Our street light poles are more valuable than we think. Do you know why?

Cities today are expected to do more with less: better services and more transparency, but with smaller budgets and less federal funding. The value of street light poles is largely unrecognized and untapped, but also rapidly increasing — this is extremely unique when it comes to public assets. How cities and utilities approach the value of their street light poles could lay the foundation for improved economic development, digital inclusion and smart cities. Or it could lay the foundation for an enormous missed opportunity. 


By Kip Harkness, Deputy City Manager of  the City of San Jose, CA


As the private sector succeeds in giving consumers more and better digital service experiences — think streaming movies on Netflix or rapid delivery with Amazon Prime — cities face increasing pressure to up their own service experience. Citizens expect to pay their water bill online with a simple app, and many balk at paper bills. New government technologies promise cheaper, better, faster city services. But to achieve the promise of this smart cities wonderland, local governments have to be innovative in their approach to service delivery and nimble in seeking out new sources of revenue. With the triumph of mobile and the resulting desire to fully build out 4G/LTE networks (with 5G fast on the heels), there are few government assets that represent as much of an opportunity as the street light pole.

This ubiquitous ‘vertical street furniture’ is now at the heart of both the local government innovation imperative and the never-ending hunt for new revenue sources. While the value of street light poles is largely unrecognized by the public sector, it is thoroughly understood by the telecommunications industry and others who intend to profit from the next wave of the mobile revolution and the Internet of Things (IoT). How cities approach their street light poles could lay the foundation for improved connectivity, digital inclusion, and more modern delivery of public services. Or it could it could go down as an enormous missed opportunity.

In San Jose, we’ve decided that the best approach is to see the value of our street lights as contributing to a closed loop of improving connectivity for all. From that basis, we work with telecommunication companies at the local level to find and expand the opportunity for mutual gain, while opposing new state or federal legislation that takes away local control. This collaborative ‘connectivity first’ approach shifts away from a pole by pole permitting or revenue fight and puts us on the same team, facing the opportunity to expand connectivity together. In this way, we are open to improving our processes to move at the speed of business and use just enough government intervention to reach a tipping point: where Telcos can meet their goals of rapid, predictable deployment at scale, and the city can ensure more equitable access to connectivity that lays the foundation for the smart city of the future.

Why Are We Here? Digital transformation & increasing citizen expectations

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Three explosive trends over the last 10 years have transformed the consumer experience. You know them intuitively: Mobile, Data, and Digital Services

  1. Mobile: The mass adoption of mobile technologies. Think iPhone.
  2. Data: The exponential growth in data usage and increasing sophistication in data analytics.
  3. Digital Services: The increasing customer expectations for instantaneous and novel services. Can you even imagine mailing a letter to a catalogue and then waiting 6–8 weeks for delivery anymore?


Just think about how you used to use your phone 10 years ago — we were fine with a halfway decent voice call and some texting. Now, we expect to stream movies on our phone while they’re mapping our location and paying for our coffee, all without missing a beat. A few milliseconds of latency in an on-line transaction can cause an impatient millennial (or boomer) to abandon a purchase and go on to the next thing. 

“Alice: How long is forever? White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

These factors are motivating the completion of the 4G/LTE build out and the pending upgrade to 5G mobile networks. The bottom line for city folks who don’t work in telecommunications is this: with 5G will come incredible opportunities for the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT encompasses all of the technologies — the sensors, lights, meters (and analytics) — that can dramatically improve city services through improved awareness, responsiveness, and flexibility.

IoT technologies can improve city services by allowing our infrastructure to ‘talk’ to us and itself. For example, today a fire engine has to blare its sirens and cautiously inch through a busy intersection against the light. With IoT, the fire engine can use IoT to let a system know its location and destination and the system can use IoT to tell the traffic signals along the route to turn green for the engine and stop all cross traffic. This isn’t science fiction; we are currently in deployment of a system like this in San Jose right now. San Diego is using cameras built into connected streetlights to monitor pedestrian traffic and reroute cars during peak hours to avoid pedestrian accidents and alleviate congestion. Camden, New Jersey, is using gunshot detection technology to try to improve public safety. All of these and similar systems will be built on networks that will increasingly rely on the height, power, and near ubiquity of the street light pole to mount and power the dense network of small cells and sensors that are required.

