Sustainability & Public Works

Note: This is the transcript of an interview with Albert Carbon (Public Works Director – Oakland Park, FL) and Ellory Monks (Co Founder – The Atlas Marketplace) that took place on June 26, 2017. The interview was hosted by APWA’s Center 4 Sustainability and originally posted on their blog. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Ellory: Hi there, everyone. My name is Ellory and I’m so glad to be talking with you all today. Before we get to the meatier part of our conversation, I want to quickly introduce myself and give you a little context about why I’m talking to you today. So my partners and I have been working 1-1 with dozens of cities over the last 5 or so years—primarily with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation—to design, finance and implement resilient infrastructure projects. Several years ago, we had a conversation with the Public Works Director in one of our coastal partner cities about a plan to install flexible flood barriers. And that conversation really changed how we approached our work with cities. He asked us:

  • what cities have installed flexible flood barriers like this?
  • how much did it cost?
  • how’d they finance it?
  • what have the outcomes been?
  • how’d the city write the RFP?
  • what companies were involved?
  • can you put me in touch with the city officials that have done this already?

 

This public works director told us that he couldn’t even begin to think about bringing the project to his mayor and city council before knowing the answers to these questions. His questions crystalized something that we already knew instinctively: that city officials prefer to learn from their peers. Because at the end of the day, only other public works directors can understand the hopes, dreams and frustrations of other public works directors. That’s one reason why organizations like APWA are so incredibly important, and why we’re so happy to be included in the C4S Sustainability Toolkit.

Over the years, we had many, many other similar conversations with different city officials. So we decided to launch The Atlas, an online social network and marketplace for city officials looking to upgrade their infrastructure to be stronger, smarter and more sustainable. Our goal is to create a safe, hassle-free space for city, county, and utility staff to learn from one another about successfully built and installed infrastructure projects from around the world.  Our end game is to help local government leaders replicate innovative infrastructure projects – and the benefits they generate – in their own communities.

We launched The Atlas just about 9 months ago. We’re now partnered with over 40 local governments, including several public works directors and their staff. Albert & Oakland Park was one of our first partner cities.

At The Atlas, I’m in charge of facilitating city-to-city learning, and that’s why Albert and I are talking to you today. I want to highlight some of the great progress Albert and his staff have made in Oakland Park recently to tackle their flood issues. Specifically, I want to talk with him about how he’s engaged with the planning folks at the city, county, water management district, etc., because it’s an issue that a ton of public works departments face when pursuing sustainability or resilience projects. So with that, I’d like to introduce you to Albert! He’s really one of the most forward-thinking public works directors I know. Albert, can you please share a little bit about yourself, Oakland Park and some of the infrastructure challenges you’re facing?

Albert: Sure. I’ve been with Oakland Park for a little over a year and before that I was the Public Works Director of Fort Lauderdale, FL for nearly a decade. I met Ellory about nine months ago at the Smart Cities Conference in Washington, D.C. They had just launched The Atlas two weeks before we met!

Oakland Park is a small city (population ~40,000) in Broward County in southeast Florida. Oakland Park is a coastal city, but we don’t have any beachfront property, so we’re unique that way. Oakland Park basically sits in a bowl and is surrounded by higher elevations. This means that we are constantly struggling with drainage issues and chronic flooding. We really are feeling the effects of climate change and sea level rise now.

Separate of flooding, we’re also looking into smart cities technologies to improve other city services. When it comes to smart cities, we’re really focused on improving data collection and analysis.

Ellory: What initially drew me to Albert and to Oakland Park is that they’ve made real progress towards addressing their flood issues, even though they’re a small/medium-sized city without a huge tax base. And they’ve made that progress in a way that’s incorporated a lot of nature-based solutions and green infrastructure, most recently with the new pump station at Lloyd Estates. Albert, can you talk about the process and time it took for you to get from “We have a flooding problem” to “these are some of the investments we can make to start to address the problem.” Continue reading “Sustainability & Public Works”

Cities Can’t Prejudge Winner in Green v. Grey Infrastructure Battle

When one of our co-founders was in college, she noticed there was always a disconnect between the “civil” and “environmental” parts of her Civil/Environmental Engineering degree. Sometimes it even seemed like the nerds and the hippies were locked in a quiet (but epic!) struggle over the future of the world’s cities. These tensions were an understandable reflection of a persistent trend in the infrastructure community that continues to pit grey (traditional) and green (nature-based) approaches against each other in a quasi-moral battle.

One of the ironies of the green versus grey infrastructure battle is that they are not mutually exclusive approaches; many times the best design solution is a combination of grey and green infrastructure working together. Grey and green infrastructure are on the same team, and that team’s goal is to take action on any number of difficult problems coastal cities are grappling with: hurricane risk, saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, tidal flooding, sea level rise. Arguing about green versus grey infrastructure makes taking action on these problems harder than it already is.

