Coral Gables: City of the Future?

With a Core Drive to Be the Nation’s Top “Smart” City, the Gables Opens Itself to Innovation

To understand just how “smart” the City of Coral Gables has become, one need only visit the new Public Safety Building, which houses the police, fire and emergency services department. There, on the fourth and fifth floors, is the high-tech hub that runs the city’s neural network. Here you will find the 911 operators, the Emergency Operations Center, and the Community Information Center that monitors the streets of the downtown and beyond in real time. You will also find the electronic brains of the city, in an ice-cold “server farm” of miniaturized computers, more advanced than any other city in the State of Florida. 

“A smart city leverages technology and innovation and best practices to improve quality of life – in mobility, public safety, transportation, environmental sustainability – everything that matters to the quality of life for the citizens,” says Raimundo Rodulfo, the city’s head of Information Technology. “The smart city leverages the technology of the moment.” 

Gables: City of the Future
Raimundo Rodulfo (left) and Nelson Gonzalez (right) in the city’s new Public Safety Building.
Photo by Jonathan Dann

Under Rodulfo’s stewardship, Coral Gables has taken a lead among cities nationwide in the use of advanced technologies. These range from camera systems that watch vehicles and pedestrians to computer-assisted radio dispatch communications for medical emergencies. Everything is about supplying information about the city at faster and faster speeds, and with better data analysis. Like tracking the patterns of people walking down Miracle Mile, so that retailers can see if their window displays are causing (potential) shoppers to stop and stare. Or providing an app so citizens can request free taxi service downtown, with real time estimates of the vehicle’s proximity. 

The IT department’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. For two consecutive years, Coral Gables has taken first place in the nation in the Open Cities Index, which looks at how cities are using online transparency and open data to better the lives of residents. “This is for any size city. Los Angeles, which is a very large city, was also in the competition and placed highly. But not as high as we did,” says Rodulfo, who displays the awards in the IT department’s “brainstorming” room for planning new projects. The city has also won a slew of other awards for its smart prowess, including the Center for Digital Government’s first place for innovative technologies in cities with fewer than 75,000 residents. 


The city has a fleet of 65 electric cars, 22 public/ private electric charging stations, a free trolley service, street scooters and “Freebee” downtown cabs reachable by mobile apps. 


The city’s new Public Safety Building has advanced training simulators, computer-aided dispatchers, monitors for cameras that watch the streets and power back-up systems. 


New enterprise software systems are on track to make Coral Gables a paperless government by late 2022 with all departments horizontally integrated in real time and transparent citizen access. 


Coral Gables is at the forefront of recycling hazardous wastes, reducing chemical pollutants going into the water table and eliminating the use of wasteful plastic packaging. 


The city requires all new commercial structures to be built according to environmental LEED standards while reducing red tape and permitting fees for residential solar installations. 

Being number one among smaller cities will not do for City Manager Peter Iglesias, however. Since he became city manager two years ago, Iglesias has been on a quest to transform Coral Gables’ government into a paperless, horizontally integrated system where everything is digital, and all departments can talk to each other in real time. It is a transformational, multimillion-dollar process that should be completed by the end of next year – and promises to radically improve city efficiency and transparency. 

In the last two years the city has scanned and put into enterprise software systems all of its departments – public safety, HR, finance, parks and recreation – except for development services (planning, zoning, building, code enforcement) and permitting. This is what Iglesias calls the “last push” and it is that last department – permitting – that may have the most palpable impact on residents. The new system for paperless permits should dramatically speed things up at city hall. Previously, any plans for home or business construction (including something as simple as repainting your home) went the way of paper, from one department to the next. 

City Manager Peter Iglesias

“What a beautiful thing – to not have to carry paperwork [from place to place],” says Iglesias. “The drawings will go to all departments simultaneously, and can be reviewed by fire, building, code enforcement, etc.” Just as importantly, plans can be viewed online at any time by a homeowner or business. “This is also part of the push for open transparency in government,” says city Director of Communications Martha Pantin. 

Coral Gables: City of the Future?

Innovator: Rishi Kapoor

Reinventing the Shared Workspace – and Luxury Living

By its very nature, the phenomenon of shared or “co-working” space is innovative, providing low cost for startups and flexibility for larger companies. Rishi Kapoor, launching his Forum co-workspace during the pandemic, took the concept to the next level.

