I talk to cities and companies around the world about what works and what doesn't. Over and over again, I hear that local universities are an important piece of the smart city puzzle. Universities often work directly with cities to identify challenges and then pilot high-tech solutions from the university's labs. What's more, universities are a "neutral ground" where for-profit and non-profit organizations can meet to collaborate.
Cities in the U.S. now have a new mechanism to help them connect with nearby universities. And to connect with solutions developed in other parts of the country. Last fall's White House smart cities initiative included the formation of the MetroLab Network, a consortium of city-university pairings. We asked Interim Director Ben Levine to explain. — Jesse Berst
MetroLab Network was launched in September 2015 as part of the White House Smart Cities Initiative. It is a network of more than 20 city-university (and county-university) partnerships focused on research, development, and deployment (RD&D) in the smart cities area. City-university partnerships are mutually-beneficial relationships in which the university is the city’s R&D department and the city is the test-bed. Faculty and students get access to real-life laboratories to test approaches involving information technology, data analytics, sensing, and more. Cities benefit from their technical expertise, leading to solutions that reduce the cost of infrastructure and services, make cities more sustainable and resilient, and/or improve citizens’ quality of life.
These relationships begin locally but should not be limited to local partnership: a national network of city-university pairs accelerates the scaling of projects and establishes a platform for multi-city, multi-university collaborations.
The benefits of MetroLab Network are already emerging. Mature city-university partnerships – which have already undertaken RD&D projects that improve transportation, education, emergency response, and more – are looking to scale successful projects to new cities. Newly formed city-university partnerships are learning from their peers, identifying potential solutions, and designing new RD&D approaches to address challenges. MetroLab Network also creates a platform for city officials and academics to consider new collaborations that address national policy priorities and benefit from a multi-laboratory approach.
MetroLab Network adds value to more than just cities and universities. It provides an opportunity for industry participants to offer technical assistance and technology to cities and universities that will ultimately result in better products and client relationships. It creates a pipeline for incubators, venture capital, and tech companies that are looking to invest in the growing smart cities sector. It provides a business opportunity for financial firms that will be involved in new infrastructure finance models and resilience-focused insurance markets. It is an opportunity for the federal government and philanthropy to increase the impact of R&D dollars by investing with partners who are focused on deployment and who have a network with which to share and scale solutions. Finally, it provides an opportunity for federal, state, and local governments to move away from formulaic spending on infrastructure and services and instead prioritize spending on tested solutions.
It is critical that we accelerate the adoption of smart solutions. According to U.N. projections, urban areas in the U.S. are expected to grow by more than 30% by 2050. During that period, cities will invest billions in water, transportation, electric, and broadband infrastructure that must be resilient to climate change and natural disaster. Cities will be required to provide public health services, high-quality schools and community colleges, reliable public transportation, effective policing, and much more.
During that period, cities will dedicate increasing portions of their budgets to fixed costs: healthcare, retirement expenditures, and debt service associated with (expected) rising interest rates. Forced to “do more with less”, cities can and must embrace the benefits of creating relationships with their universities to build better and more resilient infrastructure, more effectively deploy services, increase their environmental sustainability, and improve the lives of their residents.
Additional Information: MetroLab Network is currently accepting new city-university membership applications. It is also accepting inquiries for partnership from corporate, philanthropic, non-profit, and other organizations.
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Ben Levine is the Interim Director of MetroLab Network. Ben joined MetroLab Network after three years at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he focused on infrastructure policy and state and local government finance issues. Prior to Treasury, he was at Morgan Stanley, where he worked on capital markets transactions for public sector clients. Ben has a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.