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.

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.

 

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.

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”

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.

 

Smarty Pants

Sometimes walking into conference exhibitions, we feel like we’re living in the Silicon Valley parody of TechCrunch. But, after attending Smart Cities Silicon Valley this week, we feel genuinely energized about the range of city-centric technologies being developed and deployed to make local governments more efficient and effective, while also improving our daily lives.

Here are some of the companies and technologies that caught our eye:

Echelon: We know that LED lighting reduces energy use and saves money, but this adaptive control system lets a city adjust streetlights block by block to better match neighborhood needs. This level of responsiveness is pretty great from a public safety and economic development standpoint too.

Fybr: Knowing that legacy water and sewer systems are something many cities in the US are dealing with, we were most excited about their ability to provide real time insights into the operations of wastewater, stormwater, energy and streets systems on one dashboard. Not only will that save utility and public works staff time (and $) but it may also help cities find opportunities for system integration.

CNX: Last mile broadband expansion is a big issue for a lot of small and mid-size cities. Making the permitting process easier for both cities and companies, using a platform like theirs, will go a long way towards solving it.

Ike: These digital kiosks are cool not only because they provide guidance to tourists, visibility to local businesses, and are designed to match the local vibe…but also because they generate revenue for the cities that deploy them.

Inrix: They’re doing a lot of thinking about how autonomous vehicles will impact our cities. Also, after getting to play with their system we’re hoping my next car comes with Inrix navigation.

LocalIntel: We loved that this unique data-driven economic development support is applicable to nearly everyone, including the small cities that often need the most support. Also, we appreciate their CEO’s commitment to keeping operating costs down so they can continue offering affordable solutions.

Ingenu: Still wrapping our heads around this one, but it sounds like this network is designed specifically to support smart city deployments – and ensures that monitoring flood sensors won’t be impacted by our constant streaming of The West Wing.

Hitachi: Obviously not a small company, but one that is doing innovative work to improve public safety and streamline emergency response by aggregating data captured by everything from video feeds to social media.

We’re looking forward to understanding more about the tangible benefits (and any challenges) that these, and other smart solutions, are providing for cities and their citizens.

What other smart city technologies have you been impressed by?

P3s are dead, long live the P3!

For cities, President Trump’s budget includes some proposals that are sources of optimism and others that have raised concern. President Trump’s consistent support for increasing investment in infrastructure has been encouraging. If the proposed $1 trillion in infrastructure investment is strategic, the investment could be a great help to those cities struggling to upgrade aging and failing systems. However, the President’s budget also proposes to eliminate or drastically cut many of the programs that cities around the country rely on to provide essential services to their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

 

Amidst this uncertainty, two things are clear: federal funding will continue to dry up, and cities must take charge where state and national politics are deadlocked. This reality has jumpstarted a decades old conversation on the role and importance of public-private partnerships (P3s).

 

Unfortunately, traditional P3s are complicated for everyone. Not only does each state have different processes and practices, but the American public has varying levels of comfort with private ownership, or even operation, of public infrastructure. It’s those reasons — in addition a strong municipal bond market and regular infusions of federal funding for infrastructure after the 2008 financial crisis — that have kept P3s from proliferating here in the US the way they have in other developed countries around the world.

 

Or maybe we’ve been thinking about P3s the wrong way. Instead of thinking of P3s as a solution to the financing gap, we should approach P3s as filling the execution gap.

 

In the US, P3s have always been touted as a solution to the financing gap: “your city doesn’t have the resources to build an infrastructure project? You should pursue a P3!” But in Canada, and elsewhere around the world, they are used to fill an execution gap. This means P3s are focused on service delivery, optimization, and efficiency — where financing comes as a result, but isn’t the driving factor. May seem like semantics, but it gets to the fact that public partners tend to focus on services and private partners tend focus on ROI. Execution-focused P3s address that fundamental fact that public and private partners have different priorities, and explicitly seek to better align those differing priorities upfront.

 

Execution focused P3s can also better match the types of modern infrastructure systems that technological advances have allowed cities, and their citizens, to demand. These modern infrastructure systems — unlike highways and bridges — are often diffuse and consist of many small pieces and parts. For example, a modern stormwater management system might include thousands of street trees, green roofs, wetlands, and repaved roads to absorb water. Or a large power plant might be replaced with a network of neighborhood generators that turn food waste into energy. Because these systems tend to have a large number of smaller component projects, aggregating them into a single P3 focused on delivering project financing can have insurmountably high transaction costs.

 

Because these more modern infrastructure systems are deliberately designed to more flexibly and efficiently provide the same services to citizens as traditional projects, they tend to result in the same, if not greater, local benefits. In addition, they require extensive citizen participation, open new pathways for private investors to participate, and can take the burden off government budgets to build.

 

Examples of successful execution-focused public private collaboration abound, especially around smart cities technology. Waze, through the Connected Citizens Program, is partnering with cities around the world to use real time data to reduce traffic congestion. The City of Las Vegas released an app this year for Amazon’s Alexa that lets residents pay bills and fees, check the status of applications and permits, and get more information on city services and officials. These technology businesses have figured out how to approach distributed infrastructure systems by focusing on providing a service. We should aim to learn from these successful cases, and apply them to develop and deploy execution-focused P3s for in sectors, like electricity generation and delivery and stormwater management, moving forward.

 

As with any multi-party agreement, there will always be questions about political and staff turnover, ROI, payments, and responsibilities (more on that in future posts!). But if at the outset, a P3s focus is on service delivery and execution, the details — and the money — seem to shake out more clearly and in the public’s favor than they do in traditional financing-focused P3s.


P3s in the Trump Era can’t look like P3s of the past. Instead of being a solution to the financing gap, P3s should be leveraged to fill the execution gap. They should be focused on service delivery, optimization, and efficiency — where private financing comes as a result, but doesn’t drive decisions. And where each partner is focused on what it does best: the government partner set standards and desired outcomes, permits and regulates; developers and investors build and manage cost efficient systems; and citizens actively engage in optimizing solutions for their community.

 

What do you think? What are some of the most impressive technologies, business models, or execution-focused public-private partnerships you have seen? What were the benefits and drawbacks to the public and private partners involved? What was the impact on citizens, and how did they respond?


Like this topic? Keep an eye out for future posts where we explore in greater depth some of the challenges of traditional P3s, as well as highlight examples of execution-focused P3s.

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!