A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

Songdo, South Korea has been billed as the world’s first “smart city.” (Image: Gale International)

Today, when we hear the term “smart city”, massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies come to mind.

Take the $35 billion+ city of Songdo, South Korea, which was built from the ground-up with the help of Cisco. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40 percent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the U.S. to be included in the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED Accredited district in South Korea). Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system, which funnels garbage from every kitchen in the city directly to a central waste processing center. Only seven employees handle waste for the whole city, and there are no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

But how can you make a smart city if you don’t have several billion dollars or the ability to build a development from the ground up? Aren’t expensive projects by big companies the only way to make your city smart?

Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact with a fraction of the price. The creation of small smart cities companies may seem unrelated to any municipality’s actions, but cities can do a lot to encourage and empower these innovations.

For example, the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston focuses on incorporating futuristic design and technology into the city’s development. Its willingness to invest resources and take chances on new technology has helped small companies succeed while ensuring that Boston remains innovative. I work for one of those small companies, Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spinoff founded in 2014. With the support of New Urban Mechanics, Soofa was able to pilot 10 pieces of smart urban furniture — solar-powered charging benches — just a few months after creating the first prototype.

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

The feedback gained from this pilot phase allowed Soofa to make major bench improvements and complete their first production run this spring, with benches being installed in seven U.S. states.

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

Across the river, Cambridge was also willing to take a risk on a new startup by being an early adopter of Soofa Benches and a R&D partner. The Soofa Bench features a sensor brain that detects the environment around it — from noise and nitrogen levels to humidity and temperature. Cambridge realized that this wealth of data gained from urban environments can be harnessed for more effective city planning, evaluating the efficacy of various programs and developments, and most importantly, helping citizens enjoy their urban spaces! As such, Cambridge was willing to be Soofa’s R&D partner as they develop the most comprehensive sensor brain and data platform possible.

So, why are small interventions better? When entrepreneurs envision ways to improve the city, they dream big, but are constrained by cost and practicality. The resulting products have big potential with a much smaller price tag. Installing a bench is much easier than retrofitting aged infrastructure with sensors, and more cost effective. A solar-powered bench can seem like an unnecessary expenditure, especially to smaller cities, but this investment enables cities to be more efficient and enjoyable in the future.

Creating a space where local entrepreneurs can have their city-improving ideas heard and potentially supported by city governments is critical to the creation of smart cities. Even if no investments are made, gaining the input of stakeholders from professors to designers and engineers is invaluable to future city planning. Chicago’s Array of Things project is another great example of a city using their valuable local academic and technological resources to create a low-cost, high-impact smart cities intervention.

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

Chicago still took input from smart-cities giants like Cisco, but made a conscious choice to loop in local talent for the research and design behind the project. Though here we encourage cities to support small companies creating smart cities interventions, we must give big companies credit where credit is due. Without their push to encourage smart cities projects, smaller companies would never be able to sell their products or get funding — because no one would know what a smart city is! The research, awareness and funding from major companies in the smart cities space has been invaluable. That said, any city can be cost-effectively made into a smart city through small interventions powered by small businesses.

So, how do you future-proof your city? Prioritize the creation of civic innovation offices similar to New Urban Mechanics to support local talent and small businesses. Small, agile interventions end up having a big impact.

About the Author: Isabel Munson is the Data Strategy Lead at Soofa, an Internet-of-Things company dedicated to creating social, sustainable and smart cities. Her other musings on smart cities, #Soofatalk, may be found at www.soofa.co or @mysoofa.

Closing the Digital Divide in America

This is a guest post by David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation.

Chance the Rapper (left) and Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen present laptops to students from Chicago’s Alcott College Prep at a recent event to announce new Internet Essentials milestones. (Comcast)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 52 percent of low-income households in the United States subscribe to broadband at home. What’s more, for certain low-income groups, broadband adoption still falls more than 20 percentage points behind the general population, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Today, access to the Internet at home is essential for all family members to keep up in this digital and highly competitive world— so much so that it’s hard to believe there are still so many families without it. Whether doing homework, applying for college, searching and applying for jobs, paying bills, accessing health care or using social media, think for a second about how you would do all these things if you didn’t have the Internet at home? Would you park your car in your nearest McDonald’s parking lot so you could hand your smartphone to your child to use the free Wi-Fi to write a book report? Would you send your daughter across town on a bus at night to a computer lab so she could do her homework? Would you walk a mile to your local library to sign your son up for a 30 minute session on a computer? I’ve traveled all around the country hearing stories from mothers and fathers who had to do all of these things for their kids because they didn’t have Internet service at home. It doesn’t seem fair does it?

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In August 2011, we set out to try to help solve this problem by introducing Internet Essentials, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program. It provides low-cost broadband service for $9.95 a month; the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for less than $150; and multiple options to access free digital literacy training in print, online and in person.

