City of the Future: How Innovation is Taking Hold of the City Beautiful
By J.P. Faber
On the fourth floor of the Coral Gables Public Safety Building, which houses police, fire and emergency personnel, there is a dark, glassed-in room where a command console looks onto more than a dozen large screens. This is the Community Information Center, or CIC, formerly known as the Crime Information Center. On the screens are images from around the city – views of Miracle Mile, Giralda Plaza, Aragon Avenue, Old Cutler Road, US 1, the Cocoplum Circle, and so on, views from 48 fixed television cameras and four mobile camera banks, along with more than two dozen license plate readers, all feeding continuous data into the center.
Welcome to the eyes and ears of the digital city of the future. Operational since late 2016, the CIC was initially used to supply Gables police with real time data they could use to protect the streets. Since then, the data has become increasingly important to other city departments, such as economic development and human resources, part of the transformation of Coral Gables into a “Smart City.” While the CIC is the most photogenic space within the city’s cramped IT Department (a new building is on the way), it is just part of a system designed to collect, analyze and use information to make life in Coral Gables, well, better.
The CIC is adjacent to the Smart City Control Room, the place where all its data – and data from all the city’s departments – is collected, analyzed, and put to use. The room, and the IT department it serves, are under the direction of Raimundo Rodulfo, who has since 2013 worked to advance the city’s technologies.
“Data is the biggest commodity today,” he says. “If it’s good data at the right time, wherever you are it allows you to make better informed decisions. You can react quicker.” A perfect example shows why the police department loves the system: At last year’s Carnaval on the Mile, a couple lost their child in the sea of people. They called 911, and police called the CIC. “The analyst here was able to find the missing child in minutes,” says Rodulfo. “Can you imagine the happiness for the parents?”
Such is the power of the CIC systems, which can search reams of data for particular inputs. In this case, says Rodulfo, it was “a morphological analysis for a child. If you know the size, the color of the shirt, you can look for that. You know the time the child was last seen, so you can trace a possible route.” All of this is done at high speed using artificial intelligence. “You can crunch time,” he says.
But using data to make citizens safe is just one side of what Rodulfo’s team is doing. The Smart City Control Room is at the heart of a digital revolution in the Gables, one that is already providing an enormous amount of open data for its residents. It’s not just about the cameras – though data about the movement of cars and people can be very useful for retailers. It is about giving residents transparent access to information on the city’s revenues, expenditures, capital improvement programs, property taxes, demographics, and so forth.
On the Coral Gables website, its Smart City Hub also allows anyone to search public records, review the legislative calendar, check on a permit that is pending, even see which lobbyists are registered to influence city policies. All types of business can be transacted online, from bill paying to getting a commercial license. And the site offers downloadable apps that enable citizens to check on traffic, order Freebee rides, find and pay for parking by phone, and so forth.
The Making of a Smart City
The recent blossoming of digital interactivity in Coral Gables, while impressive by itself, is part of a larger shift within the city toward creating an innovative environment. The idea is that all aspects of city life can and should be reinvigorated, from education to traffic to health care.
Much of the credit for this new movement goes to the current city administration, including its mayor, vice mayor and city manager. But it is also a consequence of CoralGables’ history, and its place as a unique crossroads of international business and culture.
“While innovation is something that has become popular everywhere over the last 10 years, innovation was the key for Coral Gables to exist,” says Beatrice Rangel, chair of the city’s Innovation Council. “Mr. Merrick [the city founder] put together two urban concepts that no one thought could be joined. These were the Garden City, which was the reaction by urbanists to the industrial revolution in England, and the City Beautiful, a movement by architects in Chicago and Detroit who thought that if you made a city’s downtown beautiful, people would feel proud of living there and fight to keep it clean and safe.”
George Merrick, by combining a handsome, leafy suburb with an urban but architecturally inspired downtown (along with a major university), created an inherently innovative city.
Nonetheless, says Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, in recent years Coral Gables needed to be prodded. To that end, when first re-elected two years ago (he had served as mayor 1993-2001), Valdés-Fauli established a voluntary Innovation Council, a think tank that would help position the city as an innovation leader. Rangel, a business consultant and former Chief Strategist for the Cisneros Group of Companies (and Minister of the Secretariat under then-President Carlos Andrés of Venezuela) was appointed chair.
“I started the council as soon as I came into office,” says the mayor. “I thought that as a city we should also take leadership in innovation for cities here and around Latin America… I wanted for us to join the 21st century. We’re smack in the middle of the county, so we have the geographic position to do it. And we have the population characteristics to be able to afford it and do it.”
The first part of making Coral Gables an innovative city was already underway, with the expansion of its IT endeavors under then-City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark. That effort has continued under current City Manager Peter Iglesias, who has made “horizontal integration” of city networks a top priority.
This is the very essence of a smart city, says Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture (and director of its Smart Cities program) who offers this definition: “A smart city takes the various functions and departments of a city and connects them by information technology so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Connectivity aids gathering and correlating information so that officials can make better decisions.” What that means, says Iglesias, is that the fire department can check a building’s records, in real time, to immediately know the composition and contents of a burning structure they are rushing off to extinguish.
Another part of becoming an innovative city is to lead the way in sustainability, which means being green. On the high-tech side, Coral Gables has a unique database that records the height, species, location and health of all 38,000 trees in public spaces. On the pollution side, thanks largely to the efforts of Vice Mayor Vince Lago, the city has become one of the first in the state to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam cups and packaging, and regulate plastic straws. All the bans have come under legal attack since being passed by the city council, but so far all have survived.
Lago, who drives an electric car and lives in a home that is 100 percent solar powered, has also pushed for policies to make solar installation easier, and to advance alternate transportation, such as the city trolley, Freebee cabs and electric cars. “Our city now has the largest fully electric car fleet of any city or county in the state,” he says. “When I was elected, we didn’t have one. Now we have nearly 50 and by 2021 we’ll have 80.”
