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Reinventing American Cities with the City Web

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
March 1, 2016

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently released a report on strategies that use infrastructure improvements and new technologies to improve America’s cities. PCAST recommends using the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate research and development activities designed to help cities increase energy efficiency, implement renewable energy technologies and enhance connectivity among traffic systems, water management and industrial facilities. As the PCAST report points out, “Transforming cities around the world . . . is already a race – one that the United States cannot afford to lose.” At the core of PCAST’s recommendations is a platform to facilitate information-sharing and collaborative development, “The City Web.”

Why Cities Need to Transform

Since 2011, there has been a movement sending residents back to American cities, which has reversed 90 years of hollowing them out. The Obama administration, recognizing these demographic trends, launched the Smart Cities Initiative in September 2015. The Smart Cities Initiative coordinated pre-existing efforts by the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation and several other agencies along with launching the MetroLab Network. The MetroLab Network enables city governments to partner with local university research labs to help cities find innovative solutions.

There are two major areas of focus with the Smart Cities efforts. The first area of focus is in using innovative technologies to revitalize infrastructure. The second area of focus is using the emerging technologies of embedded sensors, the Internet of Things and big data to increase connectivity and use analytics to improve decisionmaking. Because changing a city’s infrastructure and building connectivity can be costly and disruptive, the PCAST report recommends a new approach that allows for maximum learning and sharing of best practices among large cities and small cities.

Reinventing the City One District at a Time

 Photo credit: Gizmodo UK

Photo credit: Gizmodo UK

According to PCAST, a district is “an area and population that are large enough for new technology implementations to have an impact, but also manageable from the point of view of clarity of intervention, tuning, collection of data, and assessment of progress and lessons learned.” Using districts as experimental pilots takes a lean start-up approach to rebuilding cities. As I have written before, governments can learn much from using the lean start-up methodology. Lean start-up methodology is especially useful in this case because it is effective in handling complex projects with interconnected technologies and goals. Lean start-up methodology also relies heavily on user input, which can help build favorable citizen engagement in the district pilots.

The Need for City Web

A major theme throughout the PCAST report is the need for coordination and collaboration. There have been and still are projects to revitalize cities. However, past improvements have been hard to replicate because of “idiosyncratic implementation, uneven distribution of solutions and expensive implementations.” These improvements rarely produce software useful for other cities, especially smaller cities. Currently, there is no shared “app store” for civic applications and few existing networks to share innovations between civic innovators. However, the PCAST authors argue now is the time to create a shared platform for civic innovators to share knowledge and data.

Now is the time for City Web because of five factors. First, the rise of technology-savvy civic innovation stakeholders. Second, new practices and standards for creating, storing, retrieving and archiving digital data. The third and fourth factors are closely related in that the increasing growth of application programming interfaces (APIs) makes sharing digital data easier and, thus, providing more sophisticated real-time analytics. The fifth and final factor is the use of “integrated modeling and scenario evaluation to support policy and planning.” These five factors can be combined to produce a civic innovation platform that will host app stores, communities of practice, online learning, analytics products and other support functions for civic innovators.

Four Recommendations for a Federal Government and Civic Innovators Partnership

The PCAST report concludes with four recommendations. The first recommendation advises the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Energy to form the Cities Innovation Technology Investment Initiative. In the second recommendation, HUD is directed to increase efforts to use technological innovation to aid low income communities. The third recommendation advocates the establishment of two programs to support developing urban development districts and introduce new technologies into communities. The final recommendation instructs the National Science and Technology Council to create the Urban Science Technology Initiative (USTI) Subcommittee. USTI will coordinate federal research and development projects for civic innovation.

Revitalizing American cities is becoming more vital to the economy and society as urbanization rapidly increases. There are many challenges in reinventing cities due to decades-old (and sometimes, centuries-old) infrastructure that can be met with new sustainable, renewable technologies and data science.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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