That was three and a half years ago. Recently, we were proud to announce that thanks to the support and hard work of thousands of community partners, elected officials and dedicated employees, we have connected more than 450,000 families, or 1.8 million low-income Americans, to the power of the Internet at home. For a frame of reference, 1.8 million is larger than the populations of 96 of America’s 100 largest cities as well as 12 states. That is real and meaningful progress.

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On a local level, the Chicago metro area leads the way in closing the digital divide for the fourth year in a row. More than 50,000 families, or 200,000 low-income Chicagoans – nearly 25 percent of its eligible population – have signed up for Internet Essentials. Second best is the Miami metro area, with more than 41,500 families, or 166,000 low-income residents – 28 percent of its eligible population. The Atlanta metro area is third best with more than 25,000 families, or more than 100,000 low-income citizens – almost 20 percent of its eligible population.

Crossing the digital divide is not just about getting families online, it’s also about teaching them how to use the Internet’s resources to its fullest potential. The clear-cut assessment across all broadband researchers is that the most widely noted reason for non-adoption is not the price of the broadband connection or any cost related to that connection. Instead, it’s a bucket of digital literacy issues, including a perceived lack of relevance of the Internet and a lack of understanding of its value. For instance, nearly half of non-adopters say they simply don’t need the Internet at home or are not interested, according to research by the NTIA.

To break down that barrier to adoption, we’ve invested more than $225 million in cash and in-kind support to help fund digital literacy and readiness initiatives, reaching more than 3.1 million people through our network of national and local nonprofit community partners. Partners like the National League of Cities have also played a crucial role in making more people aware of these training opportunities.

One of my favorite statistics that truly highlights the progress we are making is from research by Dr. John B. Horrigan, former head of research for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and a preeminent researcher on broadband adoption and utilization. He found that even though Comcast is only one of multiple providers, and does not have broadband systems in two-thirds of the country, the company’s Internet Essentials program has accounted for one-quarter of all of the national broadband adoption growth for low-income families with children from the program’s inception through June 2014.

We look forward to the continued success of the program. We believe the Internet has the power to transform lives, strengthen communities and inspire a new generation of leaders – but we can’t do this alone. We hope you will join us in this fight to close the digital divide. If you’d like to get more involved and become a partner, please sign up at www.internetessentials.com/partner and help spread the word.

david cohen, comcast_150x187About the Author: David L. Cohen is Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation. David has a broad portfolio of responsibilities, including corporate communications, government and regulatory affairs, public affairs, legal affairs, corporate administration and community investment, and serves as senior counselor to the CEO. He also serves as Chief Diversity Officer for the company.

How Three Cities Have Taken 311 Into the Digital Age

This is a guest post by Gayatri Mohan. This article was originally published as part of a 311 Day series on the PublicStuff blog on March 11, 2015.

Newsom Makes Announcement With Obama's Top Information Officer Vivek KundraU.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra (L) talks with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom after a press conference announcing the launch of a national initiative to open 311 customer service centers to developers March 3, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Newsom and Kundra launched the national Open 311 Application Programming Interface (API), which will allow software developers to create web applications that will allow the general public to make service requests via smart phones directly to 311 systems bypassing often inundated call centers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Remember Life Before 311?

Residents lucky enough to live in communities that operate 311 centers know the convenience of having one number to access a host of services and resources. Many of the communities that have used 311 the longest – places like Pensacola, Fla., McAllen, TX, New York City and Philadelphia – have benefited from evolving their 311 centers with the times. First launched for landline phones, they’ve seen a vast improvement in service delivery and city operations by merging call centers with other low-cost channels like mobile, web and SMS. Integrating the latest in communication mediums has not only delivered a consistent resident service experience, but also minimized the time cities spend entering and routing duplicate resident requests.

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311 call center success in the cities of Pensacola, Fla., Philadelphia and McAllen, Texas. (PublicStuff)

Establish a Clear Communication Strategy

Since Pensacola’s launch of its Pensacola 311 program, the city has achieved a 100% request closure rate because of its clear communication strategy to the public. For example, although certain request types on the web portal are categorized under the Police department, the city clarifies that emergency situations still need to be reported to 911 to avoid delayed response. To further facilitate the request submission process, the city offers additional resources like contact information for the Energy and Sanitation departments, so residents don’t have to go searching for them through the city website. Providing such detailed information right at the resident’s fingertips means that city officials spend less time answering common inquiries, and more time working to fix important community issues.

Build Easily Accessible Resources

Similar to Pensacola, the city of McAllen has built out a thorough library of answers to avoid spending time on commonly asked questions. Helpful articles like “Everything You Need to Know About Brush in McAllen” pop up as a resident tries to submit a request to provide immediate answers and open up time for call center staff to attend to more pressing issues. Making helpful resources accessible through various channels has allowed the city to achieve a 98% request closure rate through its call center alone.