The result is the value and importance of our street light poles has skyrocketed and private companies are now vying to be the first to secure the best locations and deploy improved services.

They are also working hard to change federal and state laws with the goal of reducing local control, give them by right access to poles, and cap or eliminate permit fees and lease rates that allow cities to fully recover costs and create revenue streams.

How Can We Leverage the Increasing Value of Our Light Poles?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? Alice asked. That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cat.” ― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Like Alice, many cities aren’t being as strategic as they should be before pursuing the wonderland of IoT and smart cities technologies. Some see light poles only as a new revenue source, and most are unclear on what role their cities should play in accelerating broadband deployment. There are unique challenges to pursuing smart cities technologies from within local government: universal service obligations, mandated transparency and the inability to charge for many services.

It is easy to get excited about flashy potential of Smart Cities and IoT devices and put the technology cart before the outcome horse.

Many vendors are happy enough to take this approach, sell us some cool hardware and leave us with an incomplete and siloed smart cities portfolio that doesn’t deliver real value to our cities and their citizens.

Before wading too far into the adoption of smart cities/IoT technologies, city officials and staff should ask themselves some key questions:

  1. Are we putting people at the center of our strategy and solving problems that actually matter to them? Or is our approach vendor-driven?
  2. Are we being strategic about how we are trading the value of our street poles and other assets?
  3. Do we understand the use cases (i.e. real world applications) of the technologies we’re considering? What applications do our residents want and need? What technologies are mature and which are nascent?
  4. What are the technical requirements for those real world applications (e.g. operating system, sensor data aggregation platform, municipal broadband specifications)?
  5. What about the policies required? (e.g. security, data, fiber, conduit, pole remediation)
  6. Have we done the due diligence required to ensure that access to our poles will be non-exclusive?
  7. Have we thought through privacy concerns and, as a community, decided on a strategy to address them?


Smart City IoT Architecture. Above and below are the real world use cases and problems we are trying to solve. These use cases should drive the architecture of the layers below it, not the other way around.

PC: City of San Jose, adapted from consultant analysis for City of Barcelona website, Cisco.

We are asking ourselves these questions right now in San Jose. To answer them, we have decided to work iteratively to pilot and deploy IoT devices on our street poles and test out various use cases. Simultaneously, we are developing a city-wide strategy and policy framework that ensures we are putting people at the center of our smart cities approach.

What Can We Do Now?

“No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.” ― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

For the cities just starting to consider adoption of IoT technologies, here are some practical things you can do to position your city for the future, based on the lessons we’ve learned in San Jose:

  1. Be clear about the problems you are trying to solve, and focus on those that are: A) Causing a lot of people pain or annoyance, B) Core to what your city should do, C) Actually solvable with technology and process improvement
  2. Go ahead and set out a big vision, but start small and iterate.
  3. Start to see your street light poles as THE platform for both IoT and small cells and begin to value them accordingly.


For companies seeking to partner with cities to demonstrate/pilot their technologies, here are some things to consider:

  1. Collaborate with cities to identify use cases that matter and can actually be addressed with your technology,
  2. Be candid and direct about the limitations of your technology and what other technologies or capabilities will be needed to make a complete solution work, and
  3. Consider taking a platform approach that would allow both the integration of legacy technologies and competitors as well as your own.


The city of the future will have to meet rising citizen expectations, by embracing mobile, data, and digital services. This will result in a new digital layer of our infrastructure, much of it powered by IoT. And many of these devices, and the networks supporting them, will want to reside on our street light poles.

The future wants our light poles. Don’t give them away lightly.


Announcement! Mayor Berry Joins The Atlas

We’re thrilled to announce that Hon. RJ Berry (Former Mayor, Albuquerque NM) has joined The Atlas Marketplace as Senior Advisor. Mayor Berry, a former two-term Mayor of Albuquerque, is known for his innovative approach to government. His passion for bringing diverse groups together to solve persistent and complex urban challenges resulted in efficiency measures that produced $34 million in taxpayer savings, expanded use of public-private partnerships, streamlined infrastructure planning and financing, and improvements in educational attainment and workforce development. You can read Mayor Berry’s full biography here.

