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January 13, 2019 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Latest Chattanooga smart community initiative builds on city’s momentum

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on the new “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative” and the key role that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga plays in the initiative.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Chattanooga has clearly established national and international brands as a thriving hotspot for entrepreneurship and innovation. One only needs to look at recognition in 2018 alone from organization’s like CNBC, Business Insider, Inc. magazine,, and SmartAsset to validate the point. And, those build on similar citations throughout much of the past decade.

What’s behind this evolution from the city that the late Walter Cronkite, the well-respected CBS-TV Anchor, described 50 years ago as the “dirtiest city in America”? It’s a combination of vision, strategy, execution and collaboration that was propelled forward when the late Jack Lupton led the effort to build the Tennessee Aquarium.

More recently, the city’s visionary utility provider – EPB – made a bold decision a decade ago to modernize its electric grid and add smart meters which required a communications infrastructure. As a result, Chattanooga became the first city in the country in 2010 to offer gigabit internet service to all of its citizens, and “Gig City” became a popular nickname.

Just a few years later, Chattanooga became an early believer in the work of the Brookings Institute, establishing the first Innovation District for a mid-sized city in America. Today, it is one of the largest cities in the U.S. that has created an Innovation District without a major research-oriented university or federal lab.

Now, with its world-class network and recognized focus on innovation comes the latest effort named the “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative.” Announced in mid-October, the initiative includes the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), EPB, Erlanger Hospital, Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments, CO.LAB, and The Enterprise Center. The goal is for each of the partners to bring its own expertise to the mix and, in doing so, continue Chattanooga’s role as a leader in technology research.

As stated in a promotional flyer, the mission is to “cultivate an ecosystem of academia, industry and community to develop and apply innovative solutions to authentic challenges in Chattanooga while leveraging our community assets in order to thrive in the new economy.”

One of the key leaders in implementing the Collaborative’s vision is Reinhold Mann, a former colleague during our respective days at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Today, he’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research at UTC.

“The University has aspirations to increase its research profile,” Mann told us recently. It’s a building role he understands well from his days at ORNL, other U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, and Battelle.

“We are taking a practical and realistic approach to how we do it,” Mann added, noting that the Collaborative aligns very nicely with the revised strategy for UTC’s SimCenter that he helped develop during a two-year period as its Interim Director. The SimCenter is focused on interdisciplinary research, and that concept is central to the strategy for accelerating the Collaborative.

Responsibility for coordinating much of the work of the Collaborative is assigned to the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP), a new program established at UTC in mid-2018. Its Director is Mina Sartipi, a Professor of Computer Science. Incidentally, her husband is George Yu, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Variable Inc., one of the early technology start-ups during Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial renaissance.

As the name implies, the “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative” is clearly a partnership with each founding organization bringing its expertise to the table. Yet, from conversations over the last few years with Hays and the recent interview with Mann, it is clear that UTC is an integral player in advancing the Collaborative and, to make that happen, CUIP is at the forefront of the effort.

“We’re building this Center to leverage all of the colleges,” Mann told us, adding that the work will also involve other universities within the UT system and beyond. “We’re looking at data-driven research. Our interest is any kind of technology that will advance cities of the future.”

NEXT: More about CUIP.

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