Investments in digital engagement and smart city initiatives foster a more equitable Charlotte – Knight Foundation

Investments in digital engagement and smart city initiatives foster a more equitable Charlotte

A $1.2 million investment in several digital engagement initiatives is helping connect the people of Charlotte and build a more inclusive community. 

In an increasingly connected world, technology can serve as an effective tool to strengthen civic engagement. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has committed more than $1.2 million in digital inclusion, immersive technology and smart city projects in Charlotte that put people at the center of the decision-making process for community development. 

Knight Foundation’s latest investments in the space of technology innovation in Charlotte Includes support for a Smart City Fellow who will lead local smart city strategies, efforts to bridge Charlotte’s digital divide, a digital platform to help residents visualize growth opportunities for the city and several projects that use immersive technology to recreate Charlotte’s rich history. 

“Immersive technologies and smart city strategies directly play a role in building a more informed and equitable Charlotte,” said Charles Thomas, director for Knight’s Charlotte program. “By using tech to experience and learn about our city’s history, for example, individuals can become more engaged and more committed to Charlotte’s future. Likewise, smart city strategies ensure that city services effectively serve Charlotte’s residents, and ensuring that everyone is connected is a key part of our work.” 

Here are more details about the grantees and their initiatives: 

  • Foundation for the Carolinas ($458,000): To support digital literacy efforts for students and parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County’s Central District 1. After the grant was disbursed, the Foundation for the Carolinas directed the funds to support Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Project L.I.F.T, a public-private program aimed at boosting academic success in the Charlotte Mecklenburg County School District. Project L.I.F.T. provided 1,600 laptops to students and several digital literacy training programs for parents across the district as a response to the pandemic and to meet the needs of online learning. 
  • City of Charlotte, Smart City Fellow ($245,000): To support a Smart City Fellow for the City of Charlotte who will help increase local smart city strategies that boost equity and engagement. The Fellow will help create a strategic framework to guide Charlotte’s smart city strategies for the next three to five years. The strategic framework will allow smart city work to continue beyond the tenure of the Smart City Fellow and ensure a structured approach to accelerate the work.  
  • University of North Carolina Charlotte, Immersive Visual Data ($239,871): To develop a digital platform that uses visual data to put residents at the center of the decision-making process in the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan guides how the City of Charlotte will grow and invest over the next 20 years. By using an extended reality platform, residents will be able to visually explore growth options and impacts in the City through visuals, including 3D visualizations, augmented reality and virtual reality. The data project allows residents, including under-represented groups, to play an active role in the development of the Comprehensive Plan.
  • Johnson C. Smith University ($75,000): To help the university’s library create a proof of concept for “A Virtual Sense of Place,” a web-based augmented reality exhibit that tells the story of development in the Historic West End. The project merges historic artifacts and cutting-edge technology to recreate historical African-American urban spaces in Charlotte, including those that were razed through urban renewal in the 1960s. The result will bring to life stories of displacement but also of rebuilding and resilience, while engaging residents to learn about and participate in the Historic West End’s current development process. 
  • City of Charlotte, North End Smart District ($60,000): To create a phone application that will improve data collection to enhance the visitor experience at the Urban Arboretum Trail, a collection of parklets and open spaces that preserve Charlotte’s tree canopy. The app will be developed by the City of Charlotte’s Urban Designer Center and Potions and Pixels, a nonprofit that utilizes games to create social impact. The initiative aims to engage youth to solicit ideas for the phone application and will pair coding experts with people interested in career pathways in coding. 
  • North End Community Coalition ($50,000): To support the development of programming and hiring of a community manager at the North End Smart District Tech Center (NEST) to improve digital literacy. Proposed by the North End Community Coalition, the NEST is slated to open in Charlotte’s North End Smart District in 2020 as a central tech hub for residents and to support continuous smart cities initiatives in Charlotte. Knight support will allow for technology programming that will improve digital literacy for residents. It will also assist in identifying community needs and objectives to better design smart city programs that cater to local needs. Furthermore, the NEST’s community manager will help establish the center as a technology hub where locals can learn more about smart city and tech initiatives, network and exchange ideas. 
  • University of North Carolina Charlotte, Virtual Neighborhood Walk ($48,109): To develop virtual walking tours around historic neighborhoods in the City of Charlotte that engage residents with their cities’ history. Knight’s investment supports research by faculty and students at the University of North Carolina Charlotte to develop the online platform, the collection of historical images, video, audio and other media, and collaboration with consultants to ensure the application of cutting-edge virtual reality and digital mapping technology. The project is a collaboration with the Levine Museum of the New South, which will recreate the historic Brooklyn neighborhood; Johnson C. Smith University which will focus on the Historic West End; and Charlotte Planning which will look at the Urban Arboretum Trail. In each case, the tours will be conducted remotely via an online platform that will serve as a one-stop portal that brings Charlotte’s rich history to life through mapping, web visualization and storytelling.
  • Queens University of Charlotte ($44,550): To help the Knight School of Communication’s Digital Charlotte program with advancing digital inclusion in the North End Smart District providing digital literacy training and laptops to residents. Knight’s investment will allow Digital Charlotte to purchase 21 laptops and 21 hotspots to expand the North End Community Coalition’s Technology Lending Library, which lends laptops and WiFi hotspots to residents. The Digital Charlotte program will work in conjunction with NECC to conduct a series of digital literacy workshops for North End residents. 

“What we’re seeing in Charlotte is unique in the country,” says Lilian Coral, Knight’s director for national strategy and technology innovation. “Charlotte is modernizing not just the way it approaches city services, but also the way it engages residents. Cutting-edge technology is playing a key role in bringing in people into the development process of community strategies to ensure equitable opportunities, ensuring that their needs are met and that they take a decisive role in the City’s growth” 

Knight leverages economic growth in Charlotte to support the evolution of the Historic West End into an inclusive and thriving residential, commercial and university corridor. Since 2008, Knight has committed more than $58 million in Charlotte, including investing in the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s community development strategy to increase economic opportunity across the city and helping Project L.I.F.T. launch the Civic Tech Experience, which provides digital skill-building for Queen City residents. The latest round of investments seeks to strengthen digital inclusion in all Charlotte neighborhoods and to keep Charlotteans in strategic conversations about the city’s present and future. 

Image (top) by Grant Baldwin Photography