Making People Smarter
When asked what the city’s greatest challenge is when it comes to embracing innovation, Mayor Valdés-Fauli says that it’s education – both for students and for the populace at large. Of the seven initiatives idenified by the Innovation Council, the first one was for the promotion of STEM. education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The initial result of this initiative is scheduled to begin this fall semester, with a pilot project in the existing after school program at the Youth Center for high school students to study technology using interactive tablets with a robotics component.
Beyond the classroom, however, Valdés-Fauli says the educational challenge is with the residents as a whole, to understand that a thriving city needs to be an innovative one. “The residents need to buy in. It’s about selling this vision,” he says, which includes Coral Gables as a walkable city of the future, a shining example of what New Urbanists mean when they talk about somewhere you can live, work and play.
Coral Gables is already headed in that direction, one of the reasons that 150 multinational headquarters and more than 40 international trade and consular offices are based here: the city is a smart place to live, with a level of urbanity that is almost European. And internationalism, along with the global attitudes it fosters, brings its own innovations – from the Italian consulate sponsoring Italian lessons in the local elementary school, to landing the area headquarters for Endeavor, a nonprofit incubator for entrepreneurs that was launched in South America.
The business climate as a whole is becoming increasingly innovative in Coral Gables, with a profusion of co-working, shared-work and executive suite spaces popping up; Regus just opened a second center at 2000 Ponce (their first is in the 2525 Ponce building on Andalusia), while WeWork is opening a second space on Giralda, where they first opened just last year. More are in the works. And the city’s Economic Development department is already working with its IT department to enhance economic development on the street level, using CIC-generated data to help retailers.
Inside the CIC, streets being watched on the screens can be manipulated to stream with what look like orange heat patterns. “It’s where the most motion is,” says city data analyst Chris Cowen. “The system analyzes moving objects…. If it’s people, then it’s where the people are walking.” Or where they are stopping. “You can do one for where the objects [the people] stop for a certain period of time. So that’s how you know what store fronts people are stopping in front of,” he says.
“This is data that we are coordinating with the business improvement district (BID), and the chamber. We are helping to provide data like this for businesses,” says Rodulfo, “so they know what the best returns will be on their strategies, so they can know what times they should be open, for example.”
Beyond business, a sense of innovation permeates many aspects of life in Coral Gables. A huge contribution to that sense of being on the cutting edge comes from the University of Miami, a kind of seed for future innovation that founding father George Merrick planted; it was his idea to lease a huge swath of city land to the school. The University’s biomedical research alone is world class, and with it comes an entrepreneurial edge as new discoveries are commercialized. It’s Converge Miami center already houses 270 companies applying UM research to the real world. It’s business school likewise runs classes and incubators for student entrepreneurs and it recently announced the launch of a new angel capital fund for startups. Even its law school runs a “Startup Practicum” program that connects law students to new ventures that need legal help.
It is in the realm of smart cities, however, where UM and the City of Coral Gables really connect. This past May, the city and UM shared a space at the eMerge conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The event itself was started by Coral Gables entrepreneur Manny Medina, with a mission to connect U.S. and Latin American high-tech enterprises. This year they gave out an award for the Coral Gables Smart City Solution Competition 2019, which had been announced earlier in the year at a Smart Cities conference held on the UM campus.
The award went to Gables-based DLGV Architects and Urbanists, which presented a NOT, or Neighborhood Oriented Transit system.“What it does fundamentally is that it gathers information on existing local modes of transportation,” says DLGV principal and architect Teofilo Victoria, developing from that a single information system that can be accessed via laptop or cell.
Sounds like a perfect app for a smart, innovative city.
The Digital City
Coral Gables Connects With its Citizens via a High-Tech Interface
If the exchange and mining of digital data is the hallmark of a smart city, then Coral Gables is a smart city determined to become even smarter. Online platforms that bring data from various city departments all together in one place allow residents, visitors, and businesses easy access to a wealth of information designed to enrich and empower. Want to see how crowded Giralda Plaza is at lunchtime, and if there is any nearby available parking? Need to renew a permit or license, or pay a bill for a city service? Curious about how much it cost to build that new park, the time frame for a street improvement project or how many people voted in the last election? All that information is available with a keystroke.
In rolling out a versatile open-data platform – founded on a combination of analytics, apps, sensors, and other technologies – the City Beautiful has become a digital darling, attracting national attention. The Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute, recently awarded Coral Gables first place in its national ranking of most innovative technological cities with up to 75,000 population.
Leading Coral Gables into the digital future is Raimundo Rodulfo, the city’s director of Information Technology. Prior to joining the City in 2004, he worked for 10 years in the private sector, including seven years with BellSouth as a development engineer. He was named IT director in 2013.
From crowded quarters on the fourth floor of the public safety building on Salzedo Street, Rodulfo heads a team of 19 fulltime and six part-time employees who oversee the Smart City online data hub designed to maintain Coral Gables as a world-class city with a hands-on feel. This Smart City Hub allows residents and those who do business with the city to explore open data maps and graphs, download mobile applications from an app store, and even network to solve local issues.
“We want to leverage innovation, technology, strategic planning and best practices to improve quality of life,” Rodulfo says.“The technology is changing, but our core mission stays the same.” Now, via the Internet of Things (IoT), residents can go to the city’s online website (www.coralgables.com), hit the green Smart City Hub button, and renew parking permits, see updated dashboards monitoring the flow of pedestrians, track up-to-the-minute reports on traffic jams and accidents in the downtown, or receive notices of current events.
Through its OpenGov portal, residents have access to the city’s Financial Transparency Platform, which is chock-full of information about capital improvement projects, how tax revenues are being spent, and even a roster of registered city lobbyists. “The exciting part is when a city makes all the data available and accessible,” says Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture and director of its Smart Cities program. “Basically, a smart city is one that is capitalizing on data to provide more options to management and citizens.”
