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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4380

THAT’S THE NUMBER OF HOURS SINCE THE ATLAS LAUNCHED!

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 Match.com 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!