From Cape Town to Charlotte, there's a partner for every purpose

A water fountain called Metamorphosis, shaped like a man's mirrored head, in Charlotte, N.C.
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Metamorphosis, a water fountain at a technology park in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This is third in a series on the role of public-private partnerships in realizing smart, sustainable cities, systems and industries. The first and second articles can be found here and here.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are evolving in creative and powerful ways. This article continues to describe the high-level shaping of public-private ecosystems in cities — focusing on the diverse types and roles of key partners.

As described previously, cities interested in starting a public-private smart cities program typically partner first with their local electric utility company. But a diverse array of business partners also may have a critical role to play.

Cities and businesses partner for reasons that are "obvious and not-so-obvious," explained Gordon Feller, co-founder of Meeting of the Minds, a knowledge exchange platform that convenes a leadership summit on PPPs and urban innovation for smarter sustainable cities. An obvious reason is that public resources are limited: "When cities, counties and states want to make smart sustainable cities possible, they are going to have to turn to private resources to do it — technology resources, financial resources and others."

Less obviously, "technology transformation is happening so fast, and the urban impacts of climate change are being felt [so much], that public sector leaders have to look elsewhere for insights." And "the issues are so big that we need all hands on deck — more insights, more eyeballs."

Through strategic platforms such as Envision Charlotte, "needs and the ability to implement are matched between a city and private sector businesses," said its executive director, Amy Aussieker.

Public-private-plus

Additionally, Envision Charlotte’s "public-private-plus" model underscores the powerful impact of working with local universities. Such partners can be key, as they "provide analytical and research expertise, are looking for juicy issues to study and are ideally located in the same geography," explained Aussieker.

Metro Lab Network, a leader in organizing these relationships, helps connect universities ("the R&D department") with cities ("the test-bed"). Reported Aussieker, "It offers great value within a PPP, eliciting an ‘aha moment’ about the potential of shared resources." For example, Envision Charlotte makes use of data analytics resources within its local university. "[Participants in] Envision America picked up on this" and seeded more of these city-university relationships.

In fact, public-private-plus collaboration has helped an entire PPP ecosystem-building strategy to emerge organically in Portland, Oregon. This place-based strategy was spearheaded by the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) in collaboration with the Portland State University (PSU) Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program. With a goal to better understand what’s required to attract and retain technology talent, "it became clear that a high-quality civic environment in which to live and work was key," reported Skip Newberry, TAO’s president and CEO. This led to the local technology community itself engaging in creative play with local government. "Innovation labs are now in place — for smart cities, cybersecurity and trust, and digital health and wellness."

As the process unfolded, weekend hackathons became month-long sprints, leading to regional challenges such as the Greater Portland Mobility Tech Challenge. This was driven in strategic collaboration with GreaterPortland Inc. (GPI), a public-private economic development collaborative.

"The purpose of the challenge was to activate Greater Portland’s smart cities ecosystem, bringing together public and private-sector problem solvers to address the region’s most confounding mobility challenges," Lloyd Purdy, Greater Portland’s VP of regional competitiveness, said. "The challenge created a safe place for public and private partners to come together and explore problems, opportunities and collaborations. Five of the mobility challenges pitched by public agencies resulted in active public/private partnerships."

Public-private triangulation

Universities, nonprofit partners and others create a healthy triangulation within a PPP, which allows real discussions to happen. Feller of Meeting of the Minds said, "The third sector is everyone else — nonprofits, universities, the media. This triangulation mitigates the bilateral dynamic" between the long-term-oriented taxpayer-paid public sector and the shorter-term-oriented shareholder-beholden private sector.

"This third sector also brings a third kind of accountability — that is, to the next generation," continued Feller. "It uses tools not in the public or private toolkits to look at impacts. It brings new metrics to the conversation, which helps to engage and reward more players."

With nonprofits and foundations on the team "there is also a funding model that comes through," Sokwoo Rhee, leader of the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), said. This adds complexity, but it also enables conversations. "Nonprofits can provide a neutral zone — a buffer so that city governments feel more comfortable."