The Safe City
The Coral Gables Police Department Upgrades With Techno Innovation
Several months ago, Coral Gables police working to solve a string of car burglaries on Dixie Highway caught a break when they spotted, on a business surveillance video, the license plate of a suspect vehicle. Investigators entered the plate number into a system that runs the department’s license plate readers (LPRs), positioned on streets leading in and out of the city. The LPRs capture all license plate numbers that come into view, recording on a central server the location, date, and time. The cameras can also be programmed to issue an alert when a particular plate is detected.
Three weeks later they got a hit. A car bearing the flagged plate had been detected at South Dixie and Riviera Drive. Officers raced to the intersection. “Inside the car were a man and a woman, and lots of stolen property – a loaded gun, laptop computers, multiple credit cards,” says Maj. Raul Pedroso. “Both occupants were arrested. And they admitted committing the burglaries.”
The city’s two dozen+ license plate readers provide what the police department calls a “geo-fence” around the city, recording the cars entering and leaving. Combined with an array of 33 closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) that monitor most public spaces, and four mobile camera banks for crime hot spots, the CGPD is now able to track crime in both real time and via reviews of previous time periods, where suspects can be identified from things like hair color and clothing.
While Police Chief Ed Hudak describes himself as “an old school cop,” he is the first to admit that innovative technologies have been a big help in bringing crime levels to a 15-year low. “As in anything in society, speed and innovation are what is needed to keep up with the criminal elements, because they are moving faster, too,” says Hudak.
The surveillance cameras and LPRs are just part of a growing arsenal of high-tech tools changing the nature and style of crime fighting in the Gables. “When I became a police officer 26 years ago, if I was looking for a person and needed his picture, I would go to the office of the Florida Highway Patrol and fill out a form,” says Pedroso, who commands the department’s technical services division. “It could take two to 14 days. Now, in a traffic stop, we can swipe the driver’s license. Or if they have no ID, use Rapid ID [fingerprint scanner]. If they have a criminal record, it will tell us who they are in seconds.”
The CGPD is also upping its interface with the community. A new app allows citizens to communicate with police in real time, including with video, when they suspect a crime is occurring. The CGPD is also working on a program that can upload video from the 3,000+ doorbell cameras now installed in homes across the city.
“We are exploring the latest technology so that we can be nimble, and do our jobs safely and efficiently,” says Chief Hudak. “Change can be the difference in solving and preventing crime.”
The Sustainable City
The Greening of Coral Gables
The city’s drive to become a beacon for innovative sustainability is apparent in a variety of initiatives, from its electric car fleet to its ban on plastic bags and Styrofoam. But the strategic goal outlined in the city’s 2013 Sustainability Management Plan remains simple and clear, says Matt Anderson, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “Our bottom line is to reduce energy consumption and reduce carbon emissions,” he says.
To that end, Coral Gables encourages the use of solar power in private homes by streamlining the permitting process and waving fees. In recognition, the city was recently awarded a bronze designation by the national SolSmart program for making it easier to go solar; it would have received a gold or silver designation from this U.S. Department of Energy funded program, if not for the city’s strict building code, which requires installations to be approved for appearance by its Architecture Review Board.
Coral Gables also encourages the use of electric cars, itself fielding the largest municipal electric car fleet in Florida: 48 vehicles at present, with a goal of expanding to 78 by 2021. “The big deal here is that it reduces our carbon footprint, our vehicle maintenance costs, and our expenditures for gas,” says Vice Mayor Vince Lago. The city also has 16 charging stations, with 11 more planned, for free use by citizens with electric cars.
Our bottom line is to reduce energy consumption and reduce carbon emissions
In order to encourage more efficient use of power and water in new buildings – as well as healthy working conditions – the city levies a three percent “Green Building Bond” fee which it returns to developers once they obtain LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). More recently a new program called the Green Business Certification Program, launched in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, helps existing buildings monitor and reduce use of power, water and waste disposal.
Waste collection is another area of innovation. The city holds regular household hazardous waste collection events, where citizens can dispose of electronic devices, old appliances and hazardous waste such as solvents or prescription drugs. A recent one-day event collected six tons of waste. “We are diverting 75 percent of waste material from the landfill, with the aim of recycling,” says Anderson.
Perhaps the city’s most innovative plan is to install solar micro-grids to keep services functioning when natural disasters cripple the conventional power grid. The proposal for this catapulted Coral Gables to one of 35 finalists (out of 320 cities) in the U.S. Mayor’s Challenge to find solutions to urban woes. While it was not among the five finalists – which would have given the city $1 million in funding for the project – “we have all the plans in place, and are looking for matching grants to build it,” says Anderson. “We are really on the cutting edge on a lot of this stuff,” he adds. “In Florida, we are in the front of the pack, and other counties and cities want to emulate us.”
The Healthy City
Coral Gables Provides a Platform for the Latest Innovations in Health Technology
Doctors Hospital, centrally located on the edge of the University of Miami campus, is the city’s principal hospital. It is also home to the uniquely innovative Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. Launched last year, the Institute practices avant-garde orthopedics while advancing new techniques – much of the work being done via close partnerships with the Miami Heat and the Miami Dolphins. Basically, their doctors treat professional sports injuries, translating what’s learned into new medical procedures.
“The institute is a state-of-the-art facility,” says hospital CEO Nelson Lazo. “Five years ago, if you needed a joint replacement, you would spend four to five days in the hospital. It was a very painful experience. Now we can get you out of the hospital in 16 hours. That is light years away, like going from an early prop plane to a jet.” Lazo attributes the innovations at Doctors orthopedic institute – an affiliate of the health system, Baptist Health South Florida – at least in part to working with injured professionals. The other part is its use of advanced technologies. They employ surgical robots to repair shoulder and knee damage, for example, which dramatically reduces trauma and bleeding.
