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An Act of Faith in Cities: White House Launches “Smart Cities” Initiative

The White House’s new “Smart Cities” Initiative will partner cities, like New York, with tech organizations to improve urban design and sustainable policy making. (Photo: David Flores / Flickr)

On Monday, the Obama administration unveiled the “Smart Cities” Initiative for the United States, which recognizes cities as engines of growth and innovation and aims to address local challenges to improve the lives of the country’s growing urban population. The program specifically targets issues such as traffic congestion, resilience and climate change, and comes as a timely call to action.

Importantly, the “Smart Cities” Initiative is multi-disciplinary, integrating decision making on urban sustainability, local climate adaptation, transport, crime and urban services. By fostering collaboration among government agencies and research foundations, the US “Smart Cities” initiative seeks to engage stakeholders at all levels, including NGOs, the private sector, public institutions, and local citizens. This integrative approach will foster collaboration on best planning practices, tailoring solutions to individual needs in multiple sectors.

Moving forward, the initiative will also identify strategies to overcome the unique obstacles facing modern city-dwellers in the future—a goal similar to that of India’s Smart Cities program. The Obama administration’s plan is an ambitious move that will support cities as labs of innovation, integrate the efforts of local leaders, federal agencies and the private sector, and  provide valuable resources for conducting new research.

Connecting Federal Programs with Local Projects

Taking advantage of existing federal programs fields such as “sensor networks… and intelligent transportation systems,” the initiative will forge new partnerships between cities and federal agencies. Through additional funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the initiative will also support research into innovative technologies that can improve transport efficiency or road safety. Furthermore, federal agencies will take on a larger role supporting new city-led pilot projects. For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT) will expand its work on Connected Vehicle Pilots into Manhattan and Tampa, improving wireless communication between vehicles, personal devices, and infrastructure.

Until now, city-level development initiatives have often remained disconnected from federal-level support. However, communication and integration between city management and federal agencies are essential for sharing best practices. The new initiative will help overcome this gap and improve the pool of resources and data available for urban planners and local decision makers.

While a step in the right direction, the initiative could go further by engaging city leaders through established global networks, such as the Compact of Mayors and ICLEI USA, which work on individualized city commitments to issues like climate resilience. Strengthening communication and collaboration between federal agencies, cities, and these global urban networks allows decision makers new insights on how to best lead their cities into a sustainable future.

Bringing Together Cities with Non-profits and Tech Groups

Beyond the federal government, the initiative will also bring partner cities and tech organizations—for example, corporate technology giant Siemens USA will ramp up engagement with international institutions like the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA). Similarly, IBM will take its Smarter Cities Challenge to Detroit, working with the Detroit Land Bank Authority to improve local neighborhoods. By partnering with large players in the tech industry, the initiative will leverage private sector expertise, exposing local policymakers to innovative management ideas, untapped channels of funding, and new approaches to improving how their cities operate.  Technology plays a critical role in making public services work for people, and these partnerships can give cities the knowledge and resources they need to be more effective.

Better Data for More Effective Policy Making

Finally, the “Smart Cities” Initiative pushes cities to base urban planning and local policy making on high-quality data. For example, the expansion of the Global City Teams Challenge through NIST will form new city partnerships, improving data collection technologies to aid cities in identifying and addressing their needs. The initiative will also foster opportunities for both public and private sector collaboration by creating paths for data-sharing between cities, universities, and businesses.

The initiative is a significant move toward more multi-city, multi-sector collaboration and knowledge sharing. By recognizing that cities are leading in sustainability and innovation, and by investing in technology and data-driven programs, this announcement is a strong commitment from President Obama—a timely act of faith in the future of U.S. cities.

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