Integrate With New Technology

Philadelphia is one of the largest US cities with a call center, and has taken more than 6 million calls with a wait time of less than 40 seconds and average call duration of 3 minutes. To offset the incredible call volume, Philadelphia has integrated its call center operations with their mobile and web platform, Philly 311. Building a connected system on the staff-end has allowed city officials to track and update submitted requests simultaneously across all platforms, avoiding duplication and manual data entry.

Using effective workflow management systems, cities have been able to route information to the right city official equipped with the required tools to fix and close out requests on time. This encourages residents to participate in improving their neighborhoods, improves the quality of community interactions, and raises public trust in government to create a continuous loop of constructive dialogue and feedback.

Gayatri Mohan bio photo 175x175About the Author: Gayatri Mohan is Marketing Team Lead at PublicStuff, a civic software company based in New York. She can be reached at gayatri@publicstuff.com.

Regulatory Reform, Data Analytics and Local Food Systems: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

boston_1_fullsizeCities like Boston have recently begun a new chapter in economic development by taking an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy. (Getty Images)

Grab your scissors, it’s time to cut red tape for local businesses. Whether it’s the dizzying paper trail, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, the local regulatory process is ripe for reform. NLC profiled the three key strategies for untangling the knots of business regulations, and also highlighted how several cities are using a “more carrot, less stick” approach. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a guest blog post for NLC on how he is making Boston more business friendly, including building an online permitting system. The Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School recently launched a comprehensive, online guide to help cities plan out their own regulatory reform initiatives. (Side note, here’s a great article from The Week on other ways cities can support businesses).

Data analytics is driving more effective economic development… There were a couple great stories this past month about how data analytics is improving local government outcomes, particularly for economic development. For example, Transit Labs is partnering with Detroit to use city data to improve inefficient bus routes. Also Louisville and Raleigh are among a group of cities using public feedback on the restaurant review website Yelp to prioritize health inspections for businesses.

…and collecting city data is more valuable than ever. The data analytics movement is creating new dialogue around what is the most effective data for cities to collect and analyze. To this end, Smart Incentives shared advice on how to measure the actual impact of economic development incentive agreements, not just the costs associated with them. The Kauffman Foundation also released a briefing on the four best indicators to measure a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. (NLC also has a performance management guidebook for cities).

Pioneering local food systems. Creating a local food ecosystem is a win-win situation for food providers and community member. The city of Portland, Maine, is emerging as a pioneer in the local food system scene. Mayor Michael Brennan developed the Healthy Sustainable Food Systems Initiative a couple years ago pledging that 50 percent of food at public schools, universities, and hospitals will be from local sources. To help other cities create their own local food ecosystems, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) recently held a course on financing local food systems (follow @CDFA_Update to find out when it will be offered again).

Local government is still the leader in public sector job growth. This month’s Local Jobs Report found that, once again, local government is leading public sector job growth. Both federal and state governments lost jobs, but local government gained 3,000 jobs in March. Our analysis also reviews monthly employment trends from 2008 to now, and looks at whether or not cities are hiring back public safety positions that were lost after the recession due to budget cuts.

Religious freedom in Indiana? Talk about voting with your feet. In the wake of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s passage of a controversial new religious freedom law, the business community is responding by cancelling expansion plans and prohibiting travel to the state. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, is delaying a planned $40 million expansion set to create 1,000 local jobs over the next five years until the law’s ramifications are made clear. The list of other organizations that are banning activity in Indiana includes major companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Yelp. Meanwhile, Governor Pence is working to clarify the intent of the law, and its supporters are explaining that similar legislation already exists in 19 states without comparable pushback.

For a laugh. Or maybe for a shudder. The city of Austin wants you to visit its cemeteries. No, really. The city is developing a master plan for its burial grounds to turn the abandoned (and perhaps creepy?) spaces into public places where people choose to visit. The city’s plans include gravestone repairs, public programming, and other revitalization efforts.

What we’re reading. HuffPo column on how McDonald’s is fighting Seattle’s new minimum wage law. San Francisco Fed’s analysis of whether or not place-based policies like enterprise zones create jobs. A thought piece from Jerry Newfarmer on why people, not technology, are the unsung heroes of innovation in cities.

(Read the previous monthly roundups from January and February.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

The Sharing Economy and the Future of Cities – What’s Next?

This post was co-authored with Lauren Hirshon. Brooks Rainwater and Lauren Hirshon recently published the National League of Cities report “Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next.”