At UM, the Wallace H. Coulter Center focuses on translational research – figuring out ways to commercialize medical breakthroughs. It is part of a larger Converge Miami complex on the school’s medical campus (north of the city), which now houses 270 biomedical companies, from startups to global medical entities.“We want to be the hub of biomedical innovation,”says Norma Kenyon, UM’s Vice Provost for Innovation.“We have terrific research in key areas.” At Converge, biomedical startups are in the equivalent of a business incubator – except that instead of a desk they get an eight-foot bench and access to expensive medical equipment. Meanwhile, UM School of Medicine doctors are conducting advanced research in areas ranging from concussion treatments to cancer; its Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute is conducting Phase III FDA trials to reverse frailty in old people via infusing stem cells cloned from UM athletes.
Five years ago, if you needed a joint replacement, you’d spend four to five days in the hospital
Equally exciting are the innovative programs at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, the primary pediatric treatment center for the Gables. Nicklaus is now part of the Sanford Children’s Genomic Consortium, which aims to advance pediatric medicine via genomics. Currently the hospital is conducting two studies using genome sequencing to diagnose and treat infants and children with illnesses that are genetic. The hospital is also a leading adopter of mobile medical technology, which allows them to treat children in remotes areas.
Even on a street level, the Gables is a platform for innovative health care. There are a plethora of street-front facilities that range from new approaches to exercise – such a under-water resistance cycling or classes in boxing for stress release – to experimental medical treatments, such as cryogenic tanks that reinvigorate clients with temperatures 169 degrees below zero.
The Transported City
With Traffic Increasing Around the County, Coral Gables Finds Innovative Solutions
Last month Coral Gables and Miami held a joint press conference near the Douglas Road Metrorail Station. The location was appropriate, right off Dixie Highway, the corridor for half of the 800,000 cars that pass through the city every day.
The showpieces for the press conference were two trolleys, one from each city, facing head to head. Officials from both municipalities spoke about how they’ve now linked their free trolley systems together. Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli joked that he expected a golden spike to be driven in, like the joining of the U.S. Trans- continental Railroad in 1869. But traffic in Coral Gables, like most cities, is no joke.
“Our city of 51,000 swells to double that during the day as people come to work or use our facilities or enjoy the downtown,” says Vice Mayor Vince Lago. “We have to provide people with options.” Lago was an early proponent of joining the trolley systems. He also served on the board of the Miami-Dade County TPO (Transportation Planning Organization), where he pushed for grant money to launch the Freebee.
The Freebee is an innovative transit solution created by two University of Miami graduates. The idea is to offer free rides downtown in multi-seat electric “cabs.” The service is paid for partly by city money and partly by revenue from advertisers who market their brands via the vehicles. Today there are five Freebees operating in the Gables.
“Our goal is to remove the single-occupied vehicle from the street,” says Kevin Kenny, parking director for Coral Gables. “One of the reasons for the Freebee is so that the executive who wants to go to lunch, or a meeting, won’t have to drive and park.” The same can be said of the Trolley, which a 2013 UM study showed kept 750 cars from parking downtown; presumably that number has grown significantly. “The concept is the last-mile service, to get you from whatever transit you use to your final destination,” says Kenny.
Our city of 51,000 swells to double that during the day as people come to work
The latest last-mile links are the electric “dock-less scooters” which the city is testing. Starting last year with 75 scooters, there are now 150. By downloading an app that takes your credit card, citizens can grab a scooter and whiz anywhere in town at up to 15 mph.
“They have to charge them, so the vendors [Spin and Byrd] pick them up every night, and then drop them off in the morning,” says Jessica Keller, the assistant public works director overseeing the project. Next on her list is a network of protected bike paths, part of a 2014 bicycle and pedestrian plan.
Also on the drawing board are transportation hubs centered on the city’s public garages, so that people can park and then get to their local destinations. “We have to solve how to transit through the city with [alternative] modes of transportation,” says Keller. “We cannot be a car dependent society forever. It’s not sustainable in any way.”
The Educated City
Science and Technology are Becoming Both the Means and the Goal
Coral Gables has always prided itself as a well-educated city. Almost two-thirds of its adults hold college degrees, with almost half of those holding some additional professional degree.
Even its public library holds the county record for the most books checked out, per capita. “Education is a vital issue for our city,” says Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, who made innovative education a priority in his state-of-the-city address in May. “And what we need are more STEM classes, and that means Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. That’s where the future lies.”
Already plans are in place for early STEM classes at the Youth Center, says Enrique Bernal, a former physicist who works voluntarily on the mayor’s Innovation Council. “The issue is how to get more students interested,” he says. “Schools are failing to inspire enough young people to follow these careers.”
The proposed classes will use smart tablets to teach kids science and math interactively, says Bernal, and will include a robotics component. If the pilot program is successful, the city will explore steps to expand it. Getting kids interested in science early on is one of the goals of the Innovation Studio being set up at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, thanks to a NASA grant. At the studio, kids from elementary to high school age will conduct experiments to see which plants are most suitable for growing in space.
At the other end of the spectrum are innovative adult education programs, ranging from downtown classes at the Community Adult Center, to advanced programs offered at OLLI – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute – which has its own building on the UM campus. The institute now offers more than 64 classes to about 1,400 “members” (aka students 50 years and older), ranging from Tai Chi to Constitutional Law. “This place offers intellectual engagement and a place to socialize as well,” says Magda Vergara, director of the OLLI. “We have doctors, attorneys, a lot of educators and other professionals in our classes. So, the class discussions are quite lively.”
On the high-tech education side, the showstopper is an educational alliance between UM and Magic Leap, a high-tech startup which is developing 3D headsets that let users manipulate visual data. Magic Leap founder (and UM alum) Rony Abovitz is putting headsets on students as a way to test educational capa- bilities; the first to use them have been architecture students for spatial design projects.