In the spirit of taking action and focusing on outcomes, here are a few interesting examples of successfully built green and grey coastal protection projects and the innovations that make them stand out.

Green (Nature-Based) Coastal Protection Projects

It is paramount for all nature-based coastal protection projects to plan for, and execute long-term evaluation and monitoring to determine the project’s performance, such as resulting reduction of wave height. This is essential to ensure that more traditional engineers accept these softer solutions as viable. The support of more traditional engineers is key to the replicability and scalability of these nature-based solutions.

Louisiana’s Coastal Restoration: As a part of a comprehensive plan to reduce coastal risks, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has undertaken nearly 150 restoration and protection projects, both green and grey. Of interest is the associated applied research to measure and model the performance of nature-based infrastructure projects on Louisiana’s coast.

Staten Island Bluebelt (New York): A successful watershed-level approach to green infrastructure to address intertwined problems of coastal risks, flooding and poor water quality. The Bluebelt enjoys a high level of community support because of continued engagement, increases in home prices and cost savings.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Restoration (Dover, DE): Integration of storm surge risk reduction and endangered species habitat restoration after Hurricane Sandy. Particularly interesting is this write-up from the US Fish and Wildlife Service that includes process updates from December 2012 through December 2016 (when construction finished) that provide great insight into how the project actually moved forward.

Grey (Structural) Coastal Protection Projects

There are cases when no amount of green infrastructure will solve extreme, chronic coastal flooding. In those cases, it’s a good thing traditional grey solutions are becoming smarter, more flexible, and more sustainable. We should applaud that progress and seek to replicate it, when appropriate. These are some examples we’ve been thinking about recently:

San Andrés Breakwater (Port of Málaga, Spain): An innovation in breakwater design and materials saved significant time and money in this project. The RFP was written in a way that enabled the innovation in design and materials, which is why the project won Spain’s National Innovation Award for Public Procurement of Innovative Solutions in 2011.

MOSE project (Venice, Italy): Managers of this project can use real time data to open and close a series of tide gates based on changing tide conditions, making its operation more flexible than a typical tide gate project. Researchers have been simulating the flexible operation of these tide gates since 2011 to prepare for eventual construction completion and operation, expected in 2018.

West Riser Tide Gate (Meadowlands, NJ): The tide gates include a series of solar-powered sensors that allow managers to monitor performance during storms. The data is posted in real-time so citizens can receive text and email alerts when there’s immediate flood danger. This connectivity is reflective of a broader trend towards open, and usable, data in infrastructure and other essential city services.

The coastal cities that are taking action are generally doing so because they are experiencing real, tangible impacts of coastal flooding today, and they are aware that those problems are going to get worse in the future. In these cities, floods are costing businesses now; they’re increasing insurance prices now; they’re affecting home prices now. These cities don’t have the luxury of discriminating between green and grey solutions. They need the solution that is best for their community. Rightfully so, these cities are focused on outcomes: How many homes will this solution protect, and from what size storms? How much will it cost?

The cities and states that pursued the projects listed above have taken tangible action to mitigate coastal risks. Why have they moved forward, when so many others are failing? Capturing their success factors is important in helping other cities replicate these coastal innovations, both green and grey, in their own communities. Here are some of the factors that may have allowed these projects to move forward:

  1. Solved an urgent problem (while keeping an eye on the future)
  2. Prescribed desired outcomes, not specific technology intervention(s)
  3. Empowered a project champion
  4. Engaged broadly with their communities, with both the public and private sectors

 

In a lot of cases, the factors listed above are proxies for political will. For example, when a project solves a pressing problem that matters to citizens, elected officials are likely to enthusiastically support the project. And when there’s political will, projects tend to move forward when they otherwise would not.

We’ve listed a few success factors, but this is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are  many important factors that move coastal protection projects forward from initial design to construction and operation. Are there any coastal protection projects you’ve come across recently that inspire you?

This content was originally posted on Meeting of the Minds: http://meetingoftheminds.org/blog.

Why procurement matters & What cities can do about it

It’s Infrastructure Week, and everyone is saying that it’s #timetobuild. We agree! The next 5-10 years offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity for hundreds of US cities to upgrade to the smarter, cleaner and greener systems their citizens want and expect. To buy these different things, cities need to be able to buy things differently. So, let’s talk about procurement! Below are some of the creative ways cities can improve procurement processes to achieve better outcomes for their communities.

