If cities and their universities are to be effective partners in innovation, there needs to be a strong understanding of each organization’s aims and an open dialogue, said the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s smart cities arm.
In a recent interview with Smart Cities Dive, Karen Lightman, executive director of the university’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, said the organization has been successful in assisting Pittsburgh's pilot programs and initiatives due to the deliberate nature with which it chooses the projects it works on with the city.
“I think we've been able to prove the value of that relationship between the university and having it be very problem-solving and innovative,” Lightman said. “Sometimes you don't get to have both. Sometimes technology can be really innovative but it's not solving a problem. And what this is, it's really about having that open dialogue."
Metro21, which was elevated to an institute last year after being founded as a university initiative in 2014, addresses issues including traffic congestion, pedestrian safety, road infrastructure, energy efficiency, law enforcement, health care, fire prevention and air and water quality. It also recently partnered with Pittsburgh International Airport on new projects for the aviation industry, and is exploring new areas like using predictive analytics to detect landslides; monitoring lead in pipes; and using edge computing to help with the transition to connected vehicles.
Pittsburgh is now seen as a major testbed for innovation, not only due to Metro21 but also due to Uber's autonomous vehicles (AV) tests on city streets. Building these types of relationships, which are necessary to encourage innovation, is dependent on engagement from three types of stakeholders: elected and staff-level officials at city hall; residents at large; and companies in the procurement process, Lightman said.
“We don't want to run your streets like we're Carnegie Mellon,” she said. “We're a research institute. We're also not consultants. So we're not going to run your streets for you but we're going to show you how to do it efficiently and effectively and then you decide. You make the policy decision, you make the investment and if you want to do this. Again, it’s technology as a tool, not a guide.”
It speaks to the nationwide trend of universities and colleges working more closely with cities, especially when it comes to innovation. Partnerships such as the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance bring academia in as an equal partner, while Georgia Tech University was a leader of the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, which enabled any local government in the state to apply for funding and support to plan for smart development. And Wisconsin colleges sent in more than 300 submissions to Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn’s Smart Cities-Smart Futures competition, showing how innovation is taking hold on campuses.
It is not just in Pittsburgh where Metro21 is looking to make an impact. Lightman said the institute is looking to forge regional partnerships, with a renewed effort to ensure rural and low-income communities not be left behind by new initiatives. It helps that Metro21 has buy-in from elected leaders, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto as well as his peers in Allegheny County, PA.
“We understand that we can't create a society where the cities have incredible growth and the urban areas are living in complete abject poverty,” Lightman said. “That's not going to help anybody. We have enough bifurcation as it is in the world.”