This is just the tip of a stunning array of innovative ways UM is expanded the idea of education. The school’s Launch Pad program educates students in how to start a business; its “Collaboratory” at the College of Engineering lets students use a 3D Titanium printer to create new devices; and its Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge puts together teams of scholars from multiple disciplines to solve complex social issues. “Is innovation thriving at the University of Miami?” asks Norma Kenyon, Vice Provost of Innovation. “I would say emphatically yes.”
The Entrepreneurial City
Coral Gables Array of Co-Workspaces and Attention to Small Companies Give it an Innovative Edge
As you walk through the doors of WeWork on Ponce de Leon, you know you’ve stepped into the future. Wide open spaces, glass walls, sleek lines of industrial influenced furniture, dark hardware on shared tables, bright lighting. If you arrive in a proper business suit, you’re overdressed. WeWork is one of a half dozen co-working spaces in the Gables. Formerly called executive suites, these incubators for new companies deliver the same cost-prohibitive resources – mailboxes, internet connectivity, answering services, kitchens, and offices – but are now more focused on startups and the energy of shared ideas. Pipeline, for instance, caters to startups that are apt candidates for investment capital from Pipeline itself.
In a city of escalating rents, cowork spaces like WeWork, Pipeline, Quest and Regus have become part of the urban fabric. According to a recent study, Miami has the most workspace sharing entities per capita of any metropolis in the country, with Coral Gables leading the way. “This is a hallmark of the city getting younger, in terms of its business professionals,” says Mark Trowbridge, CEO of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “Ten to 12 years ago a small, innovative company might not have looked at Coral Gables because our rents were a barrier. Not so much anymore.”
Carolina Rendeiro, chief marketing officer of Gables-based Connect2Global, was on the ground floor of the workspace-sharing phenomena decades ago, instrumental in establishing many of the first coworking entities in the city. “When opening these spaces, we looked at various components: the potential member base, proximity to airports, proximity to restaurants and hotels, transportation, and so forth. Coral Gables is a perfect community [for these]. Being recognized as an international hub added to the decision process.” The coworking spaces that have sprouted up in the Gables – two more are scheduled to open this summer – are part of a culture of business innovation that permeates the city.
Not far from WeWork is the new headquarters for Endeavor Miami, the only U.S. affiliate for the global (Latin America-focused) nonprofit that mentors and finds capital for “scalable” companies that have grown past the start-up stage. “We work with six to eight entrepreneurs a year, and we measure their impact by potential revenue growth and job creation,” says Laura Maydon, managing director of the Gables office for Miami. “A high growth company or one that scales up generates many more jobs than a small business.”
The city’s Department of Economic Development, tasked with improving the business environment of the city and attracting new firms, approaches innovation digitally as well as physically.
“Our approach is to use data to help us identify the opportunities,” says the department’s director, Pamela Fuertes. Working with the city’s IT department, the data can drill down to pedestrian patterns in the newly streetscaped downtown (to help new retailers) or expand to track industries that are poised to expand (to help attract multinationals).“It might not be obvious for a city to connect with entrepreneurs,” says Maydon. “But there is more and more connection as the city understands and contributes to their growth.”
The Medina Factor
Few People Have Reinvented Themselves with as much Success as Manny Medina, Coral Gables’ Master Innovator
By Doreen Hemlock
Coral Gables entrepreneur Manny Medina has chalked up many successes in his unexpected tech career: He built the largest Internet datacenter in Miami to handle traffic with Latin America. He sold his tech real estate company Terremark in a $2 billion transaction. He launched South Florida’s premier annual tech conference, eMerge Americas.
Now, the Cuban immigrant is developing his most ambitious tech business yet: Cyxtera, a Coral Gables-based cybersecurity venture already valued around $3 billion and set to go public on Wall Street. Cyxtera operates a whopping 57 data centers worldwide, with revenues topping $800 million last year. It already employs some 1,300 people, including 200 at its Ponce de Leon headquarters, which is “bursting at the seams,” says CEO Medina from his office by Miracle Mile.
Cyxtera focuses on new technologies to keep data and infrastructure secure, a challenge not only for businesses but for the government as well. As Medina puts it, “cyber attacks are very inexpensive, so our enemies are attacking us with more brains than heavy equipment, and we have to attack the same way.” It makes, he says, for an “eternal game of cops and robbers.”
The Gables company is keen now on “software-defined perimeters” to secure data and networks. The new technology recognizes that data no longer is stored in a box you own, that can be protected by a fence around it. Instead, users now log onto multiple systems remotely from everywhere and store data in multiple places, from public and private clouds to their office laptops. That means the perimeter around data “needs to be dynamic, not static,” says Medina. Unlike fences, software-defined perimeters can shift, and they let users into only the part of a network they need, not the whole system.
“The best analogy I use is: You are coming to see me, but you are given access to the whole building. You could have gotten off at any floor. Think if you would have had a door that gave you access only to my office. You cannot see the whole building,” says Medina. “You cannot hack what you cannot see.”
From Accounting to Tech Real Estate
Medina never set out to be a tech entrepreneur. He was 13 when his family moved from Cuba to Florida, and the start was rocky. “Edison Senior High was not one of the friendliest places for a Cuban kid to be in,” Medina recalls. He didn’t speak English, and kids beat him up. Medina says he started using martial arts to defend himself, earning a black belt. Finances were tight back then, too. His father drove taxis, his mother was a housekeeper, and Manny pitched in, delivering newspapers, for example.
After earning a bachelor’s in accounting at Florida Atlantic University, Medina got a job as as an auditor for Price Waterhouse. But by 1980, he was out on his own – in real estate development. Then he got the tech bug in the early 1990s. The U.S. recession had hit, and Medina was working on a project in Kuwait in the Persian Gulf. Far from his family and Florida, he recognized the importance of fast, inexpensive links for voice, data and other information. He began to read all he could about telecom and the Internet.
