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Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis -- and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.Our partner stations are WHYY in Philadelphia, WPSU in State College and witf in Harrisburg. Read all of the partner stories here.Pittsburgh’s WQED joins the collaboration as an associate partner. Support for this project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Finding New Partners To Build Smart Cities For The Future

Gene J. Puskar
Self-driving cars from Uber hit Pittsburgh streets in September 2016. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., mayors discussed how best to leverage technology and partner with private companies to build better cities.

Autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous broadband internet, improved energy systems — attendees at the U.S. Conference of Mayors buzzed with the potential technology in store for their cities.

In the 20 years the internet has existed, it has revolutionized the way we interact with the world, said Joanne Hovis. She’s president of CTC Technology & Energy, an IT consulting firm in Maryland.

 She said communities that prioritize global access to the internet spur innovation and entrepreneurship.

“There’s increasingly this understanding that the broadband internet is the platform over which our economy and our democracy ride. And that is growing every single day.”

Some governments own all the land they'd have to dig up to install broadband, and could get started right away. Some states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that limit municipalities' ability to take the lead on broadband. Regardless, it can be a wildly expensive endeavor, said Hovis. But a city DIY install is not the only way to build a network, she said. Local governments can ease the permitting process to make it less complicated for a private company to get started, for example, or partner with private companies to build a network.

Forging new partnerships was a central tenet of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City challenge. Columbus, Ohio was awarded the $50 million prize. That money won't magically allow the city to solve all its problems, said Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther. What it has allowed them to do is attract more than $500 million in private funding.

The city will use smart sensors to improve traffic flow, as well as build out the transit system, reconnecting neighborhoods and making it easier to get to jobs and health care, among other initiatives. But it’s not enough to have the technology, said Ginther.

“The greatest challenge of the 21st century is to leverage innovation and technology to help people improve their own lives. I mean, that’s the point.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto agreed. He said negotiating local partnerships is the new funding reality for cities.

“You create a game plan, a long-term vision. Then going to those organizations and asking not for their corporate side but their civic side.”  

Pittsburgh was a finalist in the Smart Cities challenge, working with institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University as well as ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle company, Uber to create its application. The city is still negotiating with Uber to find a shared, long-term vision. Peduto said he’d like to see them become a true partner.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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