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The sharing economy is impacting cities. Around the world, innovative sharing economy technologies and business models are redefining how city dwellers access resources and consume goods. City leaders welcome innovation in their cities – but as regulatory challenges continue to arise, many would like a better understanding of how best to approach the growing sharing economy.

Sharing Economy cover minThe National League of Cities report Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next provides an analysis of what is currently happening within the sharing economy in American cities. In order to explore the multifaceted nature of this space, the report focuses on five key themes: innovation, economic development, equity, safety and implementation.

The sharing economy is impacting the delivery of goods and services across a wide range of industries. Jeremiah Owyang’s Collaborative Economy Honeycomb demonstrates how this space has grown to include 12 distinct areas from space and transportation to logistics, learning and more.

Uber, Lyft, SideCar and other Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) have dramatically disrupted travel patterns in cities. For many, hailing a cab or calling for a ride has been replaced with the act of opening a mobile application, requesting a ride, and tracking a little car graphic as it makes its way across a map to your location.

On the homesharing front, Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and other companies are shaking up travel – specifically, the manner in which people make use of resources like apartments, homes, spare bedrooms or even castles.

Meanwhile, other platforms and concepts like TaskRabbit (a mobile marketplace to hire people to do jobs and tasks), SnapGoods (a site for lending and borrowing high-end household items), and Feastly (a marketplace for dining experiences) are taking off as well.

Why Sharing

Also described as collaborative consumption, the collaborative economy, or the peer-to-peer economy, the sharing economy is growing and changing the way people use and consume resources and services. But it is also disrupting local regulatory environments. With this major shift occurring in urban hubs, all eyes are on cities for global leadership.

True to their reputation as laboratories for experimentation, many cities are testing different approaches and developing unique, locally-driven solutions to new challenges. While there is no status quo – and the relative novelty of the issue still precludes long-term, tested best practices – city leaders are springing into action to consider how these platforms and services will impact major issues in cities.

Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next deals most specifically with two facets of the sharing economy: transportation and space, or the areas generally referred to as ridesharing and homesharing. In our report we highlighted themes, insights and lessons learned that emerged from conversations with current and former city leaders from around the country who are developing new strategies and tactics to regulate this evolving sharing space.

While there are still many unanswered questions, we’re certainly working towards clarity on the important topics to consider in this research. Depending on community priorities, neighborhood compositions, available housing stock, tourism demands, existing transportation networks, major events and other issues, the cities we interviewed chose to take different approaches. Thus, a wide spectrum of solutions has emerged.

For example, when considering ridesharing safety issues, some cities like Dallas have opted to develop a new set of insurance requirements. The city of Dallas created a novel three-phase approach to ensure that TNCs had insurance coverage 24/7. Other cities have decided to revisit their policies for taxicab companies.

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Regarding the manner in which these services impact equity and access, some cities have created funds to support wheel-chair accessible transportation. Others have included clauses in ordinances explicitly stating that services cannot be denied to certain passengers. Many are looking for ways to capture new data to track areas like pick-up and drop-off locations.

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Across the interviews we conducted for our report, many city leaders expressed wanting access to more data from sharing economy companies. Unlike most traditional service providers, the business model of sharing economy companies is predicated on data and the ability to match end user customers to vehicles or available housing. The availability of this data – for cities to better understand equity and access issues, as well as for the purposes of developing enhanced transit systems – is a theme that warrants further exploration.

Cities are also taking a varied approach to addressing the new economic reality created by sharing economy businesses. In a number of cities such as Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Madison, Wisc., Portland, Ore., Chicago and San Francisco, homesharing companies have begun to include local hotel taxes in their rate structures – either voluntarily or as part of local regulations on homesharing.

Some cities have not yet reached agreement on these issues, and the onus is on hosts to pay appropriate taxes on their revenues. In Washington, D.C., the recent TNC legislation included a provision requiring TNCs to pay taxes equaling 1 percent of all revenues from trips originating from within the city; annual revenue totals are estimated to be in the millions. In Seattle, TNCs must pay a fee of 10 cents for each ride that originates in the city. Other cities, such as Dallas, decided not to touch the issue of revenue capture when drafting legislation.

Our report provides additional details on each of these issues, the strategies city officials are developing, and their reasoning behind their approach. While our report doesn’t provide all the answers, it is meant to be a primer for what is currently happening in this arena – and we hope it offers some sense of comfort that city leaders are not alone in grappling with substantial new regulatory challenges.

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We also hope our findings inspire city officials to ask the tough questions. The sharing economy is disruptive, and it’s moving quickly. It’s changing how we get around, where we stay, how we manage tasks, what we buy – and sometimes the changes occurring can be overwhelming for city officials.

However, the presentation of these new challenges offers city leaders the unique opportunity to not only think about present concerns but also to look to the future. City leaders should consider the new opportunities these platforms and services are creating to transform approaches and operating models so that cities can become even more agile, responsive and innovative themselves.