Kapoor’s Gables-based firm, Location Ventures, purchased an office building on Alhambra, retrofitting the ground floor with a state-of-the-art co-location center. It then populated the upper floors with business support service firms in marketing, accounting, IT, social media, law, etc. In other words, Kapoor vertically integrated the business model, literally, as well as functionally. 

“We are trying to innovate what real estate can be for an entrepreneur, and using the latest and greatest technology,” says Kapoor, who is also using smart engineering on the residential side. His firm’s new Villa Valencia condominium on the edge of downtown “is bringing technology to luxury real estate,” he says, with circadian lighting, air purification and water filtration standard in every unit. Likewise, every seat in the Forum center comes with private, dedicated, secure internet connectivity, with videoconferencing equipment for the new world of Zoom and free access to video forums that provide mentoring symposia and tutorials. 

Ultimately, says Kapoor, the Forum replicates what Coral Gables has to offer: A dense cluster of professional services and resources. “It’s a complete business ecosystem here,” he says.

More Than Software

The sense of innovation rippling through city government is not limited to high-speed data. It has become a municipal culture, a collective embracing of innovation across the board. Six years ago, the city adopted a Sustainability Management Plan, and since then has become a leader in areas like green construction, pollution reduction, water quality control, solar incentives, transportation and green space. The city’s mayor for the last four years, Raúl Valdés-Fauli, was an advocate for sustainability and resiliency, launching an Innovation Council to advise him on city policies. Current Mayor Vince Lago, a city commissioner for the past eight years, has pushed relentlessly to advance safe environmental practices for the city, as well as alternative transportation and energy. 

On the recycling front alone, Coral Gables is a model of cutting-edge practices. The city’s hazardous waste collection drives – in which residents can dispose of anything from obsolete electronic gear to noxious chemicals (old paint!) at city hall – have become popular bi-annual events. “Over the past six years we have collected 290,000 pounds of hazardous waste that would have ended up in a trash dump or in our environment,” says the city’s Senior Sustainability Analyst Matt Anderson. 

Likewise, the city was the first in Miami-Dade County with a prescription drug disposal program, which has collected 1,200 pounds of drugs to date. These are collected and then escorted by the police to be incinerated, rather than end up in the water supply. 

In a similar vein, the city has been experimenting with a variety of ways to reduce pollution in the Coral Gables Waterway. In February it passed a fertilizer restriction ordinance to reduce nutrients leaching into the waterway; it is also now testing filter baskets in the city’s storm drains and “smart sponges” that capture hydrocarbons from rainwater sloshing off city streets. 

Coral Gables: City of the Future

Innovator: Sissy DeMaria- Koehne

Reinventing Public Relations in a Digital World

Sissy DeMaria-Koehne isn’t sure if it was the words of Hollywood producer Sheryl Lansing – to shake up your life every 10 years and do something innovative – or from re-reading Tom Peters’ book “The Circle of Innovation.” Or maybe it was just time. But after leaving her highly ranked firm of two-plus decades, Kreps DeMaria, it was time to reinvent herself. In the process, she reinvented how to approach the business of public relations. In January, DeMaria-Koehne launched Cultivate PR, taking key clients with her (Coral Gables Trust, DeBeers Jewelry, Rolls Royce, Ritz Carlton Residences) as well as partners (Laura Acker to run the New York office, Ansley Campbell as president in the Gables office). But she did not take with her many old ideas. “You cannot rest on your laurels, that is the equivalent of death. You have to rebrand,” says DeMaria-Koehne. “You have to leave your comfort zone.” 

For DeMaria-Koehne that meant moving into the digital world with a vengeance, and toward events that engage. “The two things booming in this industry are experiential events and social media,” she says. While there are exceptions, such as targeted magazines, “there are less ink opportunities because the news holes are shrinking.” What is also shrinking is the American attention span, so that quick hits in a gossip column, or a video clip on Instagram, can beat in-depth stories. To adapt to this brave new world, DeMaria-Koehne reshuffled her staff. Rather than a single account executive handling a client, a new array of company personnel – a social media director, a digital director, a creative director and an experiential events manager – touch all accounts. 