Working with cities can be hard. In part, it’s because cities are, rightly, risk averse, and have no opportunity to swing and miss. This is compounded by the fact that many of the most innovative urban solutions come from engineering, infrastructure, and social technology startups that don’t have the capacity or resources to identify and connect with the cities that need their solutions the most. Even when a city knows what they want and how to ask for it, public procurement processes are often biased against new, cross-cutting solutions.

To buy different things, cities need to be able to buy things differently.

Every day, cities fail to leapfrog to modern, smart, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure, while innovative urban solutions simultaneously struggle to scale. This is a problem we need to (and can) solve by prioritizing procurement innovation. To make procurement work well, we need three things:

  1. Knowledgeable and demanding buyers (cities, counties, utilities),
  2. Capable sellers (engineering and technology firms), and
  3. An efficient system that connects the two.

City leaders can’t achieve all three on their own, but below are some examples of how cities can jumpstart procurement to achieve better results for their citizens:

Ask for Help: Challenges and Requests for Information (RFI) work best when cities define challenging, cross-sector problems to solve, without prescribing solutions. Challenges and RFIs signal that the city issuing them is an engaged and committed public partner, and this motivates innovative suppliers to deliver integrated solutions tailored to city needs. These types of open calls or contests can significantly expand the range of bids, and because they have lower barriers to entry are particularly attractive for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups. Cities should consider copying Boston’s wicked cool RFI asking citizens and startups to come up with solutions (ps. note the focus on shifting away from pilot projects and toward full-scale, deployable initiatives!), or Philadelphia’s FastFWD, a new kind of local business accelerator designed to create a pathway for new players to bid on city work.

Be Transparent: As the City of Austin’s Ted Lehr recently said, “pitches [to cities] for…emerging technologies are often lost in translation.” Solving that problem falls primarily on solution provider’s marketing and business development professionals, but there are some things cities can do to help. The most important thing cities can do to help is transparency. Open data, open planning sessions, open bidding conferences – all can help startups and other companies better understand how, when, and where cities can and want to connect with companies about solutions.

Make Things Simple: Public procurement rules were designed to protect taxpayer dollars from getting spent unwisely. But when rules and regulations are regularly causing delays and keeping cities from innovating, then they need to be revisited. One step is to ensure that pre-qualifying requirements are achievable by early stage or small businesses. For example, when bidding for public sector contracts companies in São Paulo only need to display their tax compliance at the time of bidding to pre-qualify for the contract. US cities, often constrained by state and federal rules, should look to São Paulo and other international peers for models they can use within their respective boxes while petitioning states for more flexibility.

Get the Word Out: There has been a positive trend in cities towards eProcurement, which ensures all procurement opportunities are visible online through a single portal. This has been great for buying regularly used products and services –like printers and plumbers– but existing eProcurement systems are not well designed for buying big infrastructure solutions. That is because procuring systems (not widgets) is extremely complicated, and building systems right requires the right partner(s). You wouldn’t shop for your house through Costco, right? To leverage the efficiency of eProcurement for infrastructure, city departments should engage their procurement officials – along with engineering and infrastructure technology companies – sooner rather than later. Whenever possible, cities should also advertise upcoming RFPs well in advance of when they are issued, which ensures the best bids. Taking both of these steps helped Australia realize 20% savings on individual project costs.

Level the Playing Field: Changing proposal or bid evaluation can help ensure that all firms start on equal footing, regardless of whether they are big, small, new, or old. For example, Total Cost of Ownership – a strategy employed by the private sector for years – enables cities to prioritize sustainable and long-term cost savings strategies over short-term benefits and the lowest price. Along the same lines, cities should consider following Kansas City’s lead and establish a Sustainable Procurement Ordinance that leverages the planning and design tool Envision, and applies equally to both products and services.

And of course, we think all cities should join the Atlas, because our goal is to inspire cities about how they can creatively solve their most pressing infrastructure challenges, and to provide the actionable information needed to pursue those solutions. For example, we’re working to capture the specific language a city used in its procurement documents to get an innovative project built (e.g. what does an RFP look like for a stormwater harvesting and direct use project? Or for an advanced energy storage microgrid?).

Working with cities is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. And to ensure that cities can upgrade to the systems communities want and demand, it can’t be any longer. That is why procurement matters.

Passing the Baton: Taking Resilience from Strategy to Construction & Operation

The City of New Orleans is moving forward to construct the first portions of a city-wide network of green infrastructure projects to address chronic and extreme flooding. Implementing these kinds of innovative, green projects is notoriously tough, though, so how did New Orleans get to where they are now?