Said Mayor Berry:

“As Mayor of Albuquerque, I was proud of our efforts to bolster the entrepreneurial ecosystem for startups and other creative small companies to drive economic development, create jobs, and improve city services. Now I am proud to continue that mission, but in a different role – as Senior Advisor to The Atlas Marketplace. The Atlas is an online community that facilitates learning between cities to accelerate the uptake of innovative infrastructure and technology solutions by highlighting what’s working in communities around the world. I enthusiastically support The Atlas mission and I am excited to continue working with civic-minded individuals who are dedicated to making our communities smarter, safer and more prosperous. As a public servant and an entrepreneur myself, I look forward to providing insight around key business decisions, as The Atlas seeks to expand beyond its initial 50 partner cities.”


Mayor RJ Berry
PC: Steven St. John


Said Elle Hempen, CEO of The Atlas Marketplace:

“We are excited to have Mayor Berry join The Atlas Marketplace. Not only does he have a deep understanding of how and why cities make important decisions, he also has deep expertise and experience in the infrastructure industry. We will rely on his strategic guidance – alongside Mayor Nutter’s – to inform how we effectively match cities to solutions.”


Mayor Berry will join The Atlas team for this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C.

Follow Mayor Berry on Twitter.

Follow The Atlas on Twitter, Linkedin & Facebook.

Smart Cities Have Arrived in Atlanta

Learn about Atlas partner city Atlanta’s recent coming-of-age party for smart cities, and about how Atlanta is establishing a thriving ecosystem of local government, startups, telecom, NGOs, and universities to solve some of the city’s toughest problems.

By Kirk Talbott (Executive Director for Smart Cities, City of Atlanta)


Debutante balls, quinceañeras, bar mitzvahs, cotillions, sweet 16s…they all have something in common: they signal to society that a young person has come of age, that he or she is ready to be taken seriously, that he or she is poised to enter adult society. If that’s the case, then smart cities technologies may have had their coming-of-age celebration in Atlanta this fall.


The event, dubbed “Experience Smart ATL,” was an adult book fair of sorts. All of the folks involved in smart cities projects in Atlanta — spanning half a dozen departments and dozens of vendors, large and small — came together to present their efforts to over 350 attendees. Each project had a tabletop and participants went from table to table to learn about the scope and scale of ongoing smart cities efforts in Atlanta.


Interacting with the exhibits and reflecting on the diversity of problems that smart cities technologies are solving in Atlanta, you couldn’t help but be struck by an overwhelming sense, “Smart cities technologies are not a passing fad. They’re real, they’re here to stay, and this is a good thing.”


I know it’s my job, but even my head spun with all of the different opportunities there are to improve city services, as well as with the realization that we’re only currently pursuing a small percentage of those opportunities. This was exactly why we put on Experience Smart ATL — to signal that smart cities have arrived in Atlanta. 


Over 350 attendees experience interactive smart technology activities

But that wasn’t the only reason. There were several other motivations that drove us to invest a couple of months into throwing this smart city coming-of-age party. The event:


  1. Consolidated Atlanta’s disparate smart cities projects under one umbrella. This is making it easier for city government to weave a comprehensive narrative about its efforts to use technology to solve Atlanta’s toughest problems.
  2. Incentivized project teams to publish and polish efforts that are still underway. There’s nothing like a public event to encourage staff to consolidate project materials and decide how to tell their story!
  3. Focused the vendor community on improving city services. Walking through the event, it was obvious that smart cities efforts in Atlanta are so much bigger than just one vendor, product or partnership, and as a result, vendors came away with a better appreciation of their role within the city’s larger efforts.


Half a dozen City departments and dozens of vendors presented their smart city initiatives

The practicalities involved in putting on the event were straightforward and surprisingly cheap. The City’s out of pocket expense was just a few hundred dollars, as General Assembly generously donated the space, and content for the booths came from existing project teams. When it came to invitations, we were careful about our intended audience, as this event was not meant to supplement or replace our existing, on-the-ground community engagement efforts with citizens. Instead, we encouraged Atlanta leaders — academics, marketing professionals, lawyers, entrepreneurs — from many different sectors that have an interest in municipal innovation, technology and smart cities to participate. Being clear about who was attending allowed us to tailor the event to be more specific and more relevant and not, for example, spend a lot of time explaining the basics of cloud technology.

