TECH

Your City Could Be The First To Embrace The Future Of Transportation

A new contest offers $50 million to the city with the best plan.

No one is sure what a "smart city" is, exactly, but a new contest will offer $50 million to the city with the most compelling vision of what this concept could be.

The Department of Transportation will provide $40 million dollars of the prize money in this Smart City Challenge, and another $10 million will come from Vulcan Inc, which oversees the business and charitable efforts of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The money will go toward implementing the winning city's plan. 

The first round of applications in this Smart City Challenge is due Feb. 4. 

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will host a webcast Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. ET to answer questions about the selection process and application requirements. There will also be a forum Dec. 15 in Washington, D.C.

The video below hints at the outcomes the Department of Transportation is looking for: a city where transportation "just works," gridlock is gone, driverless taxis deliver you on time to train stations, better roadways and vehicles communicate seamlessly.

"Our cities are our laboratories of innovation," Foxx said in a Dec. 7 conference call with the media. As a result, he explained, the Department of Transportation expects to see a lot of variation in what communities envision as a "smart city" -- from technology elements like autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, electric vehicles, data analysis, smart electric grids and roadway electrification, to how closely proposals are actually connected to the lives of residents.

All these themes are part of the "Beyond Traffic" report the Department of Transportation published in February.

It's a safe bet that many cities will lay out visions mashing up the "Internet of Things" and driverless cars, with city residents toting smartphones that find and reserve nearby transit options and pay for them seamlessly.

During a Monday call with reporters, Vulcan President and COO Barbara Bennett showed great interest in tackling greenhouse gas emissions from transportation systems, which means it's likely that finalists' proposals will have strategies for cities to tackle climate change, including transitioning from carbon-based fuels to clean energy sources. 

Unlike many other federal prizes and challenges that encourage individual citizens to submit ideas or inventions, however, this effort is focused on entire communities. 

Specifically, the challenge is for a mid-sized city with a population between 200,000 and 850,000 people, as of the 2010 Census. That means Charlotte, Seattle and Denver could apply, but Philadelphia or Houston could not. Cities also must have an established public transportation system, "leadership and capacity" to implement the grant and "an environment that is conducive to demonstrating proposed strategies." Dysfunctional cities need not apply.

In the coming months, big tech companies will talk up top-down approaches to smart cities, while civic technologists will focus on bottom-up approaches. In between, city governments will need to explain why spending $50 million dollars on these ideas will make a real difference to residents, particularly in the context of $200 million dollar boondoggles like D.C.'s trolley project.

The collective challenge will be to ensure that the smart cities empower residents, as opposed to locking them in the "invisible barbed wire" of a surveillance society. In the past, mass surveillance has been bad for the urban poor. This Smart Cities Challenge is a golden opportunity for mayors to talk about what installing "smart" objects will mean to their communities, from parking meters and street lights to buses and garages.

In the 21st century, the consent of the governed won't just mean "no taxation without representation." It will increasingly mean "no data collection without consent." City governments need to ensure that residents have an opportunity to know what's being proposed and installed in their name. Once sensors are installed and start collecting data, the conversation will shift to how data will be used and by whom, rather than whether the data should be used at all. 

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