Infrastructure project development is a team sport. Just like a relay race, there are clear legs — catalyst, predevelopment, construction, and operations & maintenance — multiple team members, and important “exchange zones” where the baton must be passed from one runner to another. When the baton is dropped, projects stall. Clear lines of sight from one development phase to the next is key to ensuring resilience projects are not just planned, but get over the finish line to deliver long-term benefits to the communities they serve.

Catalyst Leg — Kicking off on the Right Foot (6–18 months)

The catalyst stage involves identifying and conceptualizing the design of an infrastructure project that responds to community needs. Like in a relay race, a false start, or a trip coming off the block, can stop a project in its tracks. The catalyst leg is the least thought about stage of project development — by cities, investors, government funders, design and engineering firms alike — but it is vital to long-term success.

In this first stage, cities define project scope and scale, and determine what they want the project to achieve, ideally through a set of initial design specifications. For example, a city may decide that it seeks to protect a specific geographic area from a 200-year storm and to minimize disruptions to critical services and businesses in the case of an extreme event using natural infrastructure (e.g. constructed wetlands) whenever appropriate. A different city may decide during its catalyst phase that it wants to address its traffic congestion by constructing new light rail, rather than rapid bus transit. It’s important to emphasize that activities should be project-specific, not broad-based polices, strategies or plans. Specific activities that are typically completed during the catalyst phase include: designate and empower city project champion & her team; collect, review and analyze project-specific baseline data; explore different funding/financing options; and build coalition and political support.

Heading out of the catalyst leg into the first exchange zone, the city should have two things. First, it must have a conceptual design of the project. Conceptual design is roughly equivalent to “10% design” — which includes sketches or drawings (often in illustration software), along with back of envelope cost and performance estimates. Second, the city should have enough data and community enthusiasm to support applications for funding predevelopment.

Led by the champion, most of the activities completed during the catalyst phase are conducted by city staff. However, as infrastructure challenges have become more complicated and solutions more integrated, cities are leaning on non-traditional methods for support. Competitions like RE.invest and the HUD Rebuild by Design Competition have provided cities with access to a relatively small group of firms dedicated to the catalyst phase. In addition, more and more cities are publishing Requests for Ideas (RFIs) to source new ideas during the earliest stages of the catalyst phase.

The amount of funding required for the catalyst stage is modest, but funding is very limited. Some philanthropies have begun to fund the catalyst stage via competitions and technical assistance. But barring that support, cities often struggle to carve out dedicated capacity and resources to get through the first leg of infrastructure project development and set a resilience project up for success.

In 2010, New Orleans kicked off its catalyst phase to address systemic flood and subsidence concerns via the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which was funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant and informed by significant planning work completed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Continue reading “Passing the Baton: Taking Resilience from Strategy to Construction & Operation”

Cities aka Laboratories of Innovation

When Mayor Roberts from Charlotte, North Carolina said today, “let cities be cities…the laboratories of innovation!” we almost jumped out of our seats cheering. Cities are creatively addressing our nation’s most important problems: inequality, mobility, climate change. This is especially impressive when you consider that cities don’t have much—if any—room to fail, and experts agree that ability to experiment is a key driver of innovation. Can you imagine a mayor explaining to her constituents that a day-long disruption of an important city service, say a mass-transit line, was because the city was experimenting with a new technology to streamline payment and collect ridership data? Of course not. That’s because all day and every day, cities provide essential services like clean water, efficient transportation, and emergency services, and citizens are rightfully outraged when there’s a disruption or degradation of one of these city services that impacts their daily lives.

For many cities, it’s a challenge to balance the need to consistently deliver essential services with fostering a culture of experimentation, improvement and innovation.

Today, as a part of Infrastructure Week, Bloomberg Live brought together mayors from six cities in the United States that are truly leading the way towards making our cities smarter, stronger and more sustainable. In each of their cities, they’ve figured out ways to foster cultures of innovation, despite not having much room for failure. Their wide-ranging conversation included a discussion of innovation and the role of experimentation in their cities. Here are some of the thoughts we found particularly insightful:

Mayor Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.) stressed that citizens—especially millennials—want to live in cities that are constantly improving and changing for the better.

Mayor Jon Mitchell (New Bedford, MA) explained that they are creating an “ethos of innovation.” He explained that as a historically industrial city, it is especially important to be seen as a test bed for new ideas and technologies.

Mayor Andrew Ginther (Columbus, OH) pointed to the importance of partnering with local universities and discussed their successful partnership with Ohio State University on neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts (Charlotte, NC) had the group laughing when she jokingly suggested calling everything a “pilot.” In all seriousness though, she explained the importance of using pilot projects to help avoid the fear of rapid change, and of making sure not to leave low-income neighborhoods out if they want to participate.

Mayor Michael Hancock (Denver, CO) discussed the importance of smart cities data and how that data can be used to understand project impacts and communicate those impacts to communities.

