What Australia & New Zealand can learn from the U.S. Smart City Challenge

During Smart Cities Week in Washington DC on 14th September 2015, the Obama administration announced a $160 million, multi-department initiative to accelerate smart cities research and action across the country. It included new grant programs, 20 organisational partnerships, and numerous integrated research initiatives to pursue smart solutions to real-world problems facing cities.

One of the initiatives - the Smart City Challenge - was launched by the Department of Transportation and asked mid-sized cities in the US to develop innovative and integrated smart transportation solutions that embraced technology, data, and intelligent design. The 'Challenge' was put to the marketplace, and 78 cities, with their consortium partners, responded to the challenge. Oh, and each applicant was in the running for the top prize of $40 million to help implement their smart transportation plan.

“Transportation is not just about concrete and steel. It’s about how people want to live.” – Secretary Anthony Foxx

From Atlanta to Albuquerque, Fresno to Louisville, and Austin to Portland, these 78 applicants spent months generating fresh and innovative visions for smart transportation in their city. They created strategies that responded to key questions like:

  • How will we move in the future?
  • How can we move better?
  • How will we move things?
  • How will we adapt?
  • How will we align decisions and dollars?

From 78 applicants, a group of seven finalists was selected to refine their vision for what a smart city could be. In the end, Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland OR, and San Francisco were runners-up to the winner, Columbus OH. And while Columbus now has the opportunity to invest it's $40 million to help advance its cities' smart transportation future blueprint, the legacy of the program is creating value across many of the original 78 applicant cities.

So what can Australia and New Zealand learn from this successful program? Here are five key takeaways:

  1. Peer to peer learning is critical for success: The urban challenges facing cities are often not unique, with many cities sharing the same urban challenges. The Smart City Challenge was more than a grant program, it was an initiative to build collaboration, share knowledge, and a platform for cities to learn from each other. As was identified in the applicants submissions, at times more than half the cities were seeking to implement the same solutions, and learn from the testing and piloting process. Doing this on your own just doesn't make sense. As Michael Mattmiller, Chief Technology Officer from the City of Seattle, often says, "we are trying to avoid being a dumb smart city".
  2. It's about your city, first and foremost: The key learning I take from the winning city, Columbus Ohio, is that their vision was for a better city. Period. It was a citizen-centric smart city vision whereby all residents could move better and therefore enhance their access to opportunity. Their strategy was underpinned with a built environment framework, identifying four key district types within the city and using them as living laboratories. This included a residential district, commercial district, downtown district, and logistics district. This approach was in response to a deep understanding of their city's needs and aspirations, reinforcing the importance of a 'knowing your city' approach rather than a 'technology for the sake of technology' approach. All relevant application documents associated with the #smartcolumbus vision can be found here.
  3. Data is key, but governance is king: More than half of the Smart City Challenge applicants proposed implementing a unified traffic or transportation data analytics platform to help them make better decisions with fewer dollars. Building situational awareness through data capture and analysis of our major urban systems, like transportation, helps us understand how our cities are performing, so we can then invest accordingly. We have much work to do in building the real-time data collection and monitoring systems we need to understand how our cities are performing now, rather than how they performed four years ago! City performance management is only possible when data capture and analysis is embedded in our infrastructure (hard and soft) investments. However, our capacity to act upon what that data tells us, so we can improve city performance, is what matters most.
  4. The autonomous and connected vehicle agenda is a governance one, not a technology one: This could be the next big Jane Jacobs/Robert Moses 'smackdown' - how, when, and why autonomous and connected vehicles could, should, or might come to your city. More than half of the Smart City Challenge applicants included proposals to test the use of A&CV's in their city, with Pittsburgh being an example of how this could play out. In short, this agenda needs strong, if not visionary leadership from the planning and urban design professions to ensure we avoid any unnecessary and unintended consequences from unleashing this emerging car-based mobility agenda. This, in turn, requires bold leadership from the city administration, to pursue the necessary partnerships and establish a testing platform that brings the diversity of stakeholders together who are committed to asking the right questions and learning (which includes failing) along the way.
  5. Think smart transportation, think greenhouse gas emissions reduction: From truck platooning to advanced traffic signals, and from smart streetlights to electric vehicle infrastructure, a smart transportation strategy can be a cities underpinning platform for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By embedding sensors in our infrastructure, and gathering and analysing data, we can learn to optimise our interventions and investments for not only enhancing mobility, but reducing our greenhouse gas emissions liability. With both Australia and New Zealand signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement, smart transportation can become a potential accelerator to emissions reductions, and therefore needs to be viewed beyond just mobility.

You can Download the report "Smart City Challenge: Lessons for Building Cities of the Future" here.