White House slates $80M for city tech innovations

Focus needs to be on citizen needs, info-sharing

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The White House last week announced $80 million in new federal funds for its ongoing Smart Cities Initiative while doubling the number of participating U.S. cities to more than 70.

The funding is meant to spur development of technologies and programs in four primary areas: to reduce energy usage; improve urban transportation with connected and autonomous vehicles; beef up public safety and disaster response; and transform city services such as outreach to the homeless.

The funding is partly a response to a comprehensive report from presidential advisors in February recommending ways to maximize technology innovation in cities. Dozens of experts worked on the report, including Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, and Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

One seminal recommendation called on cities to share information and tools.

The report also emphasized how cities in other countries are using technology, much of it based on the use of inexpensive sensors to monitor air, road and water conditions in an Internet of Things approach. "The time to aim for leadership in urban technologies and urban science is now," the group said.

Analysts who study the smart city movement globally have noticed an accelerated interest in cities in Europe and Asia, especially China, leading some to wonder how soon the U.S. will respond.

The 84-page February report is available here.

"Technology and the Future of Cities" pointed to the "uneven implementation and distribution of [technology] solutions across cities, hightlighting a need for more effective approaches to data integration and sharing."

Small cities lose out and projects can sometimes be "idiosyncratic" and expensive, as a result. The report added that "a comprehensive information infrastructure for cities to use and share does not exist today and is needed to make significant progress."

Last week's White House response includes dozens of areas where federal dollars will be spent on pilot projects and research, primarily through agencies already doing such work. A big chunk of the $80 million total includes $60 million in National Science Foundation grants and investments. Among them: $10 million to support access to gigabit-ready networks and services under the U.S. Ignite program.

The White House also announced a challenge grant by the Smart Cities Council to help five American cities apply technologies to improve urban livability, workability and sustainability. The council is an independent network of leading tech firms that is advised by universities, laboratories and government standards bodies.

According to the council, more than $1 trillion in annual technology sales can be traced globally to smart city investments. "It's not just a trend...it's a race," the council says on its website. "A smart city strategy is essential to support a 21st century workforce and to drive economic development."

The five winning cities will receive customized workshops and services from industry partners. One such service will come from the TM Forum, a nonprofit group focused on improving collaboration. It will provide a free assessment model to help the winning cities examine strengths and weaknesses so they can set goals in the next two to five years.

Cities can use the model to advance "by really looking at how the city is organized, since many have stovepipe organizations where portions have trouble talking to each other," Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, said in an interview.

The model was developed by experts and linked up with global best practices from the smart city movement. "It's the glue to pull together a lot of reputable institutions. The notion is to try to get a global movement going for one way to view smart city maturity," Piva said.

Once a city examines its approach and develops a vision of what it wants to achieve using the TM Forum model, the questions then become "how to drive citizen input and drive city services with the citizen at the heart and defining a new proposition of what the customer needs," Piva said.

Just as Uber and Airbnb have crushed older, established business models to build services around customer needs, cities need to do the same, he said. "The best municipalities have services designed around customer needs, although usually it's the other way around—kind of an inside-out approach. Sensors in the Internet of Things and other technologies happening in society could form a powerful catalyst for change. Cities need to see what citizens want."

Eventually, the model could be used to create online components of data that can be shared by other cities. "If your city is not doing tourism well, maybe another city solved that problem and you can copy and download and use its approach," he said.

"That's something cities don't do well today, but it has worked for some industries," Piva said. "It is called co-creation, where you create components but don't develop everything yourself. You might need something somebody else already did. That's a journey that doesn't happen overnight, but the city that doesn't do it will fall behind."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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