Leveraging the opportunity of #OpportunityZones

recently headed up the coast to Los Angeles to spend the day with mayors from across the country, real estate developers, bankers and community leaders. Accelerator for America had brought this diverse group of people together to discuss something at the top of everyone’s minds. The topic? Opportunity Zones.

Opportunity Zones were created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. They create a tax incentive to push more dollars into the communities that need investment most. The basics of how it works: someone has capital gains, by reinvesting those gains into a pre-approved Opportunity Fund that someone will receive a temporary tax deferral and other tax benefits. These Opportunity Funds are required to invest 90% of its money in pre-approved census tracts — most of which are in rural or lower-income urban communities.

Proponents have estimated that this could be a $6 trillion dollar opportunity for cities to leverage. As a result, communities could see real estate investors rehab old buildings to create tech incubators and more VC money for local startups. Those more hesitant to jump on-board warn that this recent policy isn’t much different than previous attempts to encourage economic development with tax incentives which failed to generate substantial economic growth.

If there’s one thing our diverse group agreed on, it’s this…

Cities need to act now and get positioned to leverage the $6T investment Opportunity Zones promise.

Otherwise it’s uncertain that these investments can be channeled towards the projects communities need the most, as those project often have uncertain returns associated with them.

Mayor Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Mayor David Holt (Oklahoma City), Mayor Greg Fischer (Lousiville) getting ready to share their thoughts on Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttegig’s draft investment prospectus. Love when cities learn from other cities!

Some initial thoughts about how cities can start acting now to take advantage of Opportunity Zones are below.

  • Early bird gets the worm. 8,700 specific census tracts have been defined as Opportunity Zones across the country, but implementation isn’t certain (the Treasury Department is still figuring out lots of deets!) But even with lots of uncertainty, 20+ funds have already launched, and there are more in the works. Cities that prepare now will be best positioned to receive funds, and do so in a way that is focused on their priorities, rather than the investors.

 

  • Match the hatch. Money has never been the (only) problem when it comes to investing in communities. Private sector dollars flow to projects that are well designed, quantified, and valued — in terms that investors understand! This means that to get money in the door for a specific project, public entities have to first identify projects that either create revenue or generate savings that can be attributed to a specific entity. Not to mention define capital stacks, ratios, and IRR. Just like you can’t turn a blueprint directly into a mortgage document, you can’t turn an economic development strategy directly into a set of bankable projects….but you may be able to turn it into an investment prospectus. Accelerator for America, in collaboration with smarties like Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak,* are helping cities do just that. By defining, in an investor friendly way, an existing set of goals and a pipeline of projects that could be possible if there were private dollars available, cities can help ensure that investments are made in ways that actually make their most vulnerable neighborhoods safer, smarter or more sustainable. (h/t to my dad for raising me on catchy fly-fishing lingo that is also very useful for business!)

 

  • Define success first. Some have raised concerns that this could be just another way for money to flow towards investments with stable financial returns — like franchise fast food restaurants (see EB5) — instead of local grocery stores or cool projects like school LED light replacement that doubles as STEM education that could truly help transform distressed neighborhoods. Whether doing an all out investment prospectus or just getting organized, cities should start thinking now about what success looks like and putting mechanisms in place to track whether Opportunity Zone investments are helping. There are plenty of tools that cities can use to track how a neighborhood’s jobless rates, per capita income, or crime rates are changing over time. (Checkout how High Point, NC is tracking neighborhood scale improvements as they work to alleviate blighted properties or how Nashua, NH is tracking how livability factors like obesity rates and access to healthy foods are impacted by community investments.)

 

  • People should drive projects. Successful Opportunity Zone investments will align with city priorities and deliver on neighborhood needs. $6T is an excellent carrot and cities should use it as another reason to support meaningful engagement with their residents. Ideally, all Opportunity Zone projects stem from asking residents: what are the most significant problems in your day to day life? what can make your community better? There are tons of tools cities can use to make that process easier. (Checkout how Kansas City used a citizen survey to pass a $800M bond. Or how Purceville, VA used a polling platform to prioritize block-by-block investments.) These tools, used at scale, can be a great way to not only inform an investment prospectus but create a pipeline of projects that drive value to residents.

Finally, one caution from this eternal optimist…

The rise of the rest of the unicorns?