The sharing economy will only continue to grow and evolve as cities serve as laboratories for these ever-changing technologies and business models. There is great promise in the rapid ascent of sharing economy services in our nation’s cities. The best thing that city policymakers can do is keep an open mind about how the new economy might be beneficial with the right regulatory framework in place – because sharing is here to stay.

About the Authors:

Brooks Rainwater bio photoBrooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.


Lauren Hirshon 104x120

Lauren Hirshon is the Director of Consulting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, and a public sector strategist, coach and innovator. Follow Lauren on Twitter at @LaurenHirshon.

Municipal Fiber and the Digital Divide: A Modest Proposal

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer and Bill Callahan.

fiber_optics_2With a little effort, city leaders could develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost. (Getty Images)

The explosion of interest in community-owned fiber on the part of elected officials and technology leaders has created an opportunity that few have noticed: cities could leverage these investments to help lower the barriers to home Internet access that still keep low-income, less educated and older citizens out of the digital mainstream. This could be easily accomplished, at it would cost cities practically nothing.

Here’s how: cities could allow neighboring households and community groups to share that terrific bandwidth – and its cost – by using community-owned fiber to power grassroots Wi-Fi networks.

Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and community-owned fiber networks employ Terms of Service language that prohibits customers from extending their networks across property lines to share access with their neighbors. City-owned networks can expand the possibilities for affordable broadband access in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply by changing their Terms of Service to allow network sharing.

As demonstrated by the rise of Google Fiber, the advent of city-owned networks selling 100 megabit or gigabit Internet access for $75, $90 or $100 a month raises the competitive ante on broadband speed and price for traditional cable and telecommunications ISPs. This is great news for tech-savvy middle- and upper-income residents, as well as for data-dependent businesses and community anchor institutions like libraries and hospitals.

But in many city neighborhoods, we’re faced with the stubborn fact that large numbers of mostly low-income citizens still don’t have home Internet access at any speed.

The American Community Survey for 2013 reports data for 575 U.S. “places” with more than 15,000 households. 282 of these communities – nearly half – reported no fixed broadband connections (defined as any connection beyond dial-up or mobile) in at least 30 percent of their homes. 151 reported that at least one fourth of their households have no home Internet access of any kind – no dial-up, no mobile access; nothing. Not surprisingly, these Internet-free households are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where residents are least able to afford the $30, $40 or $50 monthly cost of an Internet service subscription.

Of course, low-income households that can’t afford current DSL or cable Internet services have little to gain from the availability of fiber broadband service that costs twice as much.

But suppose that cost could be split among five, ten or twenty users?

One of the great value propositions of Big Bandwidth is its shareability. There’s not much a single household can do with a gigabit connection that couldn’t be accomplished with a tenth (100 mbps), a twentieth (50 mbps) or even a fortieth (25 mbps) of that capacity. But put that gigabit connection into an office, a call center or library where forty, fifty or more users share it, and its value becomes apparent. All the users sharing that gigabit start connecting to the Internet at speeds far greater than their “shares” (because of how network routers optimize and balance packet streams) – and at a total cost far below the equivalent number of single-user accounts.

The economic advantage of networked access sharing has been so obvious for so long that no business or organization would even think about buying individual Internet service accounts for employees working at the same location – and no ISPs would waste time trying to sell them. Since home broadband took root a decade ago, the same has become true of households; we provide for our family members’ need to connect simultaneously in different parts of our homes with routers, network cables and Wi-Fi – not by subscribing to multiple Internet service accounts.

ISPs are happy to encourage all this access sharing within their customers’ premises. But they draw the line – a hard, bright line written into their Terms of Service – when it comes to letting customers share their network with the neighbors. The reasons are commercial, not technical; ISPs make money on account charges, and they don’t want their customers to get ideas about avoiding them. It’s a profit-driven business model.

But municipal broadband networks don’t have to follow that model.

Over the past eight years, cheap, modular “open mesh” Wi-Fi devices have transformed the possibilities for community networking at the very local level – the apartment building, housing estate or city block. Any building owner or group of neighbors can acquire a few of these devices for less than a hundred dollars each, distribute them at 100-200 foot intervals around a target area, connect at least one of them to the Internet, and start distributing robust, secure Wi-Fi Internet throughout the area.

Open mesh networks are providing public or “house” Internet access in thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, campuses and campgrounds. These networks are also found in some public housing estates and high-rises, installed by local housing authorities who understand the importance of affordable Internet for tenants’ income and education prospects.

There’s no technical reason why block clubs and community organizations in lower-income neighborhoods can’t use this same cheap, off-the-shelf technology to create truly affordable local broadband access, by sharing connections and costs among neighboring households. But unlike the people running apartment buildings, campgrounds and hotels, community residents will almost always find that Terms of Service restrict them from sharing bandwidth with their neighbors, at any price.