“You still need excellent communications and writing skills, and crisis management hasn’t changed,” says DeMaria-Koehne. “But technology and society are moving almost faster than we can adapt. That is why the young have such an advantage – because they have embraced [the new] technology.” And why the firm’s head of social media is not Sissy, but her daughter (and partner) Stephanie.

For Anderson, nothing is more emblematic of the city’s sustainability efforts than its 65 electric vehicles. “We have been at the forefront on this since 2016, when we started electrifying our fleet,” he says. “With 12 percent [now electric], that puts us at the forefront not only in the state, but in the country.” Anderson says the city’s use of electricity as a cleaner source of energy is meant to encourage residents to follow suit, with 23 free charging stations now in the city. “I have received calls from residents who bought electric for their personal vehicles because of what the city is doing, including the charging stations,” he says. “The city likes to lead by example.” 

Coral Gables: City of the Future?
Senior Sustainability Analyst Matt Anderson
Coral Gables: City of the Future

Innovator: Monica and Rafael Garrido

The Creative Solution to Wasted Food – and Slim Wallets

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Lovvett app is one of its children. Invented by a Gables husband-and-wife team, the app solves that perennial question we all ask about restaurants: What do they do with the food that isn’t sold? 

This is no idle query, with an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. going to waste. Restaurants are one of the main culprits, so Monica and Rafael Garrido came up with a solution: At the end of each day, before that unsold food heads for the trash, why not sell it at a discount to potential customers? 

Launched last year during the pandemic, the Garridos’ Lovvett app alerts users to last-minute deals which “helps save the planet,” says Monica, as well as money for users. “We were raised in Spain and France, and everything [served] had to be consumed,” she says. “Anything left over would be donated.” 

With Rafael’s background in IT, and Monica’s in marketing, their Lovvett app now serves more than 155 restaurants, including Clutch Burger, Rodilla and Aromas del Peru here in the Gables. Example: A 305 Burger with fries and soda normally costs $20 at Clutch. At the end of the day, it’s just $9.99 on Lovvett. Bon appétit! 

Also Brick & Mortar

If you ask Nelson Gonzalez, the city’s assistant IT director, what the most important thing the new Public Safety Building provides – which the old headquarters for police, fire, emergency and IT did not have – he will answer with one word: Reliability. “We support all operations, from 911 to finance, and in this new facility we have better protection,” he says. That means a building designed to withstand Armageddon-strength hurricanes, with two massive diesel back-up generators, each of which can power the complex during outages so that no systems fail. 

The idea that innovative technology also depends on brick and mortar is a critical leg of Igesias’ plan to take the city into the future. “You have to have the technology – the software and hardware – [but] you have to have the infrastructure, the space,” he says. For this the city has launched a substantial building program, which really began with the Streetscape project to modernize Miracle Mile. This was followed by the new Public Safety Building, Fire Station No. 2 (with a backup communications center) and the new Trolley Building (ready to charge tomorrow’s fleet of electric vehicles). 

Still to come are the 427 Biltmore Way building to house the paperless building and permit departments, Parking Garage No. 7 (capable of connecting to Public Safety for disaster parking), Fire Station No. 4 and finally, the Mobility Hub, a visionary replacement for Parking Garage No. 1 (behind the Miracle Theatre), ready to handle everything from autonomous vehicles to drones. 

With a goal of embedding innovation into private commercial buildings, the city now requires that all future structures larger than 20,000 square feet be built to the LEED Silver standards, which requires energy and water efficiency, safe materials, indoor environment quality and other measures of health and sustainability. “A lot of people want to live and work in environmentally friendly and healthy buildings,” says Anderson. “They are of the utmost importance now, more than ever.” 

Mobile apps allow Coral Gables to share blueprints. - Coral Gables: City of the Future
Mobile apps allow Coral Gables to share blueprints.

Some buildings go beyond LEED, such as the new Villa Valencia condominium, which regulates the quality of the air, water and light in each residence. The massive Plaza Ponce de Leon project, now more than half completed, decided to go LEED even before the ordinance was passed. “We are building with 40 years in mind,” says Carlos Beckmann, the project director for the Plaza. “We wanted to be sustainable.” They also have two and a half acres of “green roof ”on the nine-acre site, with all buildings constructed three feet above street level (in addition to the central Gables elevation that is already 16 to 17 feet above sea level) in anticipation of sea rise. “Brickell is going to be underwater. We won’t be,” says Beckmann. 

