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Smart Procurement for Smart Cities

Building out digital infrastructure raises a host of complex questions, from avoiding obsolescence to sorting through funding options.

In New York City, residents can now access street-level, high-speed wireless internet.
(Flickr/Nao Okawa)
City officials face difficult challenges as they begin to weave a digital fabric through their streets and buildings. Not only do they need to confront questions of what pieces of infrastructure belong to that fabric -- whether street lights, broadband kiosks, parking meters or other fixtures -- but they must also consider compounding complexities such as the role of the private sector, liability issues and equity for underserved communities.

City procurement officials and program managers are on the front lines of these challenges. They should have a strong sense of which solutions to package together and be able to evaluate the blizzard of innovative vendor-based solutions. Crucially, they must avoid the obsolescence risk that new purchases can be quickly outdated or simply seen as faddish trends.

At the center of this storm -- in not one but two major cities -- is Miguel Gamiño, the talented chief technology officer of New York City who I first met in his office while he was serving as San Francisco's CIO.

As we talked about his vision for the city, he filled his whiteboard with different options he might employ to fulfill his goal of bringing broadband to all city neighborhoods. Gamiño brought that goal with him to New York, where he now works on the city's plan to achieve affordable high-performing broadband for all New Yorkers by 2025.

In a recent phone call, Gamiño acknowledged to me the difficulty of making "hundred-year decisions often in the context of the current demands." To break down that task, we need to deconstruct the procurement challenges facing cities, starting with two primary considerations: setting the right interim goals and considering funding options.

Interim goals: On the way to its long-term connectivity goals, a city will encounter a number of discrete opportunities that need to be prioritized. These may include community-level data dashboards, free street-level wireless hubs, improved emergency call services, smart parking meters, gunshot detectors, and noise and mobility sensors. These interim goals should prioritize not only critical new Internet-of-Things services but should also extend existing services such as community bulletin boards, 911 and 311 access, voter registration, job placement support, and housing and medical services.

The best procurement offices will consider ways to invite innovation and dynamic flexibility into the process. For instance, this past spring Pittsburgh issued a request for information to get help updating its 40,000 streetlights, many of which were still using conventional lightbulbs. Rather than focus the RFI on the light replacement alone, however, the city left the procurement process open to unconventional service providers that might integrate technology that could help the city monitor traffic conditions, air quality or gunshot noises, and even provide cellphone service. No project is too conventional to push toward the goal of universal connectivity.

Funding options: Cities across the country are deciding whether to expand the scope of infrastructure spending from its more traditional role of funding streets and sewers to also include digital services and wireless access. They are also considering other revenue sources, such as advertising. In New York City, residents who could never afford data plans can now access street-level, high-speed wireless internet due to the advertising revenue sharing agreement the city worked out the vendor for LinkNYC, the city's system of sidewalk broadband kiosks.

Other cities more severely restrict advertising. While LED screens delivering ads may work for New York, Gamiño says, the issue and the tradeoffs it presents remain the subject of debate in San Francisco. Those opposed to advertising often are motivated by a desire to protect the aesthetic character of neighborhoods. On the other hand, the revenues derived from advertising can provide resources to significantly improve the ability of a resident of an underserved area to access the benefits of the internet. Simply put, one person's aesthetics might be another's lifeline.

As cities continue to build out integrated, connected systems, they will face additional issues, among them design, the control of content delivered by devices occupying public spaces, and the use of public infrastructure for advanced cellular connectivity. A city official's job isn't to determine how to build one big digital system but rather to figure out how to define its elements. "I don't have to care so much about individual smart infrastructure like a smart lighting project or the smart trash can because other agencies will," Gamiño says. "I have to care about helping those things interoperate with one another to exchange data and effect a smarter, seamless user experience to everyone in the public realm, to improve the way people experience New York City." He continues that work one day at a time, never losing sight of the bigger goals far down the road.

CORRECTION: The original version of this column referred to a procurement document issued by the city of Pittsburgh as a request for proposals. It was a request for information.

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
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