Investments in mass timber, advanced mobility and digital twins are among the projects being supported by the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, a regional economic development competition funded with $1 billion in last year’s American Rescue Plan Act.
The challenge encouraged local governments and a range of regional partners to band together to pitch projects, with funding announced by the Biden administration last week spanning 24 states. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
Among the list of 21 winning groups chosen from a pool of 529 applicants, each receiving between $25 million and $65 million, some embody smart city interests:
- $52.2 million for the Detroit area’s Global Epicenter of Mobility coalition: Led by the Detroit Regional Partnership Foundation, the coalition includes “the Big Three automakers,” United Auto Workers, universities and local leadership. Its goal is to “transform the Detroit area’s legacy automotive industry into a highly competitive advanced mobility cluster” and help the U.S. compete in the market for electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles globally. Aspects of the initiative include a Supply Chain Transformation Center for legacy manufacturers to transition to the needs of other mobility products, and a Mobility Accelerator Innovation Network to support mobility startups.
- $41.4 million for the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition: This initiative aims to target the impacts of climate change and economic inequality facing the state by using mass timber to speed affordable housing production. Through the coalition, state universities will develop new construction materials and products. The initiative envisions a campus that will manufacture housing at scale, with state officials set to ensure modular mass timber homes are a good fit in rural and wildfire-impacted communities.
- $39 million for the Tulsa Regional Advanced Mobility Cluster: Led by the Indian Nations Council of Governments, the initiative aims to transition the region’s economy from oil, gas and traditional manufacturing to advanced mobility, automation and unmanned aerial systems. Through the coalition, Oklahoma State University will partner with the Osage Nation to create a flight test range for advanced aerial mobility technologies. The university will also establish a research and technology center in the Tulsa neighborhood that was once home to the historic Black Wall Street.
A Brookings Institution analysis called the regional challenge a key example of place-based economic policy, that leverages connections between regional assets and leaders to build more inclusive economies. Another recent example was on display in the CHIPS and Science Act, through a $10 billion Regional Technology Centers program.
“The mindset shift that seems to be occurring in Washington is not going to only be about this $1 billion program,” said Joseph Parilla, director of applied research at Brookings Metro, which has been contracted by EDA to draw lessons from the challenge. Ultimately, the goal is to “catalyze the types of entrepreneurship research and development that has anchored the most vibrant, wealthy technology hubs in the U.S., [but] that for a variety of reasons have concentrated and clustered in larger coastal metropolitan areas.”
The purpose of the mutual innovation structure, Parilla said, is to “create some of those same conditions and a broader set of communities, particularly those that are outside of the coasts and have struggled through industrial transitions over the last 30, 40 years.”