Innovator: Wayne Eldred

Reinventing the Way Business is Taught

On any given Tuesday or Wednesday evening, Coral Gables Museum becomes an interactive classroom. Here you will find a band of dedicated entrepreneurs and small business owners looking to become larger, raptly listening to real world experiences that can guide them in startups or scale-ups. This is Outliers Institute, a new business school with a hands-on strategy. “In all of South Florida there is no school like this, with a realistic approach to business,” says Wayne Eldred, the proprietor and ringmaster of the nonprofit academy. “My class is full of business leaders, owners, managers – it’s really an immersive incubation to learn how to overcome challenges.” 

Classes start at 6 p.m., but students arrive at 5 p.m. for a happy hour of networking and a bite to eat. Fortunately, the museum has a liquor license and Eldred – who successfully ran Tarpon Bend for more than a decade – is also an accomplished chef. 

But a drink in hand and gourmet food is just one deviation from traditional classrooms. “We have a core curriculum, but we layer in guest speakers who talk about their experiences. You don’t get that at universities. They miss a lot of descriptions on how to actually get there. We have a mix of speakers who have already done it.” Semesters are one month long and cost $1,500. 

And Then There Are the People

The third part of Iglesias’ drive to modernize the city is what he calls “operations,” by which he means the people to operate the new technologies in their new buildings. Adapting to the future means little if municipal workers are not sufficiently trained, or if residents do not embrace a culture of innovation. 

Fortunately, the city is aware of its role in providing training, and the private sector – including its bastions of higher education and business incubation – are also geared to the task. Even at the uber-tech Public Safety Building, Police Chief Ed Hudak puts the training capabilities at the new facility on par with its array of sophisticated gadgetry. 

“From a technology standpoint, the speed with which we are processing information is huge. And the use of our non-lethal devices – more advanced tasers, bolo wraps – are moving forward, for everybody’s safety. But training the officers, especially in how to take down suspects in a safe way, is just as important,” says Hudak. To that end, the new building has special training facilities and programs for dealing with potentially violent encounters, with an eye toward state-of-the-art techniques in de-escalation. 

Innovator: Luis de la Aguilera

The New Face of Banking

Since taking the helm of U.S. Century Bank, Luis de la Aguilera keeps on innovating, turning around the bank’s finances, expanding into new fields and now, designing prototypes for branches. 

The University of Miami alum mastered the ropes of banking over 26 years, first at Ocean Bank and then Total Bank, where he became CEO. In December 2015, he saw a challenge at troubled U.S. Century and moved over, with many from his Total Bank team soon joining him. 

Back then, Doral-based Century relied too much on housing loans. De la Aguilera closed overlapping branches. He debuted an office in Coral Gables specializing in law firms and private banking services. And he prioritized digital offerings – all contributing to a turnaround and assets topping $1.6 billion. 

Today, the 11-branch bank sports a new ATM network, plus Zelle money-transfer and DocuSign e-signature services. This fall, it will roll out new digital platforms for customers, letting businesses send wire transfers and stop payments remotely. Next up: A prototype for branches for our more digital age. The bank is piloting the idea of halving the space in branches and adopting a more open layout, with fewer offices – but still with people. 

“Banking for us is a combination of tech and people,” says de la Aguilera. “Our customers insist on the best technology possible, but it’s just as important for an experienced banker to guide them through services not led by technology – an asset loan, an SBA loan…We’re [still] very much a relationship bank.”

In the area of education, the University of Miami is on the leading edge of innovative teaching technologies. One effort fueling buzz: Extended reality (XR) learning that brings virtual reality and other immersive technology into the classroom. It’s a partnership backed by such companies as South Florida tech powerhouse Magic Leap (run by a UM grad), which is sharing its headset technology for use by students. In one XR iteration, students becoming nurse anesthetists are creating an app to help simulate conditions for surgeries. In another, students who are becoming architects can manipulate building designs in virtual space. 