Mayor Megan Barry (Nashville, TN) flipped an old saying on its head when she said she’s fostering a culture of “Yes in My Backyard.” She stressed how important it is to get to yes – whether that’s for mixed income neighborhoods or diverse schools.

These mayors lead cities that are shining examples of the power technology has to address some of the toughest, most complicated problems out there, and we can’t wait to learn more from them about specific ways cities can encourage innovation as Infrastructure Week continues.

For those of you who work for or with cities: do you think cities need the ability to experiment in order to creatively solve problems? How can we make sure that cities are learning from the cities that are the first (or second, third) to experiment with a particular solution? In our minds, streamlining city-to-city learning is key to scaling and replicating the best, most innovative solutions.

 

Smarty Pants

Sometimes walking into conference exhibitions, we feel like we’re living in the Silicon Valley parody of TechCrunch. But, after attending Smart Cities Silicon Valley this week, we feel genuinely energized about the range of city-centric technologies being developed and deployed to make local governments more efficient and effective, while also improving our daily lives.

Here are some of the companies and technologies that caught our eye:

Echelon: We know that LED lighting reduces energy use and saves money, but this adaptive control system lets a city adjust streetlights block by block to better match neighborhood needs. This level of responsiveness is pretty great from a public safety and economic development standpoint too.

Fybr: Knowing that legacy water and sewer systems are something many cities in the US are dealing with, we were most excited about their ability to provide real time insights into the operations of wastewater, stormwater, energy and streets systems on one dashboard. Not only will that save utility and public works staff time (and $) but it may also help cities find opportunities for system integration.

CNX: Last mile broadband expansion is a big issue for a lot of small and mid-size cities. Making the permitting process easier for both cities and companies, using a platform like theirs, will go a long way towards solving it.

Ike: These digital kiosks are cool not only because they provide guidance to tourists, visibility to local businesses, and are designed to match the local vibe…but also because they generate revenue for the cities that deploy them.

Inrix: They’re doing a lot of thinking about how autonomous vehicles will impact our cities. Also, after getting to play with their system we’re hoping my next car comes with Inrix navigation.

LocalIntel: We loved that this unique data-driven economic development support is applicable to nearly everyone, including the small cities that often need the most support. Also, we appreciate their CEO’s commitment to keeping operating costs down so they can continue offering affordable solutions.

Ingenu: Still wrapping our heads around this one, but it sounds like this network is designed specifically to support smart city deployments – and ensures that monitoring flood sensors won’t be impacted by our constant streaming of The West Wing.

Hitachi: Obviously not a small company, but one that is doing innovative work to improve public safety and streamline emergency response by aggregating data captured by everything from video feeds to social media.

We’re looking forward to understanding more about the tangible benefits (and any challenges) that these, and other smart solutions, are providing for cities and their citizens.

What other smart city technologies have you been impressed by?

Sustainability You Can Count On

Almost always, conversations about measurement and sustainability focus on the measurement of systems: reductions in energy usage, for example, or the number of affordable housing units built throughout an entire city. Setting metrics to measure the sustainability of systems is important, but too often, conversations about the measurement of systems sustainability is separated completely from conversations about the measurement of specific projects. Project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation is absolutely essential if specific projects are to have political and community buy-in, and often times, if they are to be funded or financed. As the field of sustainability transitions more and more from planning to implementation, project-specific measurement is paramount.

Community members need to see themselves and their loved ones in projects in order to support them, especially if taxes, construction or service disruptions are involved. Residents, business owners and community leaders want to know “how will this project impact me?” They want to know the amount of money they will save on their water or electricity bills, the reduction in the number of days that the beach will be closed due to water quality issues, how many jobs will be created, how much shorter their commutes will be. Infrastructure projects – explicitly “sustainable” projects or otherwise – that do not know the answers to questions like these have difficulty getting off the ground.

Furthermore, modeling and measuring project-specific outcomes like these can often form the basis of a project’s funding applications or a more innovative public-private partnership. Here are some examples where project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation are essential and often prerequisite to project finance:

Reduction in flood insurance claims that results from a coastal protection project like constructed wetlands or seawall to unlock financing from a resilience bond or catastrophe bond

Reduction in stormwater runoff that results from city-wide green infrastructure to take advantage of an environmental impact bond like DC Water’s

Reduction in energy use that results from a blue roof project to use PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) Financing

Reduction in environmental health metrics, like asthma attacks, that results after targeted home counseling to utilize a Social Impact Bond

Increases in property values resulting from public space improvements, like new parks or recreation facilities, to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in a way that’s beneficial to the community

The challenge to planning, sustainability and resilience professionals is to link broader systems sustainability measurements to these less familiar kinds of project-specific measurements. Doing so will require strategic coordination and collaboration with the staff leading specific projects (think: public works directors, city engineers). It’s this kind of integration that will help sustainability professionals break down often lofty sustainability goals and targets into tangible, implementable projects and programs, spurring investment in green projects at scale.