Rhee explained the gap that exists between the perspectives of city governments and technology providers. "Providers want to sell products, which makes sense. Governments want to buy products that are guaranteed to work for them. But with a new technology, they are not sure it’s going to work… Even if a solution [works in one setting], it has to be verified to work someplace else. So, the prime partners and nonprofits have to play the role that is missing."

Public-private funding sources

"At the end of the day, money [for public-private city projects] has to come from somewhere. This process is not very well established," observed Rhee. It typically involves some mix of funding from taxpayer dollars, consumer revenues, private partners, corporate investors, federal and state governments and foundations.

Several important efforts have succeeded in creating tools to help cities and their partners identify financing sources and to document what works and make this process a little less mysterious.

The Smart Cities Financing Guide provides valuable information about ways city leaders can get around tight budgets and high project costs to build the smart cities they envision. The guide was developed for the Smart Cities Council and includes several dozen alternatives to traditional financing options.  

In addition, the Financing Sustainable Cities initiative provides technical assistance to accelerate and scale-up investments for sustainable urban projects. Its toolkit provides access to a catalog of investments made in cities, including information about a project’s funding source and long-term financing, as well as a description of the assets and contracts put in place.

Public-private-startup partnership

"A newer model that we hope to see more of is one where startups complete the picture in a public-private ecosystem, bringing new technologies and business models into play, and attracting funding with them," said Kent Lucas of 30x Partners, an advisory firm focused on technology startups for cities and smart transportation.

"Increasingly, large corporations act as investment partners in technology accelerators and commercialization platforms," Lucas reported.  TechStars Mobility Accelerator, a public-private initiative operating in downtown Detroit invests in startups with offerings that impact how people and goods move across all modes of transportation, including pedestrian.

"Another possible source of funding that should gain traction is crowd-sourcing platforms; these can provide cities a source of startup technology funding with the co-benefit of involving local citizens and former residents to help advance a city or region."

Public-private-citizen partnership

Finally, a city’s most plentiful partner is its citizens. Citizens are variously called "private citizens" or "the public." To that end, they are the quintessential public-private partner.

Recently, Cape Town, South Africa, was able to avert "the dreaded day zero, when the taps would run dry and people would have to line up for a daily water ration" and dispel the dark no-rain cloud over its head by assertively engaging its citizenry in water conservation. It managed to reduce usage by 50 percent, and have restored viability as a trusted, well-functioning city. The latest report from Cape Town declared, "The city will not run dry this year or next" — that is, if people keep up the restrictions they've been practicing.

That anecdote supports a core concept behind the Cool Block — that a city’s best partner may be its citizens. In the Cool Block (an application platform created for the Cool City Challenge, which I manage), a city asks its citizens to take action not only in the area of water stewardship, but also low-carbon living, resiliency-building and livability enhancement within their neighborhoods. The city curates public and private local resources to help those actions. 

Californians who have participated in the Cool Block pilots in Palo Alto, San Francisco and Los Angeles say they have deeply appreciated the program because it gives them a sense of agency, while creating meaningful social connection with their immediate neighbors — that original collaborative fabric we have allowed to fray. 

Dreaming big

Rhee visualized a future where smart city public-private partnership is writ large: "My dream is that a PPP model could become regional, or even national. There doesn’t have to be 19,000 ecosystems built."

To realize that vision, "solution providers have to come closer to a unification. GCTC’s goal is to create that common ground" so that "smart city solution providers can come up with a [metaphorical] T-shirt that can be sold to millions, not hundreds."

To that end, GCTC groups similar public-private project clusters into SuperClusters so that commonalities can take shape.

"SuperClusters create Blueprints consisting of a technology plan updated each year, a description of how and what to do, and a collection of best practices proven to work." Rhee hopes "to make Blueprints available to as many cities as possible."

The next article in this series will describe how to get the public-private playspace ready for smart partnerships and point to a few compelling, even urgent, invitations to play.

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