One of the more unique aspects of the event was that it was democratic: all of the project teams (and vendors) had the same small table top displays. This was equally true of huge telecom companies and of tiny local startups.


For example, AT&T presented a small sample of the technologies and smart city solutions they have installed in the city in a modest booth display near a group of Georgia Tech students that had built a creative prototype display of events and movement on the Atlanta Beltline. This was a subtle, but important, signal of the event’s focus on how Atlanta is using smart cities technologies to improve citizen services, and is a large part of why the event felt (and looked) so different from a conference expo floor.


One of many vendors during the #ExperienceSmartATL event

For other cities interested in throwing a coming-of-age event for smart cities in their community, I have one major piece of advice: be pure in your intent.


It’s essential to know precisely why you’re having the event. Otherwise, mission-creep will abound, and before you know it, you’ll be managing the expo floor of another smart cities conference. Don’t hesitate to say no to the hangers-on, the folks who want to participate but who are not actively working with your local government on a specific project or technology.


Atlanta’s commitment to using technology to improve city services has come of age; smart cities efforts permeate dozens of different city departments, from watershed management to IT, and the technologies are here to stay. The City of Atlanta continues to formalize and improve the process of identifying new and emerging technologies that can solve problems across the city and improve the quality of life for everyone in the region. As the market matures and more advances are offered in the future, the city looks forward to finding and implementing those solutions that make our region the most attractive place to live and visit. But that process doesn’t happen by default.


To learn more about Atlanta’s smart cities efforts, visit smartatl.atlantaga.gov.

This article was originally posted on our Medium publication, CitySpeak.

Our Hope for Houston: Hoping the Texas Coast Becomes More Resilient Post-Harvey

Editor’s Note: This article is written by Ellory Monks (Co-Founder of The Atlas Marketplace) and her husband, Sean Monks. It was originally published on The Atlas Medium publication, CitySpeak, in the weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Coast. 

While our attention shifts to Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean and much of the Florida Coast, and while wildfires rage out of control in much of the West, our hearts remain firmly planted in Houston. Houston, where Sean was born and raised. Houston, the home of Rice University, our alma mater, and where we first met on Ellory’s second day of Orientation Week. Houston, home to the best food in the United States. Houston, home to much of our immediate and extended family and friends.

Houston is still hurting and we’re still hurting with it. The road to recovery will be long.

As our hearts ache for the city we love, we are nonetheless filled with hope about not just what Houston has shown itself to be, but also about what it could become.


Our feelings after Hurricane Harvey are complicated: a strange combination of grief, relief, pride, guilt, and anger. Like so many Houstonians away from their families during Harvey, we spent most of last week glued to our phones and televisions, horrified, as we watched neighborhoods we love destroyed. Our family was incredibly lucky — everyone is safe — but so many people lost everything, including one of Sean’s aunts, whose house was flooded with 14 feet of water.


Sean’s parents during Harvey. That’s Sean’s childhood home (thankfully spared!) behind them. Texas Spirit encapsulated.

Continue reading “Our Hope for Houston: Hoping the Texas Coast Becomes More Resilient Post-Harvey”

Cities, Our Nation’s Beating Hearts, Need a Stress Test

Editors Note: This article was written by Stephen  Bourne (Project Director, Atkins) 

We’ve all seen movie clips of stress tests: someone running on treadmill, a mass of sensors and monitors attached, a doctor watching and jotting notes on a clipboard. The speed of the treadmill steadily increases and changes in the person’s vital signs are captured.

The idea of a stress test is brilliant in its simplicity. You simulate stress on a complex system (in this case, the cardiovascular system) and watch the response, with the goal of uncovering fatal vulnerabilities. We all recognize that stress tests are an essential tool in a doctor’s toolbox when heart trouble is suspected. Similarly, stress tests can be an essential tool in the city planner’s toolbox when vulnerability to any number of potential threats is suspected. From drought and economic downturn to more acute threats like hurricanes Harvey and Irma, or other natural disasters, testing stress levels is imperative.

A city is a lot like our heart. To run, it depends on a series of interconnected, interdependent systems that respond, react and adapt to stressors, both chronic and acute.

