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Smart Communities and Startups: The Montgomery County Approach

Dan Hoffman

Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, Maryland

We all like to deride buzzwords and phrases. Words like “innovation,” “smart cities,” or the “Internet of Things” are so common these days it’s easy to write them off as noise, part of a constant hype cycle meant to label the next big thing. However, if you dig past the marketing, you’ll find real definitions to these words and phrases.

True smart community projects are simply the intersections of cyber-physical systems and governments, not just having a mobile application for government services or a website that collects feedback from residents. A smart community is more interactive — like when a government uses sensors to monitor the physical environment and then uses that data to take action for the betterment of its residents.

As for the word “innovation,” in Montgomery County, Maryland, we have used that word to define a research and development function within government. We take ideas and make them real with pilots, prototypes, and proof-of-concept projects. Like many private organizations that strive to constantly improve, we test ideas that could have returns on investment for our residents. That’s how we make the word “innovation” real.

The big difference is that a group of private research and development can keep its work secret if it chooses. In the public sector, transparency is one of our core values. With that in mind, we bring the outside in. What does that mean? We actively work with universities, private companies, and other public sector organizations to open up government for innovation. We operate correctional facilities, control transit systems, and manage libraries.

By opening up these domains and others to new ideas, from outside and inside, we can better understand and adapt to the dramatic shifts that are changing the way we govern. Good governments realize that they can’t figure out these challenges alone. That’s why Montgomery County participates in initiatives like the Global Cities Team Challenge and the MetroLab Network. It’s why we started Thingstitute, the county’s living laboratory for the Internet of Things and smart community projects. The partnerships available to startups through these initiatives can be invaluable if you know what the buzzwords mean in reality.

Understanding how a startup can navigate these initiatives means understanding what it means to participate in a public-sector-led, smart community pilot project. In Montgomery County, we create testbeds. We are currently in the midst of operating or planning four of these testbeds related to aging in place, corrections, agriculture, and transit. These are real world environments that a startup may typically have trouble accessing. For example, if you have a product that could make a correctional facility more efficient, the average startup shouldn’t have to rely on just having the right contacts for a proof-of-concept project.

In each testbed we have blended teams of subject matter experts from within government, university partners, large- and mid-sized corporations, and startups with products. We help the university partners get grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation. The established companies get access to an ecosystem of entrepreneurs as well as a compelling story. For startups, these testbeds mean validation. Some have resulted in that all-important first sale. For others, it means being able to show their products for the first time in an operational setting.

3 Testbed Tips for Startups Joining the Smart City Movement

Here are some tips on how to properly participate in one of these testbeds:

  • You’re on a team: At the Thingstitute, we treat all our partners as teammates. We want you to succeed, and we want our residents to benefit from the new ideas we’re testing. We know that not every idea will work, but the only way we’ll know is to test it. That means everyone must contribute their pieces of the puzzle. For example, in our agriculture testbed Microsoft is providing access to its cloud platform, Azure, and Earth Networks is contributing weather stations and data. For the testbed to be a successful sandbox for the participating startups, these established companies are providing time, tech, and talent. Startups should be prepared to do the same
  • Patience: Life for a startup moves fast. So, it’s understandably frustrating when you feel as though your public sector pilot project isn’t happening as quickly as you would like. Coordinating all of the proper stakeholders and getting the pieces in place for a successful testbed takes time. In some cases, we also have to be mindful of agreements with employee unions. Counties and cities have to be good stewards of limited taxpayer resources, which means we have to do our due diligence and test the scalable ideas that have the best returns on investment. If you want to get your product in a testbed, a little patience and the right attitude goes a long ways.
  • The new business development: In the Thingstitute, we’d rather see your tech in action than sit through a presentation. If you’re in the midst of creating a prototype, great! We’ll help you and some of our university teammates can, too. If you need to talk to a subject matter expert in county government to get feedback on your product, we can make that happen. We may even be able to make a small purchase to test out your product. Your Montgomery County teammates at the Thingstitute are happy to help you through the process, but first, we want to see that within the team structure of the testbed.

In Montgomery County, we’re especially committed to startups through our economic development activities. Our recent partnership with 1776 builds on that tradition. Just as the Internet of Things and smart communities are changing the way we govern, they are also changing the way we nurture startups. The Thingstitute and its testbeds are Montgomery County’s responses to that.

Similarly, our new Innovation into Action Challenge is a joint venture with DAI, USAID’s Global Development Lab, and the Global Accelerator Network to provide funding and testbed opportunities for startups in the developing world. The number of different smart community initiatives and programs may be overwhelming, but the opportunities are there for savvy startups looking to join the smart city movement.

Dan Hoffman

Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, Maryland

Dan Hoffman is the first Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County, Maryland, a position he has held since October 2012. He is responsible for creating and maintaining strategies and programs…