Portland making the most of ‘Smart City’ momentum
The city of Portland made headlines last year when it was one of seven cities from across the country in the running for a total $50 million prize in the Smart City Challenge – a national competition that asked cities to come up with transportation plans for systems that would use data and technology to help people and goods move more efficiently and cost-effectively. When the city of Columbus, Ohio, ended up walking away with the prize money, Portland found itself faced with a choice. The city could tuck its proposal in a drawer and forget about it, or it could move forward and find ways to implement at least parts of its plan to create a high-tech street grid. Following the latter path wouldn’t be easy. When it comes to implementing Smart City plans, the risks and unknowns are many, from finding funding to risking public criticism if pilot projects fail to yield usable results.
But the decision, for the city, was a relatively easy one.
“The elements and efforts that went into that (Smart City Challenge) plan, it’s a guiding document for the bureau and the city,” said Timur Ender, special projects manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “We’re leaning on that to help us determine what our next steps are.”
Making the most of momentum
Prior to the Smart City Challenge, the region’s public, private and academic sectors had all been working largely individually on different components of Smart City planning and technology. But as the city turned to those different sectors – from tech startups to researchers at universities – for help with parts of its proposal, a unified effort emerged that hadn’t existed before. “The (Smart City Challenge) helped the region focus,” PBOT Communications Director John Brady said. “Even before, we had Portland becoming the Silicon Forest, becoming known for that. But the Smart City Challenge helped bring that together and put a narrative around it.”
That collaborative environment and Portland’s status as a Smart Cities Challenge finalist have helped the city and the region emerge as leaders in the world of Smart City planning and technology, according to Skip Newberry, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon. As part of its role as a leader, for example, Portland earlier this month served as host of a Smart Cities summit that attracted attendees from around the world. The conference provided a place for cities such as Columbus and countries like Portugal to come together to discuss the challenges they face and discuss solutions they’ve found.
With all of those elements coming together to create a wave of momentum, it became apparent to the city that implementing any parts of its Smart City proposal possible was key to helping keep the forward momentum going. Ender can recite a list of Smart City-related projects that the city has either already started or has in the planning stages since the completion of the Smart City Challenge. PBOT is moving ahead with the city’s electric vehicle strategy, placing charging stations in right-of-way areas throughout Portland. In addition, Portland General Electric has approached the city about creating an “electric avenue” in east Portland. The resulting pod of charging stations for electric vehicles would be similar to one that already exists on Salmon Street in downtown Portland, Ender said.
The city also is working with an industry group called Drive Oregon on a mobility assessment plan to address a range of issues in areas such as policies and procedures. And over the next 12 months, the city and Portland State University are expected to come up with a Smart City action plan that Ender said will result in concrete steps the city can take to prioritize how it invests resources and people to continue making progress.
Risks and rewards
While Smart City initiatives and technology development have the potential to emerge as a new cluster market for Oregon, investing in those still-developing areas isn’t without risks. Finding money for Smart City-related projects can be tough, Newberry said, especially when those projects may not yield expected results. That’s why it’s important, he added, for cities, private companies and academia to continue to work in ways that encourage the collaboration and sharing of ideas. While a city may not be able to risk using taxpayers’ money for a pilot project, for example, a researcher at a university may be able to find grant money for such a project, which a city may then be able to step in and support in other ways.
But even the future of grants and funding for Smart City research is a bit hazy these days, according to Newberry. In recent years, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, which organized last year’s Smart City Challenge, have made grant money available for cities looking to work on Smart City projects. But there’s no guarantee that will continue under an administration run by Donald Trump. While the president has floated the idea of federal infrastructure investment that could run as high as $1 billion over a 10-year period, there has been no specific discussion about how much of that money might be used for “hard” projects, such as road construction and bridge repairs, and how much might be used to plan for a future that relies on data and technology.
“At this point it’s kind of uncertain … it’s too early to tell,” Newberry said. Still, federal agencies are continuing to move forward with support for Smart City initiatives. Portland is moving ahead with components from its Smart City plan. As for Newberry, he and others from the region’s tech realm are working to educate those outside the industry, including planners, developers, architects and engineers. Newberry and two of his colleagues, for example, recently addressed a room full of business folks at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum. The presentation included a healthy discussion about why it’s important to maintain a certain amount of flexibility when planning structures and building streets that will last into a future that is likely to be influenced and shaped by technology not yet created.
Forum presenter Wilfred Pinfold, CEO of tech company Urban.Systems, described a future where parking structures built today may be largely useless in a few decades. In a not-too-distant future, a troupe of driverless electric vehicles could slow-cruise the city’s downtown, shuttling residents from one destination to another. In such a city, parking garages would become obsolete, he said. By sharing that possible future scenario, Pinfold hopes he can convince city officials, developers and urban planners to start approaching planning efforts today with a new degree of flexibility to accommodate technology and systems not yet invented. “Cities are starting to get this,” he said. “They’re starting to take this into consideration when planning for the next 10 to 20 years.”