Back in Miami, he jumped at the chance to develop an Internet data-center that would transfer information to and from Latin America. He partnered his real estate savvy with a firm experienced in data-centers. The result was the Network Access Point of the Americas (NAP), a massive building downtown with two iconic white orbs on top, which opened with fanfare in 2001. It turned out to be an inauspicious time. “We went through a near-death experience, because the Internet bubble burst, the telecommunications industry imploded, 9/11 happened, there was no money anywhere,” Medina recalls. “But we felt so strongly about what we had that we persevered… I went all in.”
Medina’s real estate company Terremark owned and ran the Miami data-center, and it survived by providing customers with an ever-expanding array of services from managed hosting to cybersecurity and disaster recovery. By the time Verizon Communications bought it in 2011, the company had 13 centers worldwide and stock trading on Wall Street.
“Terremark put Miami on the map” in tech, says tech entrepreneur Susan Amat, the PhD who co-founded The Launch Pad at the University of Miami and now leads Coral Gables-based Venture Hive education company. She credits NAP’s success to Medina’s bold vision, willingness to take risks and his building a world-class team. Indeed, she notes many of the top brass from Terremark still work with Medina at Cyxtera.
Inspiration in the Florida Keys
After Terremark sold, Medina opted to take six months “off the grid” in the Florida Keys, to relax, play tennis and enjoy the sea – fishing, scuba diving and boating. Soon, he got to thinking about the future. “Retirement is way overrated. I love what I do and I love to create,” he realized. He decided on two priorities for his next chapter: “One, to continue to invest in these next-generation technologies and two, to help take this entrepreneur innovation system in South Florida and help invigorate it.”
Medina recognized then that South Florida was widely admired as a gateway for Latin American trade, music and other industries. Yet “when it came to tech, we never got any respect,” he says. He saw tech as vital for the region’s future: Tech jobs often pay 50 percent more than other jobs, and tech doesn’t pollute. “At the same time, it was very difficult to recruit top-tier tech talent in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, machine-learning… If you were a No. 1 draft pick, you didn’t think of Miami as your career path.”
Medina’s team set up the Technology Foundation of the Americas, conducted in-depth research into what makes tech hubs work, and convened leaders of local companies, government, and universities to get involved. In 2014, they launched the eMerge Americas conference to bring together tech leaders in Miami, with a focus on Latin America, attracting an initial 4,000 attendees.
Retirement is way overrated. I love what I do and I love to createManny Medina
This year, eMerge united more than 16,000 people, with 100- plus companies in its start-up competition, says President Melissa Medina. Much like Art Basel, the event now has spawned an entire Innovation Week in greater Miami, with corollary events. What’s more, eMerge now is organizing competitions and other events in Latin America, helping to identify tech entrepreneurs and bring them to Miami sessions.
Melissa Medina, Manny’s daughter and the mother to five children, is known for adding a focus on women in tech at eMerge that has helped make Miami a model for female entrepreneurship. She says she’s taken the business advice of her father/mentor/boss to heart, especially to build trust.
“One of the most important things to being successful is to always keep your word. Yes, what you sign on paper or digitally matters, but if it doesn’t match up to what you promised verbally, then you’re just not going to do well,” says Melissa. “You have to make sure you’re always delivering or over-delivering on what you promise. That’s one thing I can’t stress enough that he’s taught me.”
Investing in Next Generation Technologies
After his sabbatical, Medina started a Coral Gables-based fund to invest in technologies, including such cybersecurity firms as Easy Solutions in Doral. To launch Cyxtera in 2017, he partnered with another private equity group. Together, they invested $2.8 billion to acquire 57 data centers and take over Medina Capital’s stakes in other cybersecurity firms, creating a security-data center combo.
“Security is baked into Cyxtera’s data centers. It’s not an add-on or an after-thought,” says Steve Morgan, founder and editor-in-chief of New York research firm Cybersecurity Ventures. “Manny Medina is one of the top cybersecurity founders and investors of our time. There are some times when you expect success due to a company’s leadership. Cyxtera is one of those.”
Manny is humble about his leadership role. He attributes success to his team: “I surround myself with people who are a lot smarter than me.” He does make sure, however, that the team meets regularly to discuss the future: two, five and 10 years out.
They analyze trends: “Is this a tectonic change where the plates are moving or just a minor earthquake?” They strategize over future opportunities and execute plans with discipline. Manny calls the sessions “fun, like planning a trip.” He also avidly reads fiction, nonfiction and “everything in front of me” to perceive future trends. He can’t understand why some executives can’t find time to think about business years from now: “For me, it’s like breathing.”
But Medina doesn’t want his legacy to be just that of a visionary tech entrepreneur. He’d like to be remembered for “putting in more than I took.” That helps explain why his Family Foundation is busy making donations, providing (among other donations) $1.25 million to support marine research linked to the underwater lab Aquarius Reef Base in Key Largo. “There’s a ledger somewhere,” says the trim, 67-year-old Medina dressed in a Cyxtera shirt. “Someday, I’m going to stand in front of someone, and they are going to ask, ‘What did you do? What did you give back?,’ and I want to say, ‘On balance, I gave back.’”
A Gallery of Gables Innovators
What does it take to be an innovator? Many believe it involves something high-tech, creating a breakthrough with hardware or software that changes how we interact with the world. Think iPhone. But it goes far beyond the realm of technology, and can resonate in any industry, even a brick-and- mortar one. What it comes down to is imagining something new – a new method, a new idea, a new product – and having the energy and persistence to actualize the idea.
Coral Gables has more than its fair share of innovators. It is a city of immense personal wealth, much of it built by pioneers in industry, science and entertainment. But wealth, by itself, is not the only measure of success in innovation. What it ultimately comes down to is how it affects the end user, how it enriches our lives. Yes, innovation ultimately comes down to delivering a better experience or product to the consumer. As Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – but if it doesn’t improve their lives, what’s the point?
