Smart City Collaboration [Cities and their Universities]

In previous blogs I have suggested the role that universities might play within their cities to forward the ‘smart’ agenda. Indeed, it was a feature of both the recent conferences organised by The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and the International Sustainable Campus Network.

Without doubt urbanisation is the perfect platform to encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration within universities. Those UK universities who have identified this as an opportunity to promote this through an emphasis on urbanisation are creating think tanks, centres of excellence and institutes to address them.

Now overlay that with ‘smart’ urbanisation and recognise the inherent willingness to experiment, to try out new ideas, that are encouraged in universities but frowned upon in risk-averse (and resource depleted) local authorities who act as proxy for ‘the city’.

Cities are recognising the need to engage with their universities to forward the smart city agenda. In essence, to help make their cities work better through a greater understanding of human behaviour, infrastructure capability and capacity, societal norms and observation. If you’re going to make informed decisions and change things you might want to consider how data can underpin that process.

This week President Obama launched a $160m initiative for smart cities in the USA. One of the initiative’s programs is the MetroLab Network, aimed at improving American cities through university-city partnerships. More than 20 cities participating in major new multi-city collaborations that will help city leaders effectively collaborate with universities and industry. The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, in Atlanta, are four of the universities on board. The whole programme will provide a platform for:

  • Creating test beds for “Internet of Things” applications and developing new multi-sector collaborative models: Technological advancements and the diminishing cost of IT infrastructure have created the potential for an “Internet of Things,” a ubiquitous network of connected devices, smart sensors, and big data analytics. The United States has the opportunity to be a global leader in this field, and cities represent strong potential test beds for development and deployment of Internet of Things applications. Successfully deploying these and other new approaches often depends on new regional collaborations among a diverse array of public and private actors, including industry, academia, and various public entities.
  • Collaborating with the civic tech movement and forging intercity collaborations: There is a growing community of individuals, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits interested in harnessing IT to tackle local problems and work directly with city governments. These efforts can help cities leverage their data to develop new capabilities. Collaborations across communities are likewise indispensable for replicating what works in new places.
  • Leveraging existing Federal activity: From research on sensor networks and cybersecurity to investments in broadband infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems, the Federal government has an existing portfolio of activities that can provide a strong foundation for a Smart Cities effort.
  • Pursuing international collaboration: Fifty-four percent of the world’s population live in urban areas. Continued population growth and urbanization will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. The associated climate and resource challenges demand innovative approaches. Products and services associated with this market present a significant export opportunity for the U.S., since almost 90 percent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia.

It’s great to see Obama’s modest investment ($160m wont get you far but it will kick-start your smart city in to action) incentivising cities to work with their native and other universities. In the UK the Innovate UK/ Catapult approach has attempted to do a similar thing although it has got somewhat tied up redtape. As a result UK cities such as Glasgow (who benefitted most from the smart city / Future Cities call for funding on the back of its Commonwealth Games bid), Bristol, London, Birmingham and Manchester have developed ever closer links with their universities to develop governance, technology, data and behaviour insight to rethink energy, transport, waste, services. Other cities, such as Liverpool (read by previous blog here), have clear recommendations from the work of their commissions to engage with their universities to make this happen: The Mayor must task the universities and colleges to develop a joint International Research Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Cities was one recommendation in the Mayor’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability. Leeds and Sheffield universities are beginning to work with their city councils with the former recognising the opportunity for collaborative, shared, posts to take the agenda forward. I hope, in due course, the city I work in, Nottingham, will do likewise to utilise the expertise that exists within both Nottingham universities.

The Obama Administration has, rather prescriptively, made some clear commitments in its announcements this week including:

Building a Research Infrastructure for Smart Cities

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is announcing over $35 million in Smart Cities-related grants and planning new investments in FY16. With a new foundation-wide effort devoted to Smart and Connected Communities, NSF will bring academic researchers and community stakeholders together to unlock transformational progress on important challenges — including health and wellness, energy efficiency, building automation, transportation, and public safety — through research to integrate new digital tools and engineering solutions into the physical world. NSF announcements in support of this agenda include:

  • $11.5 million in new awards to develop and scale next-generation Internet application prototypes that leverage gigabit speeds to achieve transformative impact in areas ranging from health care to public safety. These investments include new awards to US Ignite, Inc., and the Mozilla Foundation to create “Living Labs,” or communities of practice that facilitate the participation of citizens and community organizations, as well as idea and application sharing, across cities and regions. US Ignite is a public-private collaboration spanning over 40 cities and communities across the Nation. The Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting openness, innovation, and participation on the Internet.
  • $10 million in new Cyber-Physical Systems Program research awards focused on Smart and Connected Communities. These awards support research in the integration of computing, networking, and physical systems, such as in self-driving cars and smart buildings. The research awards being announced today help to establish the foundation for Smart Cities and the “Internet of Things.” One such award, to Kansas State University, will fund research on novel approaches to integrate distributed power sources, such as rooftop solar panels and storage batteries, with the existing electric power grid.
  • $7.5 million in proposed FY16 spending for urban science that will support research that integrates advanced digital tools with the physical world to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing, and learning in communities.
  • $4 million to support academic-industry collaborations to translate innovative research and emerging technologies into smart service systems, such as smart energy services and on-demand transportation.
  • $3 million for the University of Chicago to support the creation of the Array of Things in Chicago, the first such network to serve as an infrastructure for researchers to rapidly deploy sensors, embedded systems, computing, and communications systems at scale in an urban environment. Comprised of 500 nodes deployed throughout the city of Chicago, each with power, Internet, and a base set of sensing and embedded information systems capabilities, the Array of Things will continuously measure the physical environment of urban areas at the city block scale and unlock promising new research trajectories.
  • $2.5 million for researchers to participate in the 2015 NIST Global City Teams Challenge, which supports “high-risk, high-reward” research on the effective integration of networked computing systems and physical systems to meet community challenges.
  • $2.5 million in new research awards to support improvements in the design and operation of interdependent critical infrastructure, such as electrical power and transportation systems, ensuring they are resilient to disruptions and failures from any cause.
  • $2 million in new Smart and Connected Health research awards with a focus on Smart and Connected Communities. The awards being announced today will support the development of next-generation health care solutions that leverage sensor technology, information and machine learning technology, decision support systems, modeling of behavioral and cognitive processes, and more.
  • A new Dear Colleague Letter encouraging Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research proposals, as well as supplemental proposals to existing grants, to grow a Smart and Connected Communities research community and pilot early-stage efforts.
  • Advancing outreach and collaboration on connected and automated vehicles. On November 4-5, 2015, the University Transportation Centers (UTC) research program will host a conference on the impact of connected and automated vehicles on transportation – to include, planning, policy, land use, design as well as smart cities areas of interest: operations, freight movements, and transit.New Multi-City Collaborations to Support Smart CitiesMore than 20 city-university collaborations are launching the MetroLab Network, with more than 60 Smart City projects in the next year. Supported by a newly announced grant of $1 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MetroLab Network will leverage university expertise to address challenges facing cities and regions across the country.  The Network will provide a platform upon which established and emerging city-university relationships can share successful projects, coordinate multi-city, multi-university research efforts, and compete for research and project funding.  The founding members have collectively committed to undertaking more than 60 projects over the next year, which will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and services in our cities and communities and increase the productivity and competitiveness of our regional economies.  Communities and their university counterparts signing onto the network with a joint letter to the President include:
    • Atlanta, with Georgia State University and Georgia Tech
    • Boston, with Boston Area Research Initiative
    • Chicago, with the University of Chicago
    • Cuyahoga County, with Case Western University
    • Dallas, with Texas Research Alliance
    • Detroit, with Wayne State University
    • Houston, with Rice University
    • Madison, with University of Wisconsin-Madison
    • Memphis, with University of Memphis
    • Minneapolis & St. Paul, with University of Minnesota
    • Montgomery County, with University of Maryland and Universities at Shady Grove
    • New York City, with New York University
    • Philadelphia, with Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania
    • Pittsburgh, with Carnegie Mellon University
    • Portland, with Portland State University
    • Providence, with Brown University, College Unbound, and Rhode Island School of Design
    • San Diego, with University of California San Diego
    • San Jose, with San Jose State University
    • Seattle, with University of Washington
    • South Bend, with University of Notre Dame
    • Washington, DC, with Howard University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University

It’s wise, smart even, to facilitate and incentivise collaboration between city governments and universities. Both in the US and in the UK this has been happening but perhaps ad hoc and now the bigger carrots Obama is dangling is encouraging more to step up to the plate in the US. It helps prove the concept works and more cities in Europe, South America, North America, the Middle East, Far East, Russia, China, India et al should embrace this approach. It could be the single biggest contribution any university could gift the city that allowed it to grow and succeed.

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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