Smart City Challenge: How everyone could win

Department of Transportation officials have announced the finalists for the $50 million Smart City Challenge. 

Erich Schlegel/AP Images for Vulcan
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox, far left, with Vulcan Inc. President and COO Barbara Bennett congratulate the seven Smart City Challenge finalists during South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. Seven finalists remain in the challenge to develop a new model for city transportation.

Thanks to a nationwide competition and a generous prize, a range of “smart” cities could be rising in the United States. 

On Saturday, government officials at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW) announced seven finalists in a national competition among American cities seeking bold plans for future city transportation. The finalists will receive federal grant money and have about a month to finalize plans before a winner is announced. 

The Smart City Challenge began in Dec. 2015, aimed at spurring mid-sized American cities to incorporate technological advances in transportation into their planning. To incentivize competition, the final prize was listed as $50 million.

Even months away from the final decision, the competition has been a success.

Some 1,400 local government officials, companies, academics, and non-profits joined webinars on the competition; 800 people participated in a Smart City Forum; 300 companies have approached the DOT seeking to partner; and 78 cities across the US submitted plans, according to the DOT.

“The level of excitement and energy the Smart City Challenge has created around the country far exceeded our expectations,” said DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx in the press release. “After an overwhelming response – 78 applications total – we chose to select seven finalists instead of five because of their outstanding potential to transform the future of urban transportation.”

The finalists of the competition are:

  • Austin, Texas
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Portland, Oregon
  • San Francisco, California
  • The winning city will receive $40 million from the Federal government and $10 million from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., a DOT launch partner for the project. Other partner companies have also announced prizes for the first place winner, including Mobileye, which said it will equip the winning city’s public buses with sensor to help avoid collisions and protect other road users, according to the DOT press release.

    But in this competition even “losers” will walk away with prizes.

    The seven finalists announced at SXSW will each receive $100,000 in federal funds to finalize their plans. Some companies have also offered to lend equipment and software to aid the process. Autodesk is providing all the finalists with InfraWorks 360, a modeling platform that incorporates 3D modeling and city data, along with training to use it.

    There may also be assistance given to some of the 71 other contestants.

    “We were expecting 15 to 20 cities to apply and to get 78 was just astonishing to all of us,” said Spencer Reeder, senior program officer for climate and energy at Allen’s Vulcan Inc., told the Washington Post. “The last thing we want is to see all these great ideas stay on paper.”

    Mr. Reeder also told the Washington Post he was meeting with other philanthropists to try to find bonus money for cities that submitted plans, but weren't finalists. They could also help cities find additional federal grants that could help implement plans. 

    The Smart City Challenge was a response to the Beyond Traffic draft report, which revealed the US's aging infrastructure was ill-equipped to deal with a growing population. The study also stressed the need to give those in developing "megaregions" a diverse range of transportation options, according to the DOT. 

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