UM also is expanding experiential learning, so students get real life experience for future careers. One example: The ‘Cane Angel Network, an angel investment program started in April 2020 to help fund ventures started by students, faculty, staff and others in the U community. Participants in the network class receive rigorous analyst training and then evaluate ventures, just as they would working in any investment fund. 

With Big Data now ubiquitous, UM is also out front with one of the country’s most powerful supercomputers. In 2020, the university launched the Institute for Data Science and Computing, which aims to add 15 faculty members and boost staff to 30 by 2025, says Founding Director Dr. Nicholas Tsinoremas. “The idea is to create a hub that takes the U’s intellectual capital and brings it together with industry,” he says. “We want to be a leader in research and [real world] innovation.” 

Coral Gables: City of the Future?
XR (extended reality) learning at UM.

On the private sector side, business in Coral Gables is alive with entrepreneurial creativity, reflected by its cluster of shared workspace facilities – more spaces per capita than any other city in Florida. “We have a combination of stable, mature companies and young, innovative startups,” says Philippe Houdard, CEO at Pipeline Workspaces, of his Gables co-working locale on Merrick Way. Houdard says he chose the Gables location in 2015 partly because of the concentration of businesses in the downtown area, and partly because of the city’s multinational diversity. “Innovation at its core is a diversity of ideas. And if you can’t get that [here], where can you get it?” 

This fertile, multicultural ground helps explain why business accelerator Endeavor, the ultra-selective global network for high-impact entrepreneurs, planted its first U.S. office in Coral Gables in 2013. It keeps finding talent in the city – among them, Gables-based entrepreneur Otto Othman of the Pincho restaurant chain, known for its twist on Latin American street food. Now Endeavor has attracted another Gables-based venture and its founder into its prestigious fold: Aprende Institute, an online platform for vocational education in Spanish, led by Martin Claure. 

UM helps spur business in the city, too. Some of the clients at Gables co-working spaces are UM alumni, developing ideas they nurtured at the U, says Houdard. The university directly promotes business innovation through myriad programs, even helping bring UM discoveries to market. Ventures linked to its biomedical research alone have received more than $500 million in follow-on funding in recent years, with some working from the Converge Miami center near the UM medical school, says Norma Sue Kenyon, UM’s vice provost for innovation. Among successes at Converge this year: HealthSnap, a platform to monitor patients remotely, which garnered $4 million in early-stage funding this January; and Longeveron, known for cell-based therapies for aging-related conditions, which raised $27 million in February.

“There’s not one nucleus for innovation in Miami. There are many pockets across South Florida, [but] Coral Gables is a gem,” says Melissa Medina, president of Gables-based eMerge Americas, the organization promoting Miami as a tech hub for the Americas. “You have the shared office space. You have the walkable lifestyle. You have some big corporations that are headquartered in Coral Gables. All of that together creates an incredible work life and personal life,” she says. “There’s just a ton of opportunity.” 

Innovator: Melissa Medina

Reinventing the Tech Platform as Inclusive

As the mother of five children under age 14, Melissa Medina thinks a lot about the future. She knows she’s lucky to have Cuban parents who came to the U.S. with little and made it big. And she wants to extend their legacy by lifting up future generations, especially women and the under-represented. 

That explains why after founding the eMerge Americas tech platform with her dad and seeing few women at their first event, Melissa helped launch a Women, Innovation & Technology summit at their subsequent conference in 2015. Since then, she’s so diligently incorporated women at eMerge – as teammates, panelists and attendees – that a separate female track is passé. “Now, women are part of our fiber and DNA,” she says. 

Born in Miami, Medina holds a bachelor’s and MBA from the University of Florida, came up through her dad’s real estate tech firm Terremark and today leads both eMerge Americas, the Gables-based group promoting South Florida as a tech hub, and the Medina Family Foundation. In every role, she champions youth and women, donating family funds, for example, to SEED School of Miami and partnering with Women in Innovation (WIN) Lab. 

For eMerge’s next mega-conference set for Miami Tech Week in April 2022, Medina is planning panels on such cutting-edge topics as cryptocurrency, climate resiliency and, of course, cybersecurity – the field that made her serial entrepreneur dad Manny Medina a tech icon and her role model. Jokes Melissa: “I’m hoping some of my father’s ‘crazy’ ideas and passion has rubbed off on me.” 