There’s a lot of discussion about how Opportunity Zones could be the thing that finally moves venture capital money from its current comfortable home on the coasts. Don’t get me wrong, as a co-founder of a startup based in San Diego, I strongly believe that good ideas are everywhere and VC money should be more evenly spread across the country. But it’s important to remember that most startups that get venture funding have high margins(some operate at 90% margin!). To get there it often means companies have low capex (meaning they don’t build many things) and low opex (meaning they don’t hire many people).

Venture-backed startups are not the most likely to create jobs for low-income residents in vulnerable communities, and they are not the most likely to stay in those communities after they get quickly acquired to payback their investors.

The biggest job creators in communities tend to be existing business in those communities. When it comes to Opportunity Zones, those are the types of corporate investments that should be prioritized.

To realize the value that many believe Opportunity Zones can create, investments need to go into the businesses, real estate projects, and community services that drive value for the most vulnerable residents. Investment dollars will find projects that make financial sense, its on city leaders to make sure those projects make community sense too.

Want to read more on Opportunity Zones? Checkout these recent pieces in Route FiftyWall Street Journal and all this great stuff written by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak.

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*Shortly after I drafted this piece, Jeremy Nowak passed away. His absence is felt by our entire community. My heart goes out to his family, friends and colleagues. Read more about his incredible life of service here.

The Atlas = Top 5 Finalist in Conference of Mayors Civic Tech Competition!

U.S. Conference of Mayors selected The Atlas as a Top 5 Finalist in its Civic Tech Competition!

As a top 5 finalist, Atlas CEO Elle Hempen pitched a panel of mayors and answered Q&A this past weekend at U.S. Conference of Mayors conference in Boston.

While we didn’t win the overall prize, The Atlas Team is thrilled to be a top 5 finalist and to have had the opportunity to share our work with the more than 250 mayors in attendance this past weekend.

From U.S. Conference of Mayors…

As part of its 86th Annual Meeting, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) will host a Civic Tech Pitch Competition to spur the development of new technologies to enhance citizen safety, security and community services.  Five startups…will compete for a total of $18,000 in prize monies as they present and defend their apps and solutions before a panel of judges and those in the audience,  who can use the USCM mobile app to cast their votes. The entrepreneurs who will be competing are:

-Nathan Armentrout, Founder & CEO, Casper Security – Casper Security improves neighborhood safety by monitoring abandoned properties and alerting neighbors and cities when danger is imminent at a fraction of the cost of demolition.

-Elle Hempen, CEO, The Atlas – The Atlas is the online community of public officials and innovators replicating what is working in other communities.

-Paul Salama, Chief Evangelist, ClearRoad – ClearRoad is a system that allows for digital per-mile fee collection, a more efficient, fair way to charge for roads.

-Noelle Marcus, Co-Founder, Nesterly – Nesterly connects households with spare space to younger people seeking a place to stay. In a twist that’s unique to Nesterly, young people can also exchange help around the house for lower rent.

-Joel Mahoney, Co-Founder & CEO, OpenCounter – OpenCounter builds tools for local governments to help streamline service delivery to residents. The portals guide applicants through complex permitting workflows so applicants can understand the full scope of projects before they get started.

It was an honor to share the stage with the other 4 finalists – all of the companies have incredible missions and teams – and we’re inspired by their visions for a better world.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we’re stoked to take everything we learned this weekend and apply it to helping our 80 partner cities more efficiently R&D (rip-off & duplicate!) what’s working in other cities!

Atlas CEO Elle Hempen pitching at U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston this past weekend.

#WaterYouWaitingFor: City of Orlando, FL

We’re working with ELGL to profile the Final Four #WaterYouWaitingFor projects – the winners collected their trophies, goody bags, and ELGL memberships at #ELGL18 but we wanted each project to also get some time to shine. First up…Orlando, Florida!

Explain your award-winning #WaterYouWaitingFor project in 100 words or less.  

The implementation of the Lake Level Monitoring program will enable City staff to monitor the lakes in real-time, making adjustments before storm events to help mitigate flooding of critical infrastructure and residential communities.

This project will allow the City to capture the historical knowledge of the lake management expertise that currently resides in the hearts and minds of our long term staff. We will be able to track, measure and methodically adjust water levels to meet the ever changing weather patterns that are occurring in central Florida.

