Cities aka Laboratories of Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How To: build an infrastructure laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





We’ve learned a lot from our growing network of users in the past 6 months (welcomed Boulder & Burlington this week!). In honor of the occasion, here are 6 things we’re thinking about and using to inform future Atlas development:

Cities (and counties, and utilities) “don’t have the opportunity to swing and miss.” When making large, long-term infrastructure investments, cost efficiency, community health, and safety are top of mind — that’s why tried and tested solutions are often preferred. But we also know there are new, transformative infrastructure solutions being deployed here in the US and around the world every day. That is why we’re doubling down our efforts to unearth those installed solutions. Our goal is to help cities leapfrog to these new infrastructure solutions by making them easier to discover and easier to compare.  In addition, we’re exploring new partnerships that will help to directly connect our city users with a network of urban innovators.

And on that point…We’ve been really excited to learn about The Ray and other infrastructure demonstration sites like the Hempstead Energy Innovation Park or the new Claiborne Corridor Innovation District developing in New Orleans (an Atlas city user!). If the Atlas is like an Ikea catalogue, these demonstration sites are like an Ikea showroom. Not only can the city, and its citizens, interact with and understand innovative technologies, the demonstration sites also helps real solutions prove their worth. Before leaving public service, The Atlas Marketplace CEO Elle Hempen worked with Israel’s Ministry of Environment to understand how they supported water technology demonstration in public systems. Elle learned that some of Israel’s success in supporting innovative technologies was due to a willingness in local governments to create safe spaces for testing (and sometimes failure). Bravo to those doing the hard work of innovation here in the US, we’re excited to work with you!

In December of 2016, the City of Boston (also an Atlas city user!) released a request for information that asked for new ideas to improve its streets. Why is that so exciting? First, the RFI was purposely written in plain language, void of overly technical jargon, to maximize the number of respondents. Second, they asked that respondents ditch the pitch: instead of flashy PowerPoint presentations, the City asked respondents to demonstrate community engagement and to focus on tangible value for residents. This RFI, combined with Boston’s Smart City Playbook, aim to help ensure pilot projects are successful and leading-edge solutions can scale. Cool, right? Check out the ideas they received.

We know cities learn best from other cities. But when peers aren’t available, city employees revert to familiar resources – using, for example, Google and Pinterest to brainstorm solutions for their top infrastructure challenges. That’s why we’re leveraging the power of social networks in the Atlas. The Atlas works more like than Facebook or Twitter. An integrated matching algorithm identifies cities around the world facing similar challenges, and uses that information to find solutions that are most relevant to the local needs of an Atlas user. Want to act on the information? Users can message other city and company representatives to understand how projects are working and replicate them more easily.

Many of our city users are upgrading their aging water and wastewater infrastructure. This trend matches data from across the country: Onvia has reported a 21% increase in water and sewer maintenance contracts, 55% of which were issued by cities. What are some of the most interesting solutions to managing leaky pipes? One solution piloted in Australia caught our eye. TaKaDu is a cloud based big data system that uses raw data from multiple sources – meaning it often doesn’t require additional equipment be installed. In addition, the data platform can learn normal system behavior so not only does it detect problems quickly, but it can also predict problem spots. Talk about smart water!

Everyday technologies like Uber and Amazon have increased citizen expectations for on-demand delivery of goods and services. Those expectations now also extend to their local government. In addition, there is a new generation of government professionals who already accept technology as solutions to inefficiencies. Both reasons explain why technology solutions for government is a rapidly growing market. But even with a boost in visibility, many small and mid-size companies with technology based solutions for public agencies struggle to “get the word out.” (We’ve heard those exact words from countless companies at this point!) That is why to achieve our mission of helping cities leapfrog to modern infrastructure, we are helping raise the awareness of the companies who are building inventive solutions. Through the Atlas, we want to open the door and give city decision makers the information they need – from how the project is working, to how it was financed and contracted – to close the deal.

Have other ideas about how the Atlas can improve how infrastructure is found, compared, and procured? Leave a comment here or let us know @_The_Atlas!