White House tech advisers urge greater federal smart cities focus

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The federal government needs to get its shoulder behind the smart cities movement, a nationwide effort to improve urban infrastructure using IT, President Barack Obama’s top tech advisers are urging him. 

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report on the issue this week, laying out a series of steps for the federal government to take to support “smart city” initiatives around the country.

Specifically, the group proposes that the secretary of Commerce team up with several other Cabinet agencies to create the “Cities Innovation Technology Investment Initiative,” known as the CITII, to foster “efforts to pioneer new models for technology-enhanced cities.” That group of senior officials would be charged with developing a blueprint for how federal agencies can encourage innovation in the field by the end of 2016, as well as helping to steer federal investment in the area.

The report also stresses the value of “urban development districts,” or targeted subsets of cities where governments workers can test the deployment of new technology and data strategies. The advisers suggest that the administration create an incubator within the Treasury Department to help grow those efforts, and push for legislation to provide the program with $10 billion in funding to get it off the ground. The National Science and Technology Council would also be charged with coordinating federal research and development efforts for similar projects, and a variety of others related to smart cities.

Finally, the advisers advocated that the Department of Housing and Urban Development “embrace technological innovation” in its efforts, and “immediately” appoint a chief technology officer or chief innovation officer.

In a letter to the president laying out the report’s findings, council co-chairmen John Holdren and Eric Lander stressed that these recommended investments and programs are essential to helping the country keep pace with the rest of the world in the contest to make cities that can best house, transport and entertain the booming numbers of urban dwellers.

“Transforming cities around the world in this way is already a race ― one that the United States cannot afford to lose,” the pair wrote. “The time is ripe for an integrated approach to innovation to be brought to bear to improve the quality of life for all who live in cities, but perhaps above all the economically disadvantaged and under-connected.”

[Read more: White House pushes for smart cities engagement]

The CITII stands at the heart of the group’s plans. Though it would be led by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, the group would include representatives from the Departments of Energy, Defense, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Treasury, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The report also suggests that the CITII could work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation to encourage the development of an information sharing platform for cities known as “City Web.”

That portal would let the public and private sector share ideas about smart city technologies in a common environment. The federal agencies would be responsible for working with the private sector and city IT leaders to develop a “decentralized cloud-based site” to host this information exchange.

The advisers recommend that the group also follow the model of the Department of Transportation’s “Smart Cities Challenge” and use existing funds within its partner agencies to encourage the development of five development districts. They estimate that each will require $30 million to $40 million in funding, and they recommend that at least two be based in low-income communities.

In tandem with that effort, the Treasury Department’s new “Advanced Technology Infrastructure Incubator” would offer loans for “technology-based innovation” in similar development districts set up in cities around the country. While the advisers note that the program would need $10 billion in legislative appropriations, they think that amount could allow for the “financing of at least $100 billion of infrastructure-retooling projects.”

Overall, the report’s authors commend state and local governments for taking the lead in financing many of these smart city efforts initially, but they also feel that the federal government has a pivotal role to play in spurring these types of developments.

“Given the many federal agencies with missions and programs that relate to cities, and the many opportunities to leverage one another’s work, enhanced mechanisms for coordination of federal activity are needed,” the advisers wrote.

Contact the reporter at alex.koma@statescoop.com, and follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaSNG.

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