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White House gets serious about smart cities with $160 million pledge

Over the past five or six years, the federal government’s official support of smart city experiments has been relatively “place-based” and, let’s admit it, disjointed. For the next year, at least, planners can expect a different attitude.

The Obama administration this week outlined a sweeping set of research programs and public programs that it will manage far more holistically. Its collective, cumulative investment for this so-called “Smart Cities Initiative”: $160 million.

The idea is to encourage more sharing of ideas and best practices, despite the local or regional priorities that drive a specific project. The time wasn’t all that accidental. It came during the “Smart Cities Week” held across town in the Capitol City by the Smart Cities Council. The council, which represents more than 120 partners and advisors, recently published more than 50 case studies that planners can use to benchmark their own readiness.  

[Learn more about smarter cities at VERGE San Jose, Oct. 26 to 29.]

More than 20 cities and communities support the centralized push advocated by the White House, ranging from huge metropolitan regions such as Atlanta and Chicago to smaller communities such as Providence, Rhode Island. Prominent technology companies associating their brands with the myriad new research programs and grants include AT&T, Autodesk, Cisco Systems, GE, IBM and Microsoft.

“Every community is different, with different needs and different approaches,” said President Barack Obama in a prepared statement. “But communities that are making the progress on these issues have some things in common. They don’t look for a single silver bullet; instead they bring together local government and nonprofits and businesses and teachers around a shared goal.” 

Among specific investments planned for fiscal year 2016 (provided they make it through the budget process):

  • $35 million in National Science Foundation grants. They’ll support everything from next-generation, high-speed Internet technologies and “cyber-physical” systems that enable smart cars and grid integration for renewable energy.
  • $50 million for emergency-response technologies. This will include investments by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Technology in Big Data software that predicts what first responders should prioritize.
  • $40 million in advanced transportation infrastructure. Part of this dedicates $20 million for sensors and software that will bring connected vehicles to Manhattan.
  • $10 million to support energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions. Spearheaded by the Department of Energy, this will include research in next-generation vehicles and smart building automation.

Big emphasis on collaboration with universities

Literally dozens of specific initiatives, hackathons, research projects and collaborative partnerships are covered under the White House commitment — far more than can be listed here. (So make sure to consult the link.) 

One strategy that begs close observation is the MetroLab Network, which teams influential universities and their home towns. There are 20 specific collaborations, expected to result in more than 60 smart city projects over the next year.

“One of the interesting aspects of this network is being able to share our efforts here in South Bend with other communities around the country,” said David Murphy, associate dean of entrepreneurship for Notre Dame University in Indiana, one of the schools that will participate. “We also expect to learn a great deal from colleagues working on projects in other cities which may apply to the needs of our own community.”

It takes a public-private village

There were also a flood of corporate declarations this week. Here are some highlights:

  • Siemens makes the case. One of the most active smart city technology providers, the company released a “City Performance Tool” for helping planners calculate the potential impact of investments in energy and transportation projects. The software is available to members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.
  • IBM as mentor. The high-tech giant will help organize educational events in 30 cities, including many outside North America. This is part of a collaboration with the Global City Teams Challenge and focused on best practices for the Internet of Things (IoT).
  • AT&T plans 10 test beds. Supported applications are lighting, parking, transportation, public safety and building management. The locations weren’t specified yet, but the telecommunications giant just added Dallas as a focus for its IoT strategy.

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