It was several years ago that I heard from a French company about a secret to their smart city success. "We always involve the local universities," they explained. "They are a source of innovative ideas, they understand local priorities and they are a 'neutral ground' where the public sector and private sector can meet to solve urban problems."
That's why we were so pleased when the White House helped form the MetroLab Network last year, a network of city-university pairings. MetroLab Network is now underway and being to distill important best practices. For instance, they've come up with 10 principles for better city-university partnerships. We've summarized the top 5 below and linked you to the longer list as well.
To be completely transparent, the Smart Cities Council thinks that the public sector and the private sector are only two of the three legs needed. We also urge you to get the private sector involved early in your planning process. It's the private sector that brings real-world experience on what works and what doesn't. — Jesse Berst
1. Think carefully about the help you need
You’ll get the most from the partnership if you first think about your biggest pain points and map those to the areas where the university has significant expertise. The biggest opportunities are where both of those points intersect. It doesn’t do you any good to bring in a world-class expert who can solve a problem you don’t have.
2. Make a formal arrangement
Create and sign a memorandum of understanding so everyone is clear on their roles and responsibilities and know what they are getting out of the partnership.
There’s always a temptation to think that such agreements are only for the lawyers, but it’s more than that. It opens discussions early to ensure that everyone gets what they need from the relationship.
3. Assign well-versed points of contact and have regular meetings
The agreement is just the beginning. Both the city and the university each need a single person to oversee the efforts and making sure they’re moving forward.
For cities, the point-of-contact should have a multi-agency purview, rather than overseeing a single department and have some experience with research. (For universities, the contact should oversee multiple disciplines, not be a full-time researcher and have experience in policy.) Meetings should be held on a consistent schedule — preferably monthly — to make sure progress is being made.
4. Get the local business community involved
Apply for federal, state and others grants, but you should also ask local businesses to participate. Successful initiatives will likely give your city economy a boost, so businesses should be willing to invest in that success.
5. Remember, your city is a living lab
These kinds of partnerships aren’t short-term, work-for-hire projects. They are longer-term engagements where the university uses your city as a living laboratory to discover what works and why.
You can’t prescribe on Day One what the solution will look like. That is what this partnership will aim to discover. The journey forward will evolve over time.
Smart Cities Readiness Guide …
Check out the Smart People chapter of the Council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide for innovative approaches to encourage broad participation in city decisions. Smart cities encourage all city stakeholders to develop a vision for the city they want to live in.