Here is a gallery of just a few of the innovators that call Coral Gables home.
Women’s Fashion Designer
Seven years ago, having spent two decades promoting the Kyoko Higa brand in the U.S., Venezuela native Maritza Fernandez decided to launch her own atelier and design shop in Coral Gables. Today the Filomena Fernandez line (named after her grandmother Filomena) has become a favorite of fashionistas. What makes Fernandez’s clothing innovative is that, despite the quality of her world-class designs for blouses, dresses, skirts and jackets, she is on a quest to make high fashion affordable. Three years ago, she decided to forgo the mass market, and to instead produce only “prêt-à-porter” or ready-to-wear clothing for her own shop.
“People have to spend a crazy amount of money to look properly, elegantly dressed,” she says. “My idea is that I want a lady to look incredible all the time without having to spend $5,000 on a jacket and a pair of slacks.”
Today her smart, elegant shop carries an array of blouses and dresses that cost $170 to $300 and $300 to $500 respectively, pieces from her seasonal collections. “I’m a fashion designer by profession, so finally I decided, ‘Let me do this, because I want to be able to find a blouse that costs $200 but looks like a thousand-dollar blouse.’”
Juan Della Torre
Club Founder and Owner
What does it take to create a night club in a city that is not known for its nightlife, especially a club that is open seven nights a week? A clever understanding of the demographics of a relatively small city, in order to lure different crowds on different nights.
That is just what former banker Juan Della Torre did, beginning six years ago, when he launched the Open Stage Club on Galiano Street in the downtown. Today, his club remains popular thanks to his programming of music that appeals to a variety of audiences. On one night it’s jazz, another night it’s Latin, and another it’s karaoke or a new talent showcase. Every Saturday there is stand-up comedy followed by disco dancing. And then there are the one-night-only events, like a U2 tribute band or a live performance of video game music.
“I love all music. There are no good or bad genres, only good or bad music in each. We have jazz nights, rock nights, Latin nights – we have disco nights. And I enjoy all of them,” says Della Torre. “I wanted to appeal to a crowd that resided in the area, and with a cultural interest that would appreciate it. So, the Gables was a great fit.”
Community Foundation Director
Mary Snow is a lifelong Gables resident who has served as Executive Director of the Coral Gables Community Foundation since January 2014. In that role she has ably steered the foundation in its mission to channel philanthropic donations to charities that benefit the community, and to raise funds through various events to fund scholarships for underprivileged students.
What she may end up being remembered for, however, was her idea to install the Umbrella Sky Project, a two-month installation of 700 multicolored umbrellas over Giralda Plaza in downtown Coral Gables. Coming on the heels of the city’s StreetScape project – which all but closed Giralda for the year it was under construction – the Umbrella Sky Project became a darling of social media last summer, radically increasing the foot traffic on the Plaza and bringing much needed relief to restaurateurs and retailers there.
“This will be a public art installation that will bring people from all over Miami,” she said at the time, and she was right. It also brought people from around the world. Foot traffic on Giralda rose from an average of about 2,200 people daily before the installation to between 9,400 and 12,600 daily after it went up. The event also went viral, creating more than 130 million impressions in traditional and social media.
Chief Experience Officer (CXO)
After more than 25 years of creating and producing high-profile lifestyle events, culinary entertainment expert Heidi Ladell has joined Fairchild Garden as its new Chief Experience Officer (CXO).
For those who have never heard of the CXO position, it was unknown a decade ago. It is now in vogue due to the success of “experiential” entertainment venues such as Disney World. In the case of Fairchild, their enormously successful NightGarden installation and walk-through experience last November led them to understand that their lush acreage could be programmed for more immersive entertainment.
Ladell is already well known in South Florida, where she was on the team that produced the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and where she produced a live broadcast of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. “My goal is to enhance and enrich the events that already exist, and to create new experiences, to look at things with a fresh eye,” she says. “The garden realized there was a lot more potential to be the backdrop for a wide range of things.”
Having spent years creating culinary events for luxury brands and Fortune 500 companies, says Ladell “I feel that it’s all about creating content, and taking it to a level, in a venue like this, to a user experience. Content is king, but experience is right up there.”
Under assault by everything from Amazon to e-readers, the brick-and-mortar business of bookstores has been shrinking for decades. But don’t tell that to Mitchell Kaplan, whose innovative approach to selling books at his flagship Books & Books store has made him a local legend.
Originally founded in 1982 on the corner of Salzedo and Aragon, Books & Books moved down the street to its current location on Aragon a few years later. The new digs surrounded a courtyard, which provided space for a covered bar, outdoor seating and bands that play on weekend nights. Combined with a café and book readings that take place several times a week, Kaplan has managed to create what amounts to a book village, a community of experience that has not only allowed him to survive but to thrive.
Since then Kaplan has expanded his entrepreneurial enterprise by setting up additional locations in Key West, Downtown Miami, and Miami Beach – which also supports itself with an outdoor café on Lincoln Road – and by expanding into film production from book titles that he options.
“At this point, I really believe that the journey is more important usually than anything else. I do things because I enjoy them, so I surround myself with people I really like, who share the same vision,” he says. “I know it takes a village to make things happen.”
Dr. Joseph Lamelas, M.D.
Pioneer in Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery
One of the greatest traumas in cardiac surgery is the requirement that doctors first break open the breastbone. Using what he has dubbed “The Miami Method,” Dr. Joseph Lamelas, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Miami Health System, instead cuts less than a two-inch incision in the right side of the chest. Through this opening he is able to perform most cardiac surgeries except for heart transplants.
“I realized in 2004 that I needed to do something to differentiate myself and advance the field of cardiac surgery,” stated Lamelas. “I began working on a minimally invasive technique and saw the necessity to create new instruments that would help me perform these operations.” Since then Lamelas has trained more than 1,000 surgeons in his techniques, in addition to performing some 700 procedures himself each year – the highest volume of any cardiac surgeon in Florida.