This project will eventually tie into the National Weather Model for forecasting lake levels based on 2-3 day weather forecasting.

Describe Orlando to someone who has never visited Florida/the region before. 

Very fun, diversified and environmentally conscience City. We have so much more than Theme Parks.  For most of Orlando’s history we’ve been the place everyone wants to visit.

Today, Orlando is also the place where everyone wants to live and do business. List after list has Orlando as one of the fastest growing cities in America. We’re transitioning from our role as the young upstart to being a more mature, global City.

We are doing that by keeping our community safe, generating high quality jobs, and becoming one of the most sustainable cities in America.

Where did this project idea come from? 

Innovation is the mother of necessity.  As climate changes continue to occur, we needed a better way to predict and ultimately manage those changes.

Through technology we can monitor the weather patterns and adjust our lake levels to address intense rain events, hurricane effects and drought conditions.

Share some of the project highlights. 

This project had its beginnings in the early 1990’s when then Stormwater Bureau chief had a vision of an Orlando Unit Hydrograph. The city started with gauge boards that the survey crews would shoot the water elevations every quarter.

We then transitioned to telemetry starting in 2004 utilizing pressure transducers to calculate the water surface elevation from the pressure differential.  There were approximately 67 stations deployed in the City lake system.

In 2015 we began transitioning to cellular because of data losses when using radio frequency.  Our ultimate systems will include pressure transducers, data-loggers and electronic rain gauges.

Share some of the project challenges. 

Time.  It takes a lot of time to plan and implement the data collection network.  It also takes a lot of time to research the options for the individual stations, electric requirements, environmental factors (tree canopy blocking sun on solar panel), easements for equipment when no City land available, etc.

City of Orlando, Florida – Streets & Stormwater Division Manager

What has been the community response to this project? 

We have a fairly active environmental community that is very supportive of any and every thing that we can do to improve the water quality and recreational enjoyment of our water bodies.

If someone is reading about this project and wants to replicate it in their community, what would your top two pieces of project advice be? 

Determine who will be the core Team members and make sure they have the technical expertise to monitor/maintain the equipment and QA/QC the data.  These are 2 critical areas that need a lot of consideration.

FINAL FOUR: Water You Waiting For Projects

A whopping 1,100 water infrastructure fans voted for their favorite #WaterYouWaitingFor local government water project, all featured and shared on The Atlas. These top four projects are already winners. They’ll receive:

Honors at the ELGL18 conference in Golden, CO May 18th.

Profiles (via interviews, pictures, articles) by ELGL and The Atlas.

Free All-In membership to ELGL.

The overall winner will also receive a brag-worthy trophy, and a box of creativity goodies.

 

We’ll announce the overall winner at #ELGL18 at the 10:20 a.m. session “The Shape of Water” on Friday, May 18. Here are the top four projects (in random order):

Using Data & Creativity to Reduce Flooding

Orlando, FL

At a Glance: The City of Orlando plans to upgrade Lake Monitoring stations as part of this project. These stations will communicate rain intensity.duration data to the cloud via wireless connectivity. This information will be used to create an Orlando Unit Hydrograph curve to model storm events within the Orlando watershed.

 

Enhanced Flood Risk Reduction Through Bistate, Multiagency Partnership 

Kansas City, MO

At a Glance: Kansas City, Missouri, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collaborate on complex flooding problem-solving and managed funding, administration and real estate in order to reduce heavy rain stormwater impact on local businesses and residences.

 

Building a Smarter Sewer System to Reduce Overflows in Greater Cincinnati 

Cincinnati, OH

At a Glance: To keep sewage mixed with stormwater out of waterways during rain events, Metropolitan Sewer District built a smarter sewer system that costs less than any other solution. Using sensors and computers, we can now monitor and redirect stormwater flows from full interceptor sewers to areas with available capacity.

 

Upgraded wastewater treatment to a level acceptable to reuse on crops

Hermiston, OR

At a Glance: The city needed to upgrade its effluent to discharge into the Umatilla River. After extensive study and research, the best solution was determined to be treating the water to the level that it could be applied to regular crops. So now the city discharges to the West Extension Irrigation District canal during irrigation season.

