Commentary

02/24/2012 by John Guenther

Smart cities, you’d better shop around for solutions

[Heat map showing areas of intense graffiti in San Francisco created using Socrata open data software]

If someone needs to fix a computer or find the best deal on a plane ticket, it only takes a quick Google search. But where can cities go to find the best deal on fixing their traffic problems?

An international organization called Living Labs Global created CityMart, an online showcase where cities from around the world spotlight a problem and ask for solutions.

The hope is that cities can find the best, most cost-effective solutions to issues like getting people to ride the bus or delivering "smart," low-cost housing, all while being transparent about the whole thing.

“Our estimate is that by lacking transparency and accountability in the processes to procure or regulate services, cities often tend to re-invent the wheel,” said Sascha Haselmayer, General Director and Co-Founder of Living Labs Global and CityMart.com.

Haselmayer said that developing new tech from scratch usually costs between 20 to 50 times as much as purchasing existing, proven solutions.

And in this economic and political climate, cities can’t just throw money at problems with new tech, like when California tried to update its child support tracking system to comply with a 1988 federal law.

Estimates for the State Automated Child Support System ballooned to $300 million. Killed in 1997, the project eventually cost California $100 million and the state lost $180 million in federal grants.

Instead, cities could give and take from a marketplace of proven yet innovative technologies, like CityMart.

At their third annual summit in Rio de Janeiro, Living Labs Global will host twenty cities from around the world and hand out awards for the best solutions. Nominees will be announced on March 5.

Some solutions are specifically about getting government data out in the open. Last year San Francisco put out a call for solutions to a data-wrangling problem.

The city wanted to corral multiple sources of data on city services and put them in an easy-to-navigate website available to citizens. The winning entry from Socrata should save the city some cash by eliminating redundant data projects and reducing phone calls to the city.

This year San Francisco is asking for a streamlined way to control the city's lighting wirelessly.

Haselmayer said just having a site like CityMart out there increases the accountability of city government. It can highlight the problem of cities passing on better solutions because of plain ignorance or the favoring local or powerful businesses.

“Publishing challenges through the Living Labs Global Award and using CityMart.com addresses both these issues – we provide a catalogue of available solutions and we document who has seen what in it,” said Haselmayer.

This model is an idea that could help local governments be agile enough to tackle big problems and also transparent about how they solve those problems. It’s not rocket science. But, if a solution does include rockets, I’d sure like to see it.

John Guenther is a Production Coordinator at California Forward

+Share this Post

More Stories