Clayton Levins once expected after graduating from the University of Jacksonville that his path would lead him to the pulpit.
He’s proven himself to be a different kind of evangelist, spreading the word in the Jacksonville area about how local governments can use technology to help solve the most pressing issues they face. .
Levins, 30, is the executive director of Smart North Florida, an organization he describes as a “startup for startups.”
“It was an amazing journey,” he said. “I had no idea it would be a landing spot.”
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Google “innovation” with the name of a major city and this internet search will likely return a hit for some sort of center or hub. In Jacksonville, it’s Smart North Florida.
In one of the nonprofit’s most recent initiatives, it created the Neptune Beach Resilience Lab in collaboration with the City of Neptune Beach, with the goal of quantifying the impact of climate change on coastal communities. .
The partnership partnered with StormSensor, a Seattle-based startup, to install technology in March that captures data on how sea level rise affects the ability of stormwater systems to carry rainwater and prevent flooding.
In another use of the sensors, Smart North Florida is working with the state Department of Transportation to deploy technology developed by Trainfo to track rail and automobile traffic at railroad crossings.
Smart North Florida started internally at the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization and became its own standalone organization in 2021 when it hired Levins as executive director last September.
The North Florida OPC provided a two-year financial commitment in the form of seed capital. The first year of support is $75,000.
Smart North Florida also tried this year to get state financial support to expand these organizations statewide, but that ended in a deadlock in the Legislature.
State Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, filed legislation that would have allowed organizations like Smart North Florida to be designated by Enterprise Florida as a “Smart Region Area Center of Excellence.”
Duggan said he decided to file the bill (HB 385) after seeing how the North Florida TPO is using technology through its regional transportation management center to improve traffic flow while collecting data that policymakers can use for their long-term decisions.
“It’s incredibly impressive,” Duggan said. “It’s like NASA’s emergency operations center and mission control rolled into one. The way they’re able to take and synthesize all of this data and make predictions, I found it very intriguing.”
Duggan said it’s a model that can be used in other ways to improve government decision-making and operations.
“They connected the dots, if you will,” he said.
Levins said the government hasn’t kept pace with technological change the way private companies have.
“It’s trying new things,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
His own career has therefore had its share of trying new things.
At the University of Jacksonville, he majored in communications and pitched for the baseball team. After graduating in 2014, he worked as a ministry associate, government affairs manager, community relations coordinator and as an “innovation project specialist” at Dystruptek, a subsidiary of The Haskell Company, before to get to work at Smart North Florida.
Levins said the wide range of possibilities for using technology is what drew him to the position at Smart North Florida. He said that rather than having a career specializing in one area, he sees himself as a generalist who can “learn a little about anything”.
This isn’t the first time Jacksonville has attempted to establish a foothold in tech-inspired development. The city created the Duval County Research and Development Authority in 2008, but plans for a First Coast Technology Park near the University of North Florida never really got off the ground.
Jacksonville had the “Bay Street Innovation Corridor” on the drawing board for a few years. The centerpiece of this corridor would be the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s plan, called Ultimate Urban Circulator, for automated vehicles that can carry passengers at street level as well as on the elevated structure now used for Skyway trains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation provided a $12.5 million grant in 2018 to help JTA complete the Bay Street Innovation Corridor.
Smart North Florida is working with the City of St. Augustine on completing its Smart St. Augustine Master Plan. The city installed solar-powered trash compactors on St. George Street in 2019 and has a ParkStAug app to pay for parking spots using their cell phones.
In Jacksonville, Smart North Florida worked with LISC Jacksonville on innovation in the property valuation process for homeowners in the Eastside neighborhood, where residents face challenges building generational wealth.
Clay County, Nassau County, Neptune Beach and Keystone Heights use the RoadBotics mobile app which uses cell phones mounted on government vehicles to take pictures of road conditions. These photos are powered by artificial intelligence programs to help the government plan for timely repairs and maintenance.
In the grand scheme of what the government does daily in Northeast Florida, the work of Smart North Florida is a drop in the ocean. But Levins said the approach can be replicated and expanded by taking advantage of new technologies and sharing the vast volume of data already collected in various formats.
“When you talk about innovation, there’s something about creative problem solving that really appeals to me,” he said. “It’s this idea that you can take new concepts and tackle really tough problems.”