Municipal broadband providers can solve this problem with the stroke of a pen, simply by allowing neighborhood account sharing in their Terms of Service.

With a little effort, city leaders could take the next step: Working with neighborhood leaders and digital inclusion advocates to develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost.

Angela Siefer 150wAbout the Authors: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. She envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

bill callahan 150wBill Callahan is a Cleveland-based community organizer who has worked for the past twenty years on grassroots training and access strategies to close the digital divide. He currently serves as the director of Connect Your Community, a collaborative of community-based digital inclusion advocates in greater Cleveland and Detroit.

How Startups Solve Problems at the Intersection of Urbanization and Climate Change

This is a guest post by Stonly Baptiste.

startups postCould startups be the secret weapon to make cities smarter and combat climate change in the face of ever increasing urbanization? (Getty Images)

When you see the word ‘startups’ in the news, you see headlines like “Meet the Hottest Tech Startups,” “Snapchat Could Become One of the 3 Highest-Valued Startups in the World,” or “Why Startups Want This 28-Year-Old to Really Like Them.” But the most interesting startups may be the ones working on problems that can directly help cities.

The Problem: More People + More Energy Consumption = Climate Change

People are moving to cities at rates never before recorded. The urban population of the world has grown rapidly since 1950, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. This represents a shift from two out of 10 people to five out of 10 people living in cities. The motivations behind this migration vary, from the search for more employment opportunities and increased earning potential to better health care and improved living standards; social factors like better education opportunities also play a role. Whatever the cause, there is no denying the rapid rate of global urbanization.

So what does this mean in terms of climate change? Energy consumption is the biggest contributing factor to global climate change, and more people means more energy consumption. In fact, 75% of global energy consumption occurs in cities. That consumption is likely to increase as we experience the shift from 54% of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014  to 66% by 2050. The environment around us will simply not be able to support this kind of growth and the increased level of energy consumption. Managing climate change seems more and more like a city efficiency challenge.

The Challenge: Redesign Cities

“No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
– President Barack Obama, State of the Union, Jan 20, 2015

The challenge is to create a fast, widely-adopted, effective and lasting impact on the future sustainability of cities; to redesign cities in response to climate change. Previously, the burden of these issues fell on the government. However, due to the increasing budget constraints of so many of the world’s economies, government can no longer afford to take on all of that responsibility.

The Solution: More Urbantech Startups

Technology has always helped shape urban and suburban environments. “Urbantech” describes the emerging technologies that are being used to solve problems at the intersection of urbanization and climate change, from reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to reducing crime and increasing government efficiency.

Over the last 18 months at Urban.Us, we’ve analyzed hundreds of startups that are working on Urbantech problems. We wanted to understand what problems they are solving as well as their customer focus (consumers, businesses or governments). By creating the Urbantech radar, we were able to visualize companies according to their customers and problems they are trying to solve.

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The visualization reveals some interesting patterns about where founders and investors have chosen to focus – but it also shows where there is open space and opportunity.

The radar also provides strong evidence that the challenge of redesigning cities to positively impact climate change could very well lie in the hands of the consumer, therefore circumventing the government-first approach. By reaching mass consumer adoption, these startups are able to make cities sustainable through channels like the Apple Store, Home Depot and Amazon.

No one can predict what the future of cities will look like – but we can get a glimpse of what’s possible by looking at some of the fastest-growing startups currently reshaping the way people live and work in cities:

  • DASH, a hardware plugin tool that syncs to your mobile phone to turn any car into a smart car, unlocking enhanced performance, cost savings and social driving.
  • OneWheel, a one-wheeled electric skateboard to quickly and easily get you to and from mass transit.
  • Whill, an all-terrain wheelchair that makes hard-to-navigate obstacles like stairs a thing of the past for people with disabilities.
  • Radiator Labs, a radiator cover that converts old cast-iron radiators into precision heating machines with climate control, operational efficiency and safety comparable to any radiator, transforming steam heat into a comfortable and efficient solution.
  • Hammerhead, a handless device that enables cyclists to safely navigate streets.
  • Rachio, a smart sprinkler controller that automatically adjusts your watering schedule based on weather or seasonality to save on water consumption.
  • Zuli, a plug-and-play smart outlet that enables users to control appliances, dim lights, set schedules, and conserve energy from their mobile phones.
  • Lagoon, a smart water sensor that alerts you when there is a leak, tracks usage, and saves money on water bills.

These startups have found a way to impact climate change by leveraging consumers’ need to collect data, save money, and enjoy the user experience. The climate change aspect may not even be a factor for consumer adoption – but through new crowdfunding platforms, distribution channels and government procurement initiatives, these startups could change the future of our cities and the environment.