 

About #WaterYouWaitingFor:

The Atlas partnered with ELGL to promote the free and open exchange of ideas where local governments can learn from one another to be most successful. When local leaders share their success stories, everybody wins! This is especially true on expensive and complex public works projects, so the goal of this competition was to collect and share details about the best water projects in the nation.

ELGL selected 18 amazing water projects for you to learn more about on ELGL.org and The Atlas. The local government community voted and selected the above four projects for national recognition.

Water You Waiting For Finalists & Voting

The Atlas, like ELGL, is passionate about the free and open exchange of ideas where local governments can learn from one another to be most successful. When local leaders share their success stories, everybody wins. This is especially true on expensive and complex public works projects. We are so glad to be partnering with ELGL to collect and share details about the best water projects in the nation.

 

Below are the 18 amazing water projects nominated and selected for you to learn more about, now you get to pick your favorite! The winner will be selected by popular vote, so get the word out! You can vote for your favorite project here: http://elgl.org/2018/04/24/water-you-waiting-for-voting/.

 

Voting for the Top 4 projects is now open through midnight Wednesday, May 2nd. Here’s what’s on the line:

  • Honors at the ELGL18conference in Golden, CO May 18th.
  • Profiles (via interviews, pictures, articles) by ELGL and The Atlas.
  • A year’s free membership to ELGL, a trophy, and a box of goodies.

 

Terminal Island Advanced Water Purification

Los Angeles, CA

At a Glance: Construction of an Advanced Water Treatment Facility (AWPF) at Terminal Island Water Reclamation Plant (TIWRP) to provide safe recycled water for potable reuse for the surrounding area. The planning of this project started in 1985 and the construction was broken in two phases.

 

Upcycled Trash Booms for Trash Cleanup in the Tijuana River Valley 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: A binational project that repurposes trash collected in Mexico to create booms that capture trash flowing into San Diego County.

 

 

Water Conservation Home Makeover at Chollas Creek 

San Diego County, CA

At a Glance: This pilot project provides water conservation ‘home makeovers’ to 50 low income homes in Encanto, a disadvantaged community in San Diego County. The project includes retrofits and personalized landscaping, as well as outreach including quarterly reports on water savings metrics and school programming.

 

 

Mission Avenue Complete Street 

Oceanside, CA

At a Glance: Mission Avenue Streetscape is a “complete green street” in Oceanside, San Diego County. This project implemented a ‘road diet’ to support local businesses, make the area more enjoyable, and include storm water BMPs.

 

 

Closed Loop Water Infrastructure at the San Diego International Airport 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the agency that manages the day-to-day operations of San Diego International Airport (SAN), is pursuing an integrated approach to managing water quality, water use, and flood resilience.

 

 

Canyonside Recycled Water Pump Station Emergency Repairs for Flood Damage 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: City crews worked long hours to install temporary pumps and generators; the pumps were operated manually 24 hr/day, shifts scheduled around the clock to keep pumps running and site secure. The City returned the Pump Station to full operating condition and kept costs to a minimum with the use of in-house staff.

 

 

Lloyd Estates Drainage Improvements 

Oakland Park, FL

At a Glance: Retrofits to existing stormwater control structures and have constructed new exfiltration trenches, catch basins & manholes, and roadside swales to deal with repeat flood losses. Retrofits seamlessly integrate both green (grass swales) and grey (pumps, trenches) components.

 

 

Citizen Science for King Tide Flooding 

Broward County, FL

At a Glance: Low-lying coastal areas of Broward County can be impacted by flooding from high tide events. To help document locations and severity of flooding, Broward County launched a citizen science effort that encouraged citizens to submit geotagged pictures of flooding via their smartphones.

 

 

Using Data & Creativity to Reduce Flooding

Orlando, FL

At a Glance: The City of Orlando plans to upgrade Lake Monitoring stations as part of this project. These stations will communicate rain intensity.duration data to the cloud via wireless connectivity. This information will be used to create an Orlando Unit Hydrograph curve to model storm events within the Orlando watershed.

 

 

Justifying Green Stormwater Design for St Paul 

St. Paul, MN

At a Glance: City of St. Paul had the opportunity to redevelop a vacant 135-acre Ford Motor Co. campus that included a riverfront area abutting Hidden Falls Regional Park. However the current site lacked stormwater management transportation options to support its use by the community. Because of its prominent location, Mayor Chris Coleman urged the city staff to study and replicate the best practices for a “21st century community.” Development plans have been informed by community input and enhanced by triple bottom line cost analysis.

