits: the need for fewer parking spaces, safer roads, and more productive commutes, just to name a few. But the new technology brings new challenges. For example, our roads may become more congested as the new technology encourages people to take more trips and as empty cars drive around waiting to pick up their next passenger.

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Regional Collaboration is Key to Ensuring the New Technology is Available to All

Regional collaboration is critical to ensure that new technology, from super-fast 5G wireless connectivity to vehicle charging stations, is widely available in order to avoid a new kind of digital divide.

“How do we get to where we just seamlessly think of the technology as part of the built environment and start providing access to everyone?” Georgia Tech’s Debra Lam said. “I’m hopeful that this collaborative environment can really take us down that path.”

Lam said Georgia Tech’s Smart Communities Challenge is helping ensure that smaller cities like Albany and Chamblee don’t get left behind.

A New Challenge: Technology Cluttering Our Curbs

The curb is getting crowded. E-commerce is bringing more deliveries (and trucks) to the front doors of our homes and businesses. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft mean more cars are picking up and dropping off passengers. Electric, shareable scooters are taking over the sidewalks. And the popularity of walkable development is bringing more pedestrians and bicyclists.

As a result, communities need to rethink the “curb” – the space between streets and storefronts – in order to accommodate the new demand.

Henry County Chairman June Wood in an autonomous Tesla at ConnectATL.
Henry County Chairman June Woods took a ride in an autonomous Tesla at ConnectATL.

Not Your Father’s Job Market

The new technology barreling down the pike will require a highly skilled and nimble workforce. The Atlanta region must take steps to ensure that it has the talent to meet the need. Some of the skills that will be needed are readily apparent – think software developers, coders, and electronics technicians.

But other questions arise, such as planning for the booming “gig economy” in which more and more workers are freelancing their way through a career. Should gig economy workers form guilds or unions to provide healthcare, retirement, and other traditional benefits provided by an employer?

Data Protection is Key as Technology Proliferates

Every community feels under the gun to keep up with technology and get as connected as possible. But without a strong cybersecurity plan in place, this carries enormous risk of a data breach. The new technology, from “smart” sensors on traffic lights to connected devices, creates many new opportunities for cyber-thieves to make mischief.

What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.