The Next Step: Local Government as the Coach vs. Quarterback

The way cities work with emerging technologies is entering a new paradigm in which the city is not always the customer but, more often, the regulator and promoter of the best ideas. We are excited to be hosting 100 of the most promising Urbantech startups at this year’s Smart City Startups event – and, thanks to the support and partnership of the National League of Cities, we will introduce local government officials from Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and elsewhere to the innovations these startups offer.

We have all seen the battle between Uber and regulators – and it’s likely that no local government made an attempt to discuss regulating Uber before the battle occurred. We’ve also seen the impact that Rachio is having on water consumption around the country – and in most cities, this shift is still under the radar. Recently, we’ve seen police departments fighting against some of the information shared on Waze.

Our goal is to enhance awareness and increase partnership between local governments and startups working to solve the same problems, so that the best solutions can be promoted and cities can begin to preemptively manage the impact of regulation. Urban.us and NLC are joined by Direct Energy, the Knight Foundation and others aligned with the goal of sharing experiences that cities are having as they work with startups to build new relationships that will forge the future of urbanization and climate change.

stonly_baptiste_headshotAbout the Author: Stonly Baptiste is the Co-Founder of Urban.Us, where he leads investment research, community management and platform development for the fund, which now works with 16 startups around the world solving urban challenges. Additionally, he is co-organizer of Smart City Startups, a multi-day, multi-track event based in Miami that recruits 100 of the the most promising startups from around the world who are working to solve challenges at the intersection of climate change and urbanization. Additional participants include officials focused on innovation and economic development from local governments in Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and more. Investors such as Vast Ventures and Fontinalis Partners, and global companies such as Direct Energy, EDF, and Canary Wharf join to further government efforts to work with startups and promote innovation in cities.

Workforce Development, Jobs Report, and Broadband: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. This month’s roundup features stories from NLC’s Congressional Cities Conference. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"President Obama announces his new TechHire initiative, which calls for a partnership between cities, higher education and the private sector to expand access to tech jobs in communities across the country, at NLC’s Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C. last week. (Jason Dixson Photography)

White House announces TechHire initiative to expand skills training for tech jobs. President Obama addressed NLC’s membership at the Congressional Cities Conference and asked for cities to partner with him on TechHire, a new workforce program designed to train low-skilled workers for well-paying information technology jobs like software development, network administration and cybersecurity. The new initiative will include $100 million in competitive grant funding as well as private sector resources and support for 21 communities selected to participate.

Skills gap: myth or reality? Meanwhile, the ongoing debate continues over whether or not a skills gap actually exists in our country’s workforce. Tom Snyder, President of Ivy Tech Community College, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about leveraging community colleges for skills training on emerging technologies. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently challenged the idea of a skills gap, arguing there’s insufficient evidence to prove a skills gap is holding back employment. However at the local level, where job opportunities are returning but going unfilled, mayors are responding by developing workforce programs to meet the specific hiring needs of area businesses (like in Missoula, Mont., and Heath, Ohio).

The latest employment trends in local government. NLC’s latest Local Jobs Report analysis by Christiana McFarland found slight gains in overall public sector employment, with local government responsible for the majority of those new jobs last month. But this positive news is tempered by the fact that the local government workforce is still smaller today than it was at its peak in 2008. Another local government trend highlighted by the Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) network is the lack of growth in the percentage of chief administrative officers that are women. That number still stands at 13 percent – the same today as it was back in 1984. The thought-provoking ELGL “13 Percent” blog series features personal stories from city employees.

Municipal broadband could be coming to a neighborhood near you. In case you missed it, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow the municipal broadband systems in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to expand outside their existing borders. This is encouraging news for other cities that are considering building their own broadband systems, like Seattle. The decision also affirms NLC’s position that municipal broadband systems can play an important role in supporting local growth and opportunity. More info from the FCC can be found here.

Cities are making the sharing economy work. NLC released a new report, Cities, the Sharing Economy, and What’s Next, at the Congressional Cities Conference. The report provides analysis from interviews with city officials about the impact of the sharing economy (and companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb) on innovation and economic development and how cities are managing safety and implementation considerations. NLC’s Brooks Rainwater explained how this new resource will assist city leaders as they understand, encourage, and regulate the sharing economy in their cities.

For a laugh. Not to start a dog-versus-cat war, but how great would it be if every economic development strategy included plans for a cat café? Meanwhile in Boston, a GoFundMe campaign aiming to raise $300 million to fix the struggling local transit system first started out as a joke but is now receiving national media attention. The campaign is unlikely to reach its goal, but if you donate $50, the fund’s creator will scream your name on the orange line for 45 minutes during rush hour.