To the folks in communities pursuing sustainable, resilient or innovative infrastructure projects: We included examples in this piece about project-specific measurements that are necessary to gain community and leadership buy-in or unlock specific financing sources. What big examples did we miss?

Innovative Financing & The Myth of the Shovel-Ready Project

Content originally written for and posted on Meeting of the Minds.

With every new Administration in Washington there are always sweeping promises about improving the nation’s infrastructure. Since the last recession, these promises have become inextricably linked with talk about mobilizing private finance.

In 2009, after the immediate impacts of the recession abated, it was clear that cities, dependent on tax income, were going to be cash strapped for years to come. Which means while our infrastructure was getting worse, the money to fix it or upgrade it was getting harder and harder to find. This jumpstarted a national conversation—led by pension funds, environmental and social responsibility divisions at big banks, and impact investors—about how private capital could fill the public financing gap through instruments like P3s, Green Bonds, Social Impact Bonds. While there have been a handful of one-off examples and exciting new models, nearly a decade of talk about financing has not translated into substantially larger or speedier private investments in infrastructure.

Why? Because the mantra “if you build it, they will come” unfortunately doesn’t translate to infrastructure. More often, if you built it right, no one will notice.

The highest value infrastructure investments for cities today are those that help clear the massive backlog of deferred maintenance projects, but the greatest value for investors are new greenfield projects that lock-in long-term revenue streams. This mismatch is most evident in the lack of a clear pipeline of financeable infrastructure projects.

Innovative financing doesn’t magically create new projects, let alone a whole pipeline of shovel-ready financeable projects. To understand why, let’s look at a few of the sexier financing tools which get a lot of air time.


Green Bonds
: Green Bonds, like other municipal debt, are tax-exempt issuances specifically earmarked for funding projects, assets, or business activities that have positive environmental and/or climate benefits. In 2016, issuances topped USD 50 billion by September (nearly 5x the 2013 issuances supporting everything from brownfield development, to transportation and energy projects). In addition, the number of corporations issuing green bonds has grown significantly in recent years, but most have been used to support corporate finance rather than project finance.

Social Impact Bonds: A Social impact bond (aka Pay for Success Financing or Social Benefit Bond), is tax-exempt municipal debt structured as a contract between private financiers, often philanthropies, and a public-sector agency. Funds are provided to pay for improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. Investors are only repaid if and when improved social outcomes are achieved.

Payment for Ecosystem Services: PES contracts are most often structured as legal agreements whereby a user of an ecosystem service makes a payment to an individual or community whose practices, like land use or deforestation, directly affects the value of that ecosystem services.  Because payments are based on the quantity of services provided, ecosystem service programs must concretely measure the ecosystem benefits generated, which can be a difficult task. These schemes work best when private companies, public-sector agencies, and non-profit organizations collaborate, and have most often been used internationally to support corporate social responsibility agendas.

All three of these innovative finance tools have one thing in common: each one requires projects that are already designed, quantified, and valued. This means that public entities have had to invest up-front in designing a project to generate savings that can be attributed to a specific entity. Therefore, a city must have collected significant baseline data upfront, made sure that they can measure changes in that data across the lifetime of the investment, and committed that they have the capacity to capture those savings as payment commitments under contractual agreements. All of which can be a burden for big cities, let alone many of the small and midsize or rural communities across the country that are often both cash- and data-poor.

In all of these cases the biggest barrier to expanding innovative finance for infrastructure is the lack of funding available to design and develop strong infrastructure project proposals, not to build them. So, what can we, do to hasten the development of the project pipeline?  The first step is making it easier for cities to design new and innovative projects that tackle real problems, like upgrading aging and failing combined sewer systems, not just creating ribbon cutting opportunities.

Often being innovative for a city means being the second or third to do something. So, making sure successful projects are searchable and replicable is key.  The Atlas Marketplace has started to do that by capturing information about the people, policies, financing schemes, and procurement documents that got projects built.

The second step is improving project predevelopment starting at the ideation and design phase. Instead of relying solely on long-term capital improvement plans that respond to historic needs, cities should work to identify cross-sector opportunities that can create savings that up new opportunities. Like laying rentable dark fiber every time a road is repaved, or upgrading water infrastructure to reduce the costs of mudslides. This works best when cities engage early with financiers and engineers to unearth opportunities by issuing challenges or broad requests for ideas.

