cityscape of San Francisco and skyline

The Smart Cities thing is getting big. How big? Big enough for the Federal government to take notice and even set aside $40 million in grant dollars to support one city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.

It’s the Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge and the seven finalist cities competing for the chance to be the first U.S. Smart City in mobility and transportation.

In this competition, to incentivize the private sector, an additional $10 million from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. has been pledged to support electric vehicle deployment and other carbon emission reduction strategies.

We spoke with Jay Nath, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of San Francisco, about San Francisco’s bid for the DOT Smart City Challenge and what it means to be a Smart City at the epicenter of innovation, Silicon Valley.

ReadWrite: What differentiates San Francisco from the six other finalist cities competing in the DOT Smart Cities Challenge?

Jay Nath: What differentiates us is that we’ve taken an approach to listening to our community – the bottom-up approach.  We’re issuing a community challenge where we ask our citizens about their needs and challenges as it relates to transportation.  Once we identify their needs, we then work with the community, industry and academic partners to really think about solutions, pilot these solutions to maximize learning, and understand how it integrates into different neighborhoods and regions.  We know tech is advancing, but how it plays into society is the real question.

RW: How does your pilot process work?

JN: Normally when cities do pilots, there is a lot of risk involved, with companies investing a lot of energy and time up front.  We’re doing the competitive process up front and choose the best company to work with.  If everything works out the in the experimental period, we can move into contract and skip the additional procurement processes creating a pathway from learning and experimentation to commercialization and scalability.

We know government doesn’t move at the quickest speed.  We have to rethink how we streamline our approach.  With this challenge, we only have three years and need to get as much testing and learning done as possible to be successful.

RW: How do you work with startups to support innovation in government?

JN: We realize government procurement is a big barrier to why startups don’t consider the public sector.  They just don’t have the runway to wait for government processes to pull through.  That is why we created the Startup In Residence, or STIR, program as a way to create new products and services by imbedding startups in government for 16 weeks, with a competitive solicitation up front.  It only takes 30-60 minutes for a startup to apply, and if accepted, it essentially acts as a request for proposal.  If everything works out, we can go into contract with them.

RW: If accepted into the program, are they guaranteed a contract with San Francisco?

JN: It has to be a good fit on both sides.  This is a big shift in direction from the norm for government.  In any other environment, you try before you buy, but in government, we don’t do that.  We go through an RFP process first before getting the chance to learn and understand if the program or product is a good fit.  We are changing that and want to create a space to learn and understand; to respect business models, lower barriers and expand the pool of people we’re working with.

RW: If San Francisco doesn’t with the DOT Challenge, what will you do to continue the momentum?

JN: We are confident, as San Francisco, that we are well positioned.  We are at the center of all this innovation, new products and services all happening here in the Bay Area.  We’ve done large grants before with the DOT – SF Park, a smart parking program with demand-based pricing, that is now a global practice, so we know how to do large scale programs.  If we don’t win this challenge, we are moving forward either way.  We need to be at the table, society needs to be at the table with these tech companies and industry.  They are inventing the future, and we need to be sure it’s equitable, positive for everybody, and safe.  We don’t want products just for the 1%.

We will move forward regardless, and part of that is in creating a smart cities platform called Super Public with our partners, UC Berkeley, City Innovate Foundation, and a number of private partners (i.e. Deloitte and Microsoft).  We realize it’s not going to be government, academia, or industry, rather we all need to work together to solve the problems of today.  We can support this by removing the layers of bureaucracy, providing a dedicated space where federal, state, and local government to be vertically integrated, bring in industry and academia, and innovate how to collaborate better.

RW: How do you move from ideation to implementation working with all these different sectors?

JN: The key part is to understand what the need is.  Set the problem statement, have a methodology, and time-bound the work.  If we continue to think abstractly, we’re not moving forward.  Silicon Valley has an agile approach to innovation – run small experiments and build upon those learnings.  If we win this grant, we have three years, and need to move quickly and effectively.

RW: Do you consider your fellow cities competitors or partners in this challenge?

JN: The challenge is moving government from reactive to proactive and taking a leadership role.  We know that mobility is changing – instead of waiting for change to happen and reacting to it, we need to work together to anticipate what those changes are and change the regulatory environment to meet those challenges and benefits.  That is a Huge mind-shift and I applaud DOT for doing that.  In doing this, the whole nation’s going to benefit, not just SF, if we win, but every city.  There are no losers here because we will all be able to learn from each other.

That is the great thing about cities – we can collaborate – we can ask what’s working, learn from each other, and work together.  And if we do work together, that creates a greater market opportunity for our partners.  We often have the same needs, so leveraging our relationships as cities is a powerful way to help catalyze private industries to work with us.

RW: How are you working with public and private partners in this challenge?

JN: We have so much talent and innovation happening here in the Bay Area.  When we reached out for support, we had an amazing response. Over 200 people came to our partner event, we received over 100 proposals on ways to contribute and work with us, and had 70 companies submit commitments and support letters totaling over $150 million worth of contribution.

As a region, we put a really strong proposal together, it’s hard to walk away from $150 million ready to deploy.

RW: As the Chief Innovation Officer of San Francisco, what to you, makes a Smart City, smart?

JN: It is really about our people – that is why San Francisco is a leader.  Great cities are created by great people.  We have the courage to dream big and not question that dream, and what happens in SF follows in California and the rest of the country.  We have natural leadership and want to continue that tradition by being good partners and find ways to streamline the approach to working with us.  We’re not experts in tech, but we need to understand the benefits so when we make capital investments in our roads, sewer systems, and waterways, we are making sure we’re hearing from all the right people first.  We want to change the interaction from a sales conversation to one where we discuss how to work together to achieve these outcomes.  This is a big shift in how were thinking – much more collaborative.

RW: What are your goals and dreams for the City of San Francisco?

JN:  I want a city that’s safer, one that’s reducing climate impact, more affordable, and more equitable.  Technology plays a role in that – it’s not going to solve all those issues, but to see change some of those areas, we need to work together.  It’s something we’re good at – it’s in our DNA in San Francisco to work across different communities particularly in technology.

RW: What is your advice to startups trying to get involved in government?

JN: There is a huge opportunity to make an impact.  It’s a big market – $150 billion, annually, and government is changing, we’re learning how to work with early stage startups.  People realize, if there is a way to work together, understand the risks but be smart about it, we can make progress.  San Francisco adopted smart policies around startups and how you work with them with the STIR (STartup In Residence) program.  A number of other cities are becoming part of this movement to discover how we make governments and society more effective through innovation and collaboration.  It’s a global movement that’s already happening.