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P3s pave the way to smart cities

Public-private partnerships were a popular topic at Bloomberg Government’s “Women in Smart Cities Forum,” sponsored by Verizon.

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At the Women in Smart Cities Forum, sponsored by Verizon, Bloomberg Government representatives moderated conversations with government officials at the city, state and federal levels, and their private partners to discuss the progress and opportunities surrounding the infrastructural shift to smart cities. Bloomberg’s Karen Toulon, the event’s emcee, said that two-thirds of mayors in a recent survey cited infrastructure as constituents’ main concern.

One solution to governments’ infrastructure challenges is the public-private partnership, or P3. These partnerships between private companies and government entities were a major topic of discussion throughout the day. Toulon pointed out that one in three cities have staff just for managing P3s. One such partnership with Verizon may result in national 5G broadband access.

Senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at Verizon, Kathy Grillo, described a recent visit to Verizon’s incubator in upstate New York, which hosts a 5G node. She explained that 5G’s low latency will allow for seamless connections between people who are hundreds of miles apart. The implications for this technology’s effect on education and other industries are promising, said Grillo, who called 5G “the fourth industrial revolution.” She also noted that it’s important to Verizon to bring useful contributions to their P3s.

In a panel called “Collaborating on Smart City Solutions,” P3 experts discussed their experiences navigating different public-private projects.

“Each city is unique and different,” explained Lani Ingram, Verizon’s vice president of smart communities. She described her company’s P3 efforts with both Sacramento and Los Angeles, Calif. When setting out on projects like these, Ingram said that her policy is not to have any technology staff in the first couple of meetings with city officials. “We really want to listen,” she said. “From there you work your way to, ‘What are your pain points?’” This strategy results in plans oriented toward fixing problems rather than towards adopting new technology. It also leads to unique solutions for each city. Verizon ended up having different priorities in their partnership projects with Sacramento and Los Angeles, she said. “It really started just from listening first,” Ingram said.

Margaret Anadu, managing director of the urban investment group at Goldman Sachs, agreed and pointed out the need to make sure low-income individuals are considered and included in project planning, saying planners need to ask themselves, “What are these new technologies doing for those folks?” For example, Newark, N.J., has a strong high-speed network, but many of its residents do not have internet access, she said.

When panelists were asked about the ways P3s can benefit both government and private entities, Ingram suggested private companies shift how they think about return on investment to focus on economic development. “As much as we can involve the community in that end gain the more we can make sure that innovation is real,” she said.

Anadu stressed the importance of transparency with the community at every step of project planning. Other panelists agreed, allowing that while this may push out a project’s timeline, it leads to a more effective partnership.

Panelists also discussed how to deal with a project that might be stalling. “You have to work on [technology] adoption,” Anadu said, using the example of a bike-related P3 she studied in New York. The technology was not being used in low-income areas, so her company set out to collect case studies and survey data to get to the root of the problem. While public adoption of new technological infrastructure may be a challenge, it is important to work through that challenge, she said.

Ingram said effective planners go as broad as possible to try to address things P3s need to tackle. For example, Verizon has been concerned for some time about the widespread lack of wifi access and its effect on low-income children, which in some areas has resulted in the homework divide, setting those students back in school.

The day’s event also included a panel of representatives from city halls; a discussion between Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh and Gary, Ind., mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson; and a panel discussion about potentially relevant legislation for smart cities projects featuring congresswomen Yvette Clark, D-N.Y. and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and Gail Slater from the White House National Economic Council. Each speaker contributed best practices for smart cities project planning from the perspective of her professional position, and many praised public-private partnerships as opportunities for innovation in their area.


Teresa Donnellan is an associate editor at SmartBrief.