Finally, building local capacity is essential. There is a big difference between the type of data that governments need to support investment and the type of data private financiers need to support investment. Being clear about that and not conflating the two will go a long way in closing the gap between projects and money.

While it’s fun to talk about innovative financing, it’s time we change the conversation. Moving forward let’s focus on building a pipeline of innovative projects that opens the door for private financing. Because if we build it to make money, the private investors will most definitely come.

P3s are great, we want P3s! But what about…?

Last week, we proposed rethinking public-private partnerships (P3s). Instead of closing a financing gap, P3s should fill a project execution gap. This change in perspective can better align incentives upfront and address the fundamental fact that public and private partners have different priorities.

Today, we’re taking a closer look at the issues cited as top barriers to traditional P3s: political risk, payments, and responsibilities. Lack of clarity for any of these three issues will exacerbate differences and drive a wedge between partners when project financing, rather the project delivery, is the goal. Let’s dive into each area of concern, and consider how a focus on execution rather than financing could lead to more successful public-private-partnership.

 Political Risk: Traditionally in the US, P3s are developed after the project scale and scope has been established, and the project has become so big, complex and/or long-term that it cannot be entirely financed on a city’s balance sheet. These types of expensive, complicated, and long-term projects leave public and private partners exposed to all sorts of non-market risk — not the least of which is politicians changing their minds or being voted out of office mid-project. In traditional financing-focused P3s, changing political dynamics can doom an entire project. But if a P3 is designed for execution rather than just financing, then private partners are involved in troubleshooting and negotiations from the beginning, not just once it’s clear the money will be hard to find. That early engagement between public and private partners builds trust in a city’s staff and institutions, beyond individual elected leader(s) — which is key to ameliorating political risk. In addition, early engagement means all parties are driving towards and end goal that is focused on addressing local needs, not just on financing a solution. Some cities are already encouraging early engagement and participation with private partners through broader use of competitions and Requests for Information.

 Payments: Quality cash flows are one of the greatest risks for any public-private-partnership. Many public infrastructure deals have failed or been slammed by citizens because real cash flows end up being very different than were predicted. The Indiana Toll Road is just one of several P3s that filed for bankruptcy after revenue came in much lower than projected. On the other hand, Chicago’s 2008 parking meter deal with Morgan Stanley caused a citizen uproar when the city’s inspector general concluded, a year later, that it had undersold the rights by about $1 billion, forfeiting an important source of revenue for the City. When a project is designed from the start to focus on service delivery instead of solely on financing, there is often opportunity to uncover non-traditional funding sources. The same is true when designing a P3. When private partners are at the table to start, more creative work can be done to clearly identify and quantify a range of potential payback streams. Having private partners help design, verify, and securitize cash flows results in a better deal for the city, the developer(s) and the investor(s). That’s why availability-payment projects, which are focused on service delivery and often require earlier engagement by private partners, are often more successful and growing in popularity compared to revenue-backed P3s.

 Responsibilities: Designating a single entity — or at least a very clearly defined process — responsible for capturing, aggregating, and monetizing direct and indirect revenues is key to successful P3s. The easiest way to clearly define these responsibilities is through a contract between the city, the developer(s) and the investor(s) that allocates risk among the partners by defining sources of revenues, scope of work and payment terms, goals, and bonuses. A P3 focused on execution rather than financing helps define these lines more clearly so each partner can focus on what it does best. Government would set goals and standards to protect health and safety. Developers and investors would set targets, build and manage cost efficient systems. Government organized P3 offices have been used to successfully execute these arrangements internationally in Canada and Australia, and at the state-level domestically in Virginia, California, and Michigan. P3 offices provide the technical support public agencies need to coordinate public and private partners. These offices are effective because they steer governments towards projects that can thrive with P3s and help with upfront planning, and structuring using their in-house financial expertise.

P3s are an effort to make building and maintaining big-dollar, complicated, long-term infrastructure projects more efficient and affordable. P3s are complicated. There will always be questions about political risk, payments, and responsibilities. But well-conceived P3s — those focused on project delivery instead of financing — can effectively align incentives and address risks for all partners upfront. Not only can these well-conceived P3s save taxpayer money and reduce burden on local governments, they can also result in better service delivery for residents and maximize the social benefits of a project.

For example, the City and County of Honolulu partnered with Covanta on the H-Power waste-to-energy plant with the goal of eliminating landfills from the island while creating a sustainable energy source. Since its initial completion in 1993, the plant has not only consistently met or exceeded environmental permits and invested in innovation, it has also generated more than $201 million in revenues for the City, which has more than covered the costs of operation. More and more, we are also seeing examples of startups and other technology firms developing exciting P3s with cities to upgrade infrastructure systems.