Lamelas spent years as chief of cardiac surgery at Mount Sinai in Miami Beach before leaving to work at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In January he returned to join UM, both as a surgeon and a professor of surgery at the Miller School of Medicine. “Miami is very personal to me, so I am very excited to return and be a part of South Florida’s only truly academic medical center,” said Lamelas. “Cardiac surgery is the pillar of any health care institution, especially in the academic setting which allows you to fully commit to innovation.”
Founder of the Blogger Union
Four years ago, Coral Gables native and UM grad Paola Mendez (B.S. in computer science) founded South Florida Bloggers, headquartered in the Gables where she blogs via www.coralgableslove.com. It has since then morphed into The Blogger Union and spread to a half dozen other cities – including Washington, D.C. and Rome, Italy – and today has more than 4,000 members.
The purpose of the union is to help members become blogging professionals – or to perfect their blogs as hobbies. They also in- struct small businesses that want to blog for marketing purposes. The South Florida Bloggers meet monthly around South Florida, but mostly in Coral Gables.“Most of the bloggers start as hobby bloggers, about their recipes, to share with their family, to blog about what they are wearing, or about their fashion accessories,” she says. “We reach out to members to see who wants to work with the brands.” The main categories are food, fashion, lifestyle, beauty and fitness, she says, “but there are even obscure categories, like faith bloggers.” Her most recent blog sites include the fashion site dapperanimals.com and coolgifting.com, “the ultimate gift guide” for everybody on your list.
Daly is a lifelong Coral Gables resident, entrepreneur and avid biker who, five years ago, broke her arm in an accident that led her to use the Metrorail – and to walk some of her commute under that elevated railway. It was then that she realized the potential for the land underneath to become a public park, akin to New York City’s Highline, the 2.5-mile park built on an abandoned, elevated rail line.
The Underline, as her project is now called, will eventually run 10 miles long, from Miami’s Brickell neighborhood through Coconut Grove and Coral Gables to Dadeland. In order to make it happen she has worked tirelessly for the last five years to raise $94 million in financial commitments from private and public sources, leading to its groundbreaking last year. “If we really want that 21st century city, one that offers amenities to talent for growth industries, [we must realize] they’re demanding mass transit, walkable, bikeable communities,” she says. “We’re not as green as we think.”
When finished, the Underline will offer everything from bike paths and foot paths, to gardens, dog runs and community meeting spaces. About three miles of the future green space runs through the Gables.
A Coral Gables native, Maddie Salman is the brains behind the solar powered charging benches scattered around Coral Gables parks. During her junior year at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, Salman was inspired by a passionate environmental science teacher. Realizing she couldn’t wait to take action, she met with then-City Commissioner Vince Lago to pitch her idea.
“It was amazing, that as a high school student, I could go do that with a city official,” Salman says. “It was really empowering.”
As a team, Lago and Salman fleshed out the idea from standing solar powered charging stations around the downtown to the benches that are now in 11 city parks. One of them is Riviera Park, where Salman grew up playing. “To come here and be able to cut the ribbon and see them pull the sheet off the bench and see it in use was just really kind of surreal,” she says.
From conception to completion, the project took around two and a half years. Year one was dedicated to perfecting the idea, while year two consisted of pitching the idea to the City Commission and Chamber of Commerce and working with the sustainability board.
The project was finalized while Salman was away at Boston University, where she just finished her first semester. “It was really nice to be able to come back and see this project be done,” she said. “It showed me that I had a tangible impact on my community.”
Founder and CEO of Dietspotlight.com
In a world where everyone wants to be an overnight online success, Coral Gables business man and serial internet entrepreneur Jesse Stein has mastered the art. Starting with New York-based Soho Digital, an online marketing company that he sold in 2005, Stein went on to found Triton Web Properties, which bought and sold URLs, and SportsMemorabilia.com, which he operated from a Gables warehouse until he sold the company in 2016.
Since then he has been running Dietspotlight.com from his offices on Valencia Avenue, which he loves for its walkability to everything downtown. Dietspotlight is a vendor of natural dietary supplements and weight loss software which has gotten more than 125 million visits since it was launched.
What is Stein’s innovative secret? Continually monitoring Google’s ranking system to try to break its code for rising to the top of the list when someone searches for your type of product.
“The most humbling thing [in Internet marketing] is the SEO [Search Engine Optimization – i.e. rankings] game. Google continues to humble me, because they will make sudden algorithmic changes month by month,” he says. “You have to reverse engineer what you think it is they now like.”
Gillian Hotz, PhD
Concussion Treatment Pioneer
The University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute’s Dr. Gillian Hotz is a national leader in the diagnosis, treatment, and research of concussions, a growing area of concern for professional and amateur athletes. With an increasing numbers of professional football players suffering longterm brain damage from concussions, Hotz has made it her vocation to advance awareness – and treatment – for these blows to the head.
Mostly, she says, her job is educational – to make coaches understand that nothing could be worse than sending a player with a concussion back into the fray. “Concussions are treatable,” she says. “Right now, the best way is to treat the symptoms. The thing you don’t want to do – and what ends up being the problem, with long term consequences – is to have this injury and continue to play and have other concussions. This is when the danger really unfolds itself.”
For the last five years, Hotz has been running UM’s Countywide Concussion Care program for public schools, instructing the school board’s athletic trainers, and setting up baseline tests for some 5,000 student athletes so they can later be re-tested for concussions. She also works with the Miami Dolphins Foundation. Her team is now conducting innovative research on concussion treatment with cannabidiol, a pain relief chemical found in medical marijuana.
“I definitely feel kids should play contact sports, but we should be improving safety,” she says. “There’s nothing better for a kid than playing team contact sports.”