Indeed, if a city’s innovation can be defined by its business successes, Coral Gables appears to be punching above its weight class. Some evidence so far this year: Serial entrepreneur Manny Medina (Melissa’s dad) and partners are taking two of his tech ventures public on Wall Street: Data center giant Cyxtera, valued at more than $3 billion, and cybersecurity leader Appgate, valued at $1 billion-plus. Not far away is infrastructure builder MasTec, which announced record revenues of $1.8 billion for the first quarter, propelled in part by its advanced technologies in sustainable energy. And then there is advanced payments software company ACI Worldwide, which is moving its headquarters (and 180 employees) to new offices in The Plaza Coral Gables. 

“I see a lot of different types of tech companies represented in Coral Gables, from startups to organizations like ours and Endeavor Miami, that are helping high-impact entrepreneurs,” says Melissa Medina. “I am not seeing a particular vertical in tech but rather a variety of types, which is good. That helps fuel the growth of the tech ecosystem in general and the micro-tech ecosystem within the Gables as well.” 

The Future City

So, what will Coral Gables, city of the future, look like? Ironically, not too much different from today, at least in terms of the historic architecture the city is famous for preserving. 

One thing that will look different is the transportation. While it will be a long while before we have the kind of flying cars that appeared in the 1960s cartoon program “The Jetsons,” the streets will be transformed by a mix of what city Parking Director Kevin Kinney calls micro-transit solutions: More of the Freebee service of small, free electric cabs; more trolleys, only electric; individual scooters; small surface drone delivery vehicles and autonomous self-driving cars. What there will be less of are private cars with owner-drivers, with most city parking lots repurposed or sold to the private sector. 

Coral Gables: City of the Future
The city’s Freebee downtown cabs are reachable by mobile apps. 

Key to this transformation will be the city’s mobility hub, to be built in place of Parking Garage No. 1 behind the Miracle Theatre. It will be designed to house all modes of future transportation, including electric self-driving cars with multiple owners, and even drone platforms. The design is currently underway. “The new hub is going to be light years ahead, something never before seen in the State of Florida,” says Mayor Lago. Downtown will also have new, futuristic gadgetry mounted on polls at street corners: Coral Gables is currently engaged with one German company (for the technology) and one Italian company (for the aesthetic design) of new 5G devices that will offer functions ranging from high-speed telecom to traffic and safety sensors, including air quality monitors. 

“I think innovation is in our DNA,” says Lago. “We are pushing the envelope in technology, resiliency, sustainability and advanced transportation.” 

“At the end of the day, our residents and business community deserve innovation,” says the mayor. “If you want to welcome businesses and residents to the community, you have to be on the cutting edge of the latest and greatest technologies – both for protecting the citizens and simplifying the processes of government. We have to continue to look for the next great thing.” 

Innovator: Dr. Robert L. Hannan, M.D.

Using Technology to Reinvent Heart Surgery

As a cardiovascular surgeon working at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Dr. Robert Hannan performed some 3,000 operations to repair the hearts of his young patients. But Dr. Hannan’s role as head of the hospital’s Cardiovascular Surgery Advanced Projects Laboratory (CSAPL) may prove to be a legacy of even greater value. 

Under Dr. Hannan’s leadership (and with the help of Nicklaus’ director of heart surgery, Dr. Redmond Burke), the hospital now uses immersive “mixed reality” technologies to help plan complex heart procedures. Working with the German company ApoQlar, Nicklaus creates 3D holograms of patients’ hearts, viewing them with virtual reality headsets to study a particular case. 

Since nothing beats the feel of the real thing, Hannan also had the hospital purchase a Digital Anatomy Printer from the U.S. firm Stratasys for a half million dollars. “We print 3D hearts that are operable,” says Dr. Hannan. “They can be cut and operated on like a real heart.” 

While Dr. Hannan says there is nothing like having a heart in your hands, they are expensive to create. Holograms, on the other hand, can be changed instantly – and easily transmitted to other doctors. “We [used to] put you into the MRI scanner and look at it as a two-dimensional image. Now we can look at it as a true 3D hologram. It’s an enormously powerful technology.”