Last December, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) launched the Smart City Challenge, a unique competitive grant program that will award a mid-sized American city an unprecedented $40 million "to implement bold, data-driven ideas by making transportation safer, easier, and more reliable."
Based on its Beyond Traffic Report, which found there will be 70 million more people in the U.S. by 2045, DOT realized it needed to get a step ahead when it came to transportation. The agency launched the Challenge "to create a fully integrated, first-of-its-kind city…that can demonstrate how advanced data and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies and applications can be used to reduce congestion, keep travelers safe, use energy more efficiently, respond to climate change, both connect and create opportunities for underserved communities, and support economic vitality."
Five finalists were to be chosen, but with the number of applications reportedly "overwhelming" (according to Jon Romano, DOT’s director of strategic communications, DOT had expected to receive applications from 30 cities at most; it received 78), seven cities made it through the first phase of the Challenge. As announced recently at the South by Southwest conference, the seven finalists are: Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City (MO), Pittsburgh, Portland (OR), and San Francisco.
Carlo Ratti, director of the Masschusetts Institute of Technology Senseable City Laboratory, explained "the concept of a Smart or Senseable City" as "the manifestation of a broader technological trend: the Internet is turning into an ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and is entering the spaces we live in…IoT has begun to blanket our urban fabric, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Its underlying broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunication grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open public databases, that are collected as a consequence of IoT, are helping literate and illiterate people to access fundamental information about the functioning of our cities. Add to this foundation a fast-growing network of sensors and digital- control technologies, all tied together by inexpensive, powerful computers, and you will see how our cities are quickly becoming like 'computers in open air.'"
For the final phase of the competition, Romano said, each of the finalists will be given "$100,000 to refine their proposals to showcase how they will integrate innovative technologies to prototype the future of transportation in their city. After working hand-in-hand with six DOT-endorsed partners, the seven cities will present their final proposals on May 29th and the winners will be announced in June."
Romano said the goal of the Challenge is "how to make this scalable across the board and not just about how to reconnect people to opportunity and eliminate the digital divide, but to connect neighborhoods to technology, economic opportunity, jobs, etc." The winner will serve as a model for other cities to emulate, and DOT will support those cities that apply with $500 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) competitive grants.
Considering the federal government tends to spread out large awards across many winners instead of awarding one large sum to a single applicant, the Smart City Challenge is "unusual," said Ted McGalliard, team leader of business development for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). He added that it is an "interesting opportunity in partnering with others."
Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, was enthusiastic about how the focus on "mid-size cities, which have remarkable innovation and are of a manageable size (as opposed to cities like New York with vast competing interests), and the focus on public/private partnership" presents a compelling model for "how to make a city work better…to be a more engaged city with a smart investment in communications and technology information."
Aside from the size of the award, the Challenge is unusual in truly partnering with the private sector. Paul G. Allen’s philanthropic venture, Vulcan Inc., a Smart City Challenge partner since December 2015, will bolster the winner’s award with an additional $10 million, which ups the winner’s prize money to $50 million. Focused on the hot issue of climate change, Vulcan stated on its website it will "provide assistance to the winning city in their pursuit of transportation electrification. We are looking for a city that seeks electrification of all possible modes of transportation, including the deployment of autonomous vehicles and ancillary technologies and programs."
In addition to the overwhelming response by applicants, Romano said, DOT received 300 applications for partnerships; however, the agency is "strategic in its choosing and makes sure partners align with demonstrating what they specifically could do in the cities." He said DOT "talked to the cities to understand what are their needs" before it would endorse any partnerships.
In addition to Vulcan, another five Smart City Challenge partners have been endorsed by DOT:
As to which city will win and become the showcase for Smart City best practices, none of the experts would venture guesses.
Ben Levine, interim director for the White House-backed Metrolab Network, which focuses on city-university partnerships and the development of smart city projects and IoT, said some finalists (Pittsburgh and Columbus) had strong city-university partnerships, which is a "sign that as cities focus on technology-heavy or data approaches, it’s important to have the universities with technical expertise help cities respond to the data appropriately."
Bell also noted Columbus and the university connection and mentioned Austin and San Francisco, the latter of which, he said, is "choking on its own success." Likening the Smart City Challenge to the Open Data Initiative, Bell said, "not every smart city is an intelligent community, in that you cannot keep [innovation] within government but need to open it up to universities, community colleges, and local businesses so that the economic benefit stays local."
McGalliard said he had "no idea who will win; if it will be the usual suspects to look to as a model, such as San Francisco, Portland, and Austin, or the unexpected, such as Kansas City, which is increasingly becoming a player, or Columbus and Pittsburgh." What is key to making the Smart City Challenge a success, he said, is that it is fine "to establish a national presence, which will add tons of value, but [more important is] connecting with local businesses, universities, and citizens; showing effective technology, management, and forward-looking leadership, rather than technology for its own sake."
Tatjana Meerman is a freelance technology writer based in the Washington, D.C. area.
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