Commentary: 3 steps cities can take to get 'smarter' with the federal governments help

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Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Smart Cities Council’s blog and was reposted with permission.

U.S. cities: You’re in danger of falling behind the rest of the world. But you could soon get some help from the highest levels of government. You just have to be ready to take it.

The technology leaders who are part of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, are urging quick action. In their report, “Technology and the Future of Cities,” they write that there are more opportunities than ever for cities to use technology to become smarter. But the stakes are also higher than ever for failing to act.

A race cities can’t afford to lose

“Transforming cities around the world in this way is already a race,” they write, “one that the United States cannot afford to lose.” Those who lose will miss out on high-paying jobs, lucrative businesses and other opportunities.

U.S. cities may already be falling behind. The Asian Development Bank is allocating $18 billion in grants to help transform cities to cope with rapidly swelling populations. The U.K., Germany, China, India, Brazil and Singapore have also launched national programs to transform cities.

The PCAST urges President Barack Obama to take immediate action to help American cities, largely by transforming federal agencies using some of the same principles that make a smart city “smart.”

Here are three steps you can take — and how the federal government plans to help.

1. Work well with others

Smart cities work as a whole — each department working together toward a common good. The report says that federal agencies that work with cities should operate that same way.

In particular, it calls for the Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Energy secretaries to work together to form an interagency initiative that pioneers new smart city models — and helps cities adopt them.

You’ll likely see more opportunities like the Transportation Department’s Smart Cities Challenge, which provided funding for cities that had solid ideas for fixing their transportation problems. Be ready when those opportunities arise.

The report also calls for the National Science and Technology Council to form a new subcommittee that coordinates the findings of federally funded research and development projects. Pay attention to those findings and partner with universities and other research organizations in your area.

2. Embrace technological innovation

It’s technology that makes the transformation possible. Embrace it everywhere you can. The report urges the Department of Housing and Urban Development to use technology to better serve communities. That’s both to improve service but also to serve as a role model for cities.

Report authors recommend the department appoint a chief innovation officer to guide its transformation. If you haven’t already done so, give serious thought to who is orchestrating that transformation in your city.

3. If you can’t start big, start small

Obviously, when it comes to adopting smart cities practices, more is better. But if you aren’t ready for a citywide transformation, start with areas that need the most help. If you can’t do everything, you can still do something.

Support from the federal government could come either from incentives that encourage private investment or through loans that result in Urban Development Districts, particularly in low-income or otherwise disadvantaged areas.

But even these smaller-scale projects must be driven by a citywide vision. Otherwise, you’ll end up with disjointed, less connected neighborhoods.

Jesse Berst is the founding chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Follow @Jesse_Berst and connect on LinkedIn

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