 

 

Enhanced Flood Risk Reduction Through Bistate, Multiagency Partnership 

Kansas City, MO

At a Glance: Kansas City, Missouri, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collaborate on complex flooding problem-solving and managed funding, administration and real estate in order to reduce heavy rain stormwater impact on local businesses and residences.

 

 

Southwest Resiliency Park to Mitigate Stormwater Flooding 

Hoboken, NJ

At a Glance: After experiencing significant flooding during Hurricane Sandy, the Southwest Resiliency Park is the first in a series of investments the city is making to increase green space and reduce flooding vulnerability for communities.

 

 

Using Green Infrastructure To Green Camden City and Reduce Combined Sewage Flooding and Overflows 

Camden, NJ

At a Glance: Constructed 4 riverfront parks and 60 rain gardens in Camden City to provide green amenities for the residents, reduce combined sewage flooding and overflows, and also create green maintenance jobs.

 

 

Building a Smarter Sewer System to Reduce Overflows in Greater Cincinnati 

Cincinnati, OH

At a Glance: To keep sewage mixed with stormwater out of waterways during rain events, Metropolitan Sewer District built a smarter sewer system that costs less than any other solution. Using sensors and computers, we can now monitor and redirect stormwater flows from full interceptor sewers to areas with available capacity.

 

 

Upgraded wastewater treatment to a level acceptable to reuse on crops

Hermiston, OR

At a Glance: The city needed to upgrade its effluent to discharge into the Umatilla River. After extensive study and research, the best solution was determined to be treating the water to the level that it could be applied to regular crops. So now the city discharges to the West Extension Irrigation District canal during irrigation season.

 

 

Reducing CSOs with CMAC Technology 

Philadelphia, PA

At a Glance: Philadelphia Water Department installed continuous monitoring and adaptive control (CMAC) technology in stormwater retention basin to control runoff in real-time and reduce flooding.

 

 

Hacking the Storm: Crowdsourcing, Civic Hacking, and Innovation in Harvey’s Wake

Houston, TX

At a Glance: In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, City of Houston officials and the local tech community responded rapidly using data, tech, and crowdsourcing to hack disaster response efforts. These new approaches leverage the power of the crowd to revolutionize disaster rescue, relief, and recovery operations.

 

 

Lower Footprint Biofiltration to Increase Efficiency in Right of Way Stormwater Capture

Houston, TX

At a Glance: Part of a broader redevelopment effort, Bagby Street – a ten-block corridor in a dense, urban neighborhood of Houston – was redesigned to improve mobility for vehicles and pedestrians, and add aesthetic appeal to the road. Improvements led to Bagby Street being named one of Texas’ first certified Greenroads.

 

Retain Your Rain 

Norfolk, VA

At a Glance: Retain your rain seeks to engage residents in a city-wide systemic approach to stormwater management by encouraging the use of small-scale green infrastructure on their properties. This reduces the amount of water that goes into the stormwater system which can cause floods in our streets and neighborhoods.

 

Trickle-Down Tech & Procurement Innovation

Procurement innovation may sound like an oxymoron, but government spending is a common thread in all of our most important policy debates: healthcare, infrastructure, tech. You name it. This post is a response to Jen Pahlka’s call for ideas leading up to Code for America’s 2018 Summit to improve how governments work with technology vendors to deliver better services and more cost-effective outcomes for every taxpayer dollar. That’s a goal we whole-heartedly support, and below are our suggestions for accelerating procurement innovation beyond the tech sector. This post was originally posted on Medium.


By Shalini Vajjhala, CEO of re:focus partners & co-founder of The Atlas Marketplace.


Communities across the country are looking for ways to leapfrog to smarter, more sustainable solutions and reach better outcomes for their residents. And in many communities, tech is beginning to trickle down to the everyday operations of departments traditionally unrelated to IT, like police and housing & redevelopment. But government procurement — the process of actually buying services and products like smart sensors, microgrids and flexible flood barriers — is often a stumbling block. If we don’t make major improvements to the procurement tools that government agencies are required to use, governments officials at all levels are inevitably going to replace failing systems with the same old fixes rather than transitioning to better, cheaper, more sustainable systems.

That’s a terrible outcome for taxpayers and residents alike.

