Every state has a few signature cities that act as an epicenter of culture, innovation, and economic growth in their region. But cities also face many problems, not the least of which is aging infrastructure. The White House and several support organizations are attempting to change that with a series of challenge grants that will enable cities across the country to make serious technology and infrastructure upgrades.

An organization called the Smart Cities Council is at the center of many of these efforts, helping cities to make intelligent upgrades so that they can earn the honor, and the title, of becoming a “Smart City.” Funding for many programs is available from a new White House Challenge grant, and the Council can provide experts willing to lend a hand as well as critical expertise working with large city-scale projects.

Any sufficiently large city across the country can qualify for a grant. The only requirement is that it has a minimum population of 100,000, and focuses its efforts on technological upgrades that put the health, safety, and quality of life of its residents first. Smaller communities that exist in the same relative geographic area are even eligible to band together on projects, enabling them reach the 100,000-population threshold. Interested cities may register to receive an application form by emailing GrantApplication@SmartCitiesCouncil.com or by visiting http://grants.smartcitiescouncil.com for more information.

Smart Cities Council officials say there is no reason for state and local governments not to apply for a technology upgrade grant. “Back in September, the White House Office of Science and Technology issued an $80 million commitment to smart cities,” said Chief Scientist for the Smart Cities Council Stuart Cowan. “Federal agencies such as the Department of Transportation have also made commitments, as have a variety of other cities and universities.”

The Smart Cities Council elected to build onto that initial White House initiative to push the program even further, and to offer money alongside expertise, both of which may be sorely needed at the local level.

For example, in addition to funding, each of the five winning cities this year will receive an in-depth smart city workshop from the council. At the event, vendors working in conjunction with the council will provide a variety of different options and plans to help the winning city achieve its goals.

If cities are looking for a good place to start, Cowan suggested improving something like streetlights, which are both ubiquitous in most cities and an area that has not traditionally been given much thought.

“One of the most popular smart city upgrades is installing smart streetlights,” Cowan said. “There is a lot you can do initially like using energy-efficient LED light bulbs, or adding free public Wi-Fi to many of the streetlights.”

Through the council-sponsored workshops, cities can then learn how to take something like basic light upgrades even further. For example, “cities can also use smart streetlights to assist law enforcement and first responders. One option is to place phones in the lights that connect directly to those services. The lights could also be triggered to flash as an alert to drivers when an accident is ahead.”

Other possible upgrade examples include using the denser layout of a city as an advantage in areas like energy consumption. “A smart electric grid is better than having lots of large generator factories such as coal or natural gas-fired plants,” Cowan said. “Some examples of a smart grid are buildings in a city with solar panels that can exchange energy between each building.”

While the monetary grants go directly to city-level initiatives, states can also benefit from the overall program. Many of the skills taught in the workshops could easily become a template that can be implemented statewide, Cowan said. And if you can do something like installing smart streetlights and electric grids in every metropolitan area, energy consumption statewide would certainly decline.

There is still time for cities to apply for a grant, and the program is expected to continue for many years to come. The first five winners of the initial challenge will be announced in January. It will be exciting to see what the winning cities come up with for their technology upgrades.



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John Breeden II
John Breeden II
John Breeden II is an award winning journalist and reviewer with more than 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys. Contact him at 21ctt@meritalk.com.