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Smart Partnerships for Smart Cities

Ben Levine

Interim Director, MetroLab Network

According to United Nations’ projections, urban areas in the U.S. are expected to grow by more than 30 percent by 2050. During that period, cities will invest billions in water, transportation, and electric and broadband infrastructure that must be equipped to handle climate change and natural disasters. Cities will need to provide public health services, high-quality schools and community colleges, reliable public transportation, effective policing, and much more.

Also during that period, cities will dedicate increasing portions of their budgets to fixed costs: healthcare, retirement expenditures, and debt services associated with (expected) rising interest rates. Forced to “do more with less,” cities can and must embrace the benefits of creating relationships with their universities to build better and more resilient infrastructures, more effectively deploy services, increase environmental sustainability, and improve the lives of their residents.

Cities and Universities Working Together

MetroLab Network launched in September 2015 as part of the White House Smart Cities Initiative and is a network of more than 20 city-university and county-university partnerships that focus on research, development, and deployment (RD&D) projects in the smart cities industry. Projects often reinvent ways that cities collect and act upon data through the use of information technology, sensors, and data analytics, to name a few. City-university partnerships are mutually beneficial relationships in which the university is the city’s RD&D department and the city is the test bed. 

These relationships begin locally because anchor institutions are deeply familiar with their cities, but the relationships should not be solely limited to local partnerships. By creating a national network of city-university partnerships, MetroLab Network facilitates the scaling of projects and creates a platform for the coordination of multi-university and multi-“city as a laboratory” experiments.  

Value of Network and Collaboration

The benefits of MetroLab’s networked approach are already evident. Mature city-university partnerships — which have already undertaken RD&D projects that improve transportation, education, emergency response, and more — are looking to scale successful projects to new cities. Newly formed city-university partnerships are learning from their peers, identifying potential solutions, and designing new RD&D approaches to address similar challenges. Multi-university teams are beginning to organize projects that take advantage of the network’s multi-city laboratory.

Civic Tech Community Benefits

Beyond MetroLab Network’s impact on cities and universities, many of the technologies and approaches that emerge from city-university partnerships will present opportunities for commercialization. Testing these solutions through MetroLab Network’s multi-city platform will make products and businesses more viable and more attractive to incubators and venture capital investors. In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that Internet-of-Things applications for cities will generate $900 million to $1.7 trillion in economic value by 2025.

These applications, which include public safety, health, traffic control, and resource management will not likely present immediate opportunities for private investment or commercialization. Instead, solutions must go through a process of design and testing that will require technical expertise, rigorous evaluation, and close partnership or sponsorship from city government(s). Commercial opportunities that emerge, either as academic spin-offs or civic tech partnerships, will benefit from structured and multi-city RD&D processes.

Cultural Change

Cities need cultural change to be smart. Cities are becoming more suitable for academic research by opening their data portals, modifying their procurement regimes, and embracing a culture of innovation and problem-solving. These institutional changes will flow to the broader civic tech community, resulting in opportunities for entrepreneurs, civic hackers, and entrepreneurial public employees. 

Examples Across the Country

City-university partnerships have big potential. In 2004, a Ph.D. student in Control Theory Engineering at Notre Dame University collaborated with faculty and the city of South Bend, Indiana to develop a new technology using a networked system of embedded computers, distributed sensors, and gates and valves to increase the effective capacity of the city’s combined sewer system. The creative approach should ultimately save the city hundreds of millions of dollars that would otherwise have been invested in new infrastructure. The team spun-off, and more than a decade later, its company, EmNet, operates in 15-20 cities across the country.  

Similarly, many of the projects emerging as part of MetroLab Network have the potential to become successful products and companies. For example, in Boston, Massachusetts and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, researchers are using smartphones to identify potholes. The data gathered allows city officials to repair infrastructure more quickly and methodically. In Maryland, Montgomery County is working with its agricultural community to introduce Internet-of-Things devices to increase productivity. Each of these approaches takes advantage of university researchers as RD&D partners and leverages the municipalities as testbeds.

We must accelerate the adoption of solutions that make our cities better service providers, more efficient, safer, and more sustainable. Along with burgeoning civic tech communities, city-university partnerships are critical parts of the solution.

Ben Levine

Interim Director, MetroLab Network

Ben Levine is the Interim Director of MetroLab Network.  Ben joined MetroLab Network after three years at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he focused on infrastructure policy and…