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.

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.

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.

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.