Because our mission The Atlas is to help local governments scale proven urban innovations, we’re unabashedly enthusiastic about improving procurement processes too. It’s impossible to separate one from the other.

PC: Dilbert, via Jon on Tech.

We have been working on innovative infrastructure procurement in the energy, transportation, and water sectors from inside and outside government for over a decade. And we’re incredibly excited about the energy that has emerged from all corners to fix broken procurement systems.

Trickle down tech

With smart sensors and IoT discussions entering every sector from energy to water to waste management, tech has begun to permeate nearly every city department. Public works, housing, police, transit…technology has begun to trickle down to all of these. As difficult as technology procurement is, the tech sector has one major advantage over lots of other sectors: iteration. IT systems evolve much faster than other large conventional infrastructure. For all those IT officials and vendors who have struggled through brutally slow and difficult procurement processes, we’re not saying the procurement in tech is fast or nimble, only that it has the potential to learn and improve more quickly in comparison to other sectors. As a reference point, just think about how much more frequently a city replaces software than it does a public transit system.

The comparative speed of turnover and tech service innovations offers an opportunity to experiment, iterate, and continuously improve procurement processes, where other more static sectors don’t have the same luxury. Water infrastructure is perhaps the most compelling counterpoint. The battle to replace 150-year old pipes is quietly raging under our streets, as various vendors and industry associations are working furiously to tilt the balance of hundreds of local procurement decisions. You can update a government website or replace servers on a fairly regular basis, but the stakes are higher with once-a-century procurement decisions. A city (hopefully) only buys a whole water system once in a generation.

We would love to see the kinds of govtech procurement innovations CFA is seeking through its Summit reach professionals from other sectors, like water utilities and transportation agencies, and to have the lessons learned from IT Directors, Chief Innovation Officers and vendors alike translated for small and medium sized cities that are all eager to leapfrog to smarter, safer, and more sustainable infrastructure solutions.

Procuring the wrong thing well is not a good outcome.

In our work in the water sector we’ve seen first hand the difference between between asking: “How can my city get the best value on a new water treatment plant?” and “What options do we have for reducing flooding in our city?” Both questions could be the starting point for streamlining procurement. They each frame an important problem, but the former presumes a narrow end outcome that limits possible solutions and the latter creates space for game-changing innovations in design and financing.

PC: Jon on Tech.

All procurement is a means to an end. Procurement innovation isn’t an end by itself.

It’s easy to lose sight of that, given how complex large procurement processes have become. Lots of efforts have focused on streamlining various rules, regulations, and purchasing processes. These things are all important, but less discussed and even more important is how to identify the ideal outcome and turn that vision into a clear scope of work (SOW). The sweet spot between focus, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and creativity is tough to find. Government officials need better resources to help envision the best possible ends, not only support in streamlining the means.

Groups like the X-Prize Foundation have lots of experience in framing problems and competitions to generate the widest, most innovative, and relevant sets of possible solutions. Let’s bring these folks — the people with the most experience in framing problems to encourage creative problem-solving — together with government officials to frame better desired outcomes and scopes of work, before governments get into the weeds of procurement processes.

The best defense is a good offense.

Procurement is all about managing risk and liability. The risk of awarding contracts to inappropriate providers (a councilmember’s brother-in-law) or ending up far short of a prescribed outcome or service (the half-built transit system) are two among many that keep public servants up at night. Cities like Boston have flipped this dynamic on its head by using innovative procurement tools, like Requests for Ideas, to put the onus on vendors to show how their cool new thing can help Boston solve its core challenges. Boston had to do a lot of work to frame these challenges well (see above), but tools like RFIs, competitions, and performance-based RFPs can and should be far more widely tested and applied to attract new ideas, new partnerships, and new resources.

We’re tackling this problem now, in partnership with the Kresge Foundation and US Water Alliance, by working with six cities across the US to translate big city procurement experiments into replicable tools for smaller cities looking to tackle legacy water system issues.

Kudos to the Code for America team for reaching out widely. We’re glad to have the chance to #weighinonCfASummit and eager to hear what other folks think.

One of our favorite sayings is: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

So here’s to fixing procurement in practice and making life better for government officials, vendors, and most importantly, the communities they both serve.


Want to learn more? Here are some more articles that may be interesting to you:

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”