Idea of the month: Life experience as college credit. Getting a degree later in life is hard, but Pennsylvania’s community colleges are making it easier by now counting life experience as college credit.

What we’re reading. There were a few solid reports this month on workforce, wages, and jobs. Brookings released a report identifying the advanced industries with the greatest prospects for long-term economic growth (Governing provided a solid overview of the key findings). The Boston Consulting Group found that the top three reasons companies bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. are better access to skilled workers, lower shipping costs, and shorter supply chains. Finally, the Economic Policy Institute testified before Congress about government actions needed to create jobs and grow wages. The testimony said that local governments should implement targeted employment programs and also invest in broadband, education, transportation and other infrastructure projects.

(Last month’s roundup is here.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Expanding on the President’s TechHire Initiative: How Innovation Districts Catalyze Jobs, Creativity & Growth

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"President Barack Obama, seen here speaking at NLC’s Congressional City Conference on Monday, March 9, revealed his new TechHire initiative to expand access to tech jobs in communities across the country. NLC has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores the President’s ideas in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet.

With President Obama’s announcement at the NLC Congressional Cities Conference of the new TechHire initiative, the White House will make available $100 million in grants to expand the number of Americans in well-paying tech jobs. The program will include city leaders, universities, community colleges, and the private sector with a special focus on underserved population, working together to expand tech jobs. At the same time as TechHire ramps up in the initial 21 cities, it is increasingly apparent that place in the 21st century economy matters more than ever. City leaders know that the tech sector of today is increasingly gravitating away from suburban office parks towards central cities and innovation districts.

Cities incubate creativity and serve as labs for innovative ideas and policies, and the place where this is happening more and more is in Innovation Districts. These districts are creative, energy-laden ecosystems that focus on building partnerships across sectors. Innovation Districts attract entrepreneurs, established companies, and leaders from all walks of life, providing them with the space and the place they need to create unexpected relationships and find transformative solutions.

From established environments, like the Boston Innovation District to the newly developing innovation district in Chattanooga, one of the founding TechHire cities, there is an increasing focus on catalyzing economic growth through “spatial clustering.” These districts share similarities with traditional economic clusters, but differ in key ways. Placemaking is central to innovation districts, and there is a focus on being sited in high-density areas with a cross-section of employees that want to share ideas instead of being cloistered apart from one another. These urban ecosystems foster collaboration and bump and spark interactions between workers that might just create the next big idea.

NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research (CSAR) has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores this concept in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet. Further work will be forthcoming in this space, including an in-depth look at the innovation district forming in Chattanooga, as well as work in partnership with other key players. Innovation districts can encourage experimentation and serve as a key strategy for cities as they further urban economic development and pave the way for new job opportunities through initiatives like TechHire.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

What President Obama’s New TechHire Initiative Can Do For Cities

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the mayor of a big city or a small town – you understand that the economy is dynamic now, and you can’t just stand still; you can’t rest on your laurels.”

– President Barack Obama

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"At NLC’s Congressional City Conference on Monday, President Obama addressed an enthusiastic crowd of over 2,000 mayors and councilmembers from small towns and large cities. The President used this opportunity to announce a brand new initiative, TechHire. Watch the video of his announcement. (Jason Dixson/jasondixson.com)

The President’s TechHire initiative is intended to create a pipeline of tech workers for the 21st century economy, and help local leaders connect tech training programs to available jobs. As the President noted, “right now, America has more job openings than at any point since 2001… Over half a million of those jobs are technology jobs.”

The 20 communities that the White House is holding up as models – the list includes cities such as St. Louis, Louisville and San Antonio alongside high-tech havens such as San Francisco – have demand for tech jobs that appears to outstrip supply. But in many communities, employers may be overlooking talented applicants because they don’t have four-year degrees. As the president observed, a college degree is not necessary for many positions in the tech field. “Folks can get the skills they need for these jobs in newer, streamlined, faster training programs,” he said. These 20 TechHire communities will help employers link up and find and hire potential employees based on their skills and not just their résumés.

Cities already engaged in efforts to boost their rate of postsecondary credential attainment, including training programs, such as those participating in the Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnerships for Attainment initiative and Kresge Foundation-supported partnerships, can take advantage of a new competitive grant program under TechHire. The Obama Administration is launching a $100 million competition for innovative ideas to train and employ people who are underrepresented in tech.

TechHire aims to reach women and people of color, who are still underrepresented in this sector, as well as veterans and lower-income workers, who might have the aptitude for tech jobs but lack the opportunity to access them.

Overall, as concerns about a “skills gap” continue to abound – even without clear evidence of how quickly employers would grow their workforces if more skilled potential employees presented themselves for hiring – the Obama Administration is taking a bold step forward to offer employers what they’ve been asking for – more qualified workers who can fill the demand for tech jobs.

Andrew Moore About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.