Next in this series, we’ll explore various examples of successful execution focused P3s — from the traditional to the more exotic.

How To: build an infrastructure laboratory

A number of our Atlas cities – from El Paso, to New Orleans and San Diego – are looking for ways to use municipally owned spaces as testbeds for innovative infrastructure technologies.  Doing so will not only help them understand how solutions work locally and support economic development, but it will also create space to engage residents around otherwise invisible infrastructure.

That was why we were so excited when we discovered The Ray! Its a public-private-philanthropic partnership (do we call that a P4?) reimagining our highways. Since being founded in 2015, the demonstration site has grown to include a Wattway solar road, solar powered PV4EV charging stations, roll over tire pressure & tread depth monitors, and bioswales. Next up is a  1 megawatt ground mounted solar array – 5th installation nationwide, and the 1st in the state of Georgia! – which will provide shade for a recently planted pollinator garden.

We asked Allie Kelly, Executive Director of The Ray, a few questions to understand how they got to where they are today, what cities can learn from their experience, and where they are headed next! Check it out:

Tell us how The Ray came to be. Who was involved? How long did it take? And what role, if any, did public organizations play?

The Ray was an epiphany. After noted green industrialist, Ray C Anderson, passed away in 2011, his daughter Harriet Langford petitioned the Georgia Legislature to name a portion of the highway that went through his hometown in his honor. It wasn’t until after that wish was granted that Harriet realized that she had put her father’s name on a dirty, unsafe highway. Harriet got together with me, a longtime friend, and together we strategized over how to handle this problem. Could we plant wildflowers? Maybe a solar panel? A report by the Georgia Tech College of Design revealed that the possibilities were endless. It took about 18 months for Harriet and I to get through those early steps of commissioning that first report and then a follow up feasibility study done by Innovia.

Public organizations have played and continue to play a huge role in The Ray. You can’t transform a section of the interstate into a living laboratory without cooperation from the state Department of Transportation and all levels of government. We’ve been very intentional that this is a community effort, this isn’t a nonprofit foundation coming in and making changes. The Ray is about the opportunities and success of the community.

The Ray living lab is located on a stretch of the I-85 highway in Georgia.

Any lessons you learned during the process that you wouldn’t want others to repeat if they set up a demonstration site like The Ray?

Luckily, there have been no major missed turns yet. We didn’t try to implement right out of the gate. We took time to figure out what we should be doing and the order it should happen. There wasn’t a blueprint to follow.

What we would suggest other demonstration sites do is bring their Department of Transportation along the whole way. The other thing that has been important is that we never felt an artificially limited timeline. We see our efforts continuing for decades so we never felt like we had to act impulsively or show instant impact. The transformation will happen overtime as the result of many different patterns. We’ve done a lot over the last year, especially for a small organization. We’ve been very transparent and open with people that we’re looking 30 years down the road.

You have been able to translate the startup mindset about failure into a public setting, how did you get Georgia Department of Transportation to buy in? Also, how did you deal with permitting? 

We mitigate risk for the Department of Transportation. Because of us, they don’t have to carry all the risk associated with innovation. We come in and spend the resources to curate the technology with their goals in mind and we bring the partners to the table. Then we bring it to the DOT and engineer it so that conforms to their standards. So our relationship has two important components. First, we accept the liability. And second, we never bring something outlandish to the table.

So far GDOT has been able to permit us under the existing permitting procedures. We have discussed that as a consequence of the transformational nature of The Ray, we may have to come up with new procedures to accommodate new technologies.

How did you build a relationship with Kia and other companies who sponsor the individual demonstration sites?

The Ray is testing a number of innovative transportation solutions. Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia is located in nearby West Point, and has been both a financial and strategic partner for The Ray.

We just started early. As early as two to three months into The Ray’s conception, we started talking to local politicians, state DOT, etc. As soon as we started talking to those local leaders we simultaneously had parallel conversations with corporate companies. They were overall positive and openminded but not willing to invest. It’s just a process to building incremental progress and momentum. With Kia, those conversations aligned with their company goals and the release of their first electric vehicle. That being said, we give them lots of credit for being a first mover.

Love your motto, ‘don’t do anything that doesn’t do multiple things’ –  such a great lesson for modern infrastructure investment! What are the most exciting new technologies you’re seeing that you can’t wait to try out at The Ray?

One of the things we’re going to look at in the UK and the Netherlands next week is noise barriers made out of solar panels and solar concentrated materials. Why are sound barriers made of corrugated metal? Why not have those sound barriers be solar and serve multiple purposes? We’re looking forward to exploring that opportunity and possibly bringing it to The Ray.