MetroLab: A new era for higher learning in smart cities

MetroLab: A new era for higher learning in smart cities

MetroLab Interim Director Ben Levine leads a breakout session and engaged discussion on intelligent transportation systems and how MetroLab can support city-university partnerships to advance them.

What happens when cities and universities collaborate on smart, sustainable solutions?

It’s a question that hasn’t been well explored compared to, say, the rise of public-private partnerships. But there’s a vast well of untapped potential in such collaborations, as I learned last week.

The MetroLab Network, which launched in September as part of the White House’s $160 million-backed Smart Cities Initiative, comprises 34 cities, four counties and 44 universities. Its goal: support collaboration between cities and universities around projects that address everything from infrastructure and public services to environmental sustainability and social justice.

Last week’s summit in San Diego brought together representatives from across the network to figure out how to collaborate on such worthy pursuits.

The potential for cities and their local universities to work together on real-world problems, and create the data systems needed to do it, has game-changing potential. Indeed, part of MetroLab’s mission is to collect and disseminate best practices.

When 1 + 1 > 2

At the heart of city-university alliances is the idea that each brings something the other is lacking, leveraging the best of what both have to offer. 

Cities, which don’t typically have R&D arms, benefit from research institutions’ expertise in a rapidly changing landscape of technological innovation. Universities, for their part, get to take advantage of their city as a living lab, a test bed to deploy innovative technologies, strategies and policies.

There’s also the added benefit of sharing the risk.

"Taxpayers don’t want to invest in experimentation that could go awry," David Graham, deputy chief operating officer for the city of San Diego, told me at the event. “But if we are going to be transformational in how we deliver services, we have to be able to be innovative, we have to experiment, we have to be able to fail."

In this way, universities provide political cover to local elected officials, protecting collaborations under the auspice of "pilots," which people often assume to be messy. Cities, on the other hand, are discovering that opening their data and committing to being a sandbox for innovation can lead to innovative changes and deployment of new technologies that improve city services and the lives of their residents.

That’s what’s happening in San Diego, where project priorities range from prototyping participatory tools and spatial analytics models for new green infrastructure to a system-wide deployment strategy for intelligent infrastructure.

"Our partnership with the universities has been invaluable," said Dawn Gregory, who leads up the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance. Managing five active projects with Georgia Tech and Georgia State, from predictive community risk reduction to a sensor-enabled array of things, the city has reams of data coming in.

"They’re helping us build analytic models for different systems happening around the city, to be able to inform how we provide better services, optimize internal operations and, at the end of the day, create better value for the people of Atlanta," she said. 

In city government, where practices more often than not root in tradition — that is, in doing things the same way over and over again — university partnerships, and students, in particular, can bring fresh perspectives.

"We are cutting through a lot of paradigms here," said San Jose’s director of strategic partnerships and innovation, Khanh Russo. "Why are you doing it that way? Did you think of this? Did you know there’s a new technology to solve that already?" These are questions not always asked within city bureaucracies, he added.

From reinvention to unification

There’s also the issue of reinventing wheels — or, more opportunistically, preventing that from happening.

That’s another primary objective of MetroLab: to connect otherwise disparate projects across cities which are, in many cases, linked by mission or the kinds of technologies being tested. From deploying sensors to solving blight, there are untapped opportunities to facilitate the exchange of best practices and ensure cities working towards similar objectives benefit from the experience of their counterparts.

"If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate, it’s that mayors the world over share the same mission statement," said former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who previously was mayor of Baltimore (and, as of last week, is a MetroLab Network Senior Fellow). "They want to make their cities safer, healthier, cleaner places for kids to grow up and for businesses to expand." 

That’s why, as he put it, collaboration is the new competition.

Changing systems, from the grassroots up

Another untapped opportunity is for cities to be proving grounds for policies and technologies that can bubble up to the state and national levels. That’s another role MetroLab is trying to fill.

Take autonomous and connected vehicles. There isn’t yet a clear understanding, let alone consensus, about how they will transform the way we design, manage and move around cities. Progress can be seen across a broad spectrum, from early-stage exploration to advanced technology deployment. Beyond the technology itself, what’s needed is to assemble researchers and city officials to contemplate how some of the broader challenges and trends are going to shape cities.

Ben Levine, the network’s interim director, cited the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart Cities Challenge as an example of the power of incentives to mobilize this kind of deeper assessment, and also spur innovation.

The challenge — to fully integrate innovative technologies such as self-driving cars and connected vehicles into cities’ transportation networks — offers a $50 million prize, garnered 78 proposals and is down to seven finalists.

"What this demonstrates," Levine told me, "is that there’s a broad set of ideas worth funding, projects out there waiting for capital and a huge opportunity to ensure that the funding pie for these types of activities gets bigger."

Levine reinforced the power of such challenges to incent and expedite innovation. The $40 million put forth by the DOT alone, for example, which represents about 0.1 percent of DOT’s annual budget, had a tremendous impact on progress in all of the cities that participated in the program, according to Levine.

The conference heard from leaders in Portland, Oregon, who reinforced that the DOT Smart Cities Challenge pushed them ahead three years in how they are approaching smart-city deployments.

Overcoming barriers and doing what works

It’s hard stuff. This is unchartered territory, which comes with both new challenges as well as emerging sets of principles about what works.

Overcoming cultural barriers between cities and academe was one thread across the three days.

Take timelines and cultures. Cities may have to solve problems in hours, days or, if they’re lucky, weeks, whereas universities usually work on the timeframe of semesters or even years. Academic researchers traditionally have been evaluated and rewarded based on the number of publications they produce and research dollars they bring in, metrics not exactly compatible with the tangible needs of, say, a city seeking to measure rainfall, traffic patterns or sewage systems, and then turn data into action.

Both parties will need to change, said Levine: "Cities will need to be a bit more patient and universities are going to need to move more quickly for this to work."

Is there a role for business?

One question is where the private sector fits into all of this. The short answer: potentially everywhere, but not necessarily.

On the one hand, there’s great value in having conversations solely between cities and universities to explore and align around the core research questions.

Plus, as one city leader put it, lamenting the challenge of managing and vetting inbound interest from service providers, "I don’t need companies here. They find their way into my inbox 20 times a day."

On the other hand, there’s also benefits from having industry at the table. The potential to bring both city and university partners up to speed on technology applications that are already commercialized is one example, so a university researcher doesn’t spend a year creating something that’s already commercially available.

But companies are going to need to tread carefully.

One role for companies, offered by a city leader who claims to meet with three vendors a day, is to help facilitate change management and capacity building within cities. For example, companies may be more effective if they can sell their product in a way that helps cities develop the skills they’ll need to manage or maintain it themselves.

A new way is taking root

<p>Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley delivers a call-to-action, encouraging city and university partners alike to be relentless in their commitment to progress.</p>

What was clear from the event is that there’s a transformation, if not a revolution, taking place. As O’Malley said on the final day:

"The old ways of governing — based on ideology, bureaucracy, hierarchy and the tyranny of the way we’ve always done it — are fading away. A new way of governing is emerging. It’s not about excuses, it’s about results. It’s not about the left or right, it’s about moving forward. It’s about open data and, just as importantly, it’s about open minds."

The hope for our democracy, as he put it, is the emergence of a more connected, informed and empowered citizenry, in which things get done not by the authority of "because I said so" but instead a new authority of "because I can show you it works."