Continue reading “Cities, Our Nation’s Beating Hearts, Need a Stress Test”

Back to School: Infrastructure, Education, and Jobs

By Owen Barrett (Co-Founder and CEO, lumeo)


Politicians love to talk about how investments in infrastructure can create jobs and can drive local economic development. In theory, it’s a great concept. But it seems like we’re missing an enormous opportunity in how these promises can actually lead to long-term, sustainable economic development. On a national, state, and local level, we are missing the opportunity to invest in our children’s futures as we invest in our infrastructure. Systems cannot be sustainable, nor can cities be smart, if they lack the human component.

Upgrading infrastructure — from roads and bridges to classrooms and office buildings — to be smarter and more sustainable requires highly educated architects, engineers, urban planners, and lots of highly skilled electricians, technicians, and operators. Sustainable infrastructure requires a cadre of people who take an interdisciplinary approach and effectively use systems thinking, data, and financial analysis. Even though the number of jobs in sustainability-related fields, and STEM fields more broadly, are growing rapidly, there are entire segments of American children who, by and large, are not entering these essential fields in the numbers needed.

If we want to capitalize on the opportunity to leverage infrastructure investments for investments in our children’s futures, if we want to build towards a sustainable future, we need to go back to school.


Why? Schools, of course, are the places where children learn about the world and their unique place in it. But schools are also local infrastructure.

Right now, when schools invest in upgrades like renewable energy, xeriscaping, and energy efficiency, facilities departments design, manage, and implement projects without any student engagement. The work is usually done during the summertime, on holiday breaks, or after hours to avoid disrupting the learning process. But that’s backwards. If we really want and need children to be more excited about STEM-related fields, school upgrades are opportunities to expand the learning process, not disrupt it.

Continue reading “Back to School: Infrastructure, Education, and Jobs”

Help Wanted & Available: Cities, Companies & Collaboration

Editors Note: This post was written by Hon. Michael Nutter (former Mayor of Philadelphia) about how cities and companies can work together better to solve problems. It was originally posted on our Medium publication, CitySpeak. 

I was recently interviewed by Elle Hempen, co-founder and CEO of The Atlas Marketplace. We chatted  about how cities, small businesses and startups can work together better — not only to improve services, but also to ensure long term economic vitality by creating jobs and supporting broader community investment. It’s an important discussion to have, especially now that cities are taking the lead on everything from climate change to criminal justice reform.

Below are some thoughts & ideas that I shared with her:

Q: What is the state of cities today?

A: It’s the century of cities.

This is the decade, if not the century of cities. Cities are where people are moving, they’re where economies are growing, they’re where innovation is happening. When people talk about improving infrastructure in the US, they’re talking about cities. When they’re talking about the economy, they’re talking about cities. Climate change, waste reduction, education, immigration…those are all city issues. That is why it is so important, and exciting, to see mayors from across US and around the world rising up and speaking out on issues where state and federal governments are stalled. In my view, cities are the only level of government that works every day on behalf of citizens in tangible ways you can measure. For city government, either a pothole was fixed or it wasn’t. Trash was picked up or it wasn’t. It’s not about giving a speech it’s about providing service. Regardless of the topic, city governments have to deliver services to citizens each and every day. And often those services are ones that people take for granted. Nobody wonders whether a traffic signal is going to work, that when they turn on a faucet in the morning they’ll have clean water, that there will be water in the swimming pools for kids in the summertime and art supplies at the community center. Every day, city governments manage those activities, in measurable ways, and truly affect the everyday life of everyday citizens.

Q: What are your thoughts on Public-Private-Partnership?

A: It’s not a fad.

Cities small, medium and large, regardless of financial circumstances, are focused on everything — from public safety, citizen engagement, poverty, reentry, to infrastructure integrity and investment. And they’re doing so with very little expectation that there will be new, big, or additional money coming out of Washington, DC. While very important, states and the federal government are generally funders of services, not service providers. When states and the federal government make promises, it’s the cities that have to deliver. So, increasingly we’ll see cities collaborating and partnering with the private sector to get things done. Public-private-partnerships are not a fad, they’re a necessity. P3s have been used for decades outside of the US, but we’ve been slow to adopt them for a variety of reasons. I believe that is going to change and you will see more P3 activity in the US. But to do them right, there is a big need for education.

Continue reading “Help Wanted & Available: Cities, Companies & Collaboration”

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.

Image credit: Scottie Public Affairs

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.