Revisiting the Geographies of Smart City Technical Assistance Programs

By Taylor Shelton

On March 10th, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the latest participants in its much-heralded WhatWorksCities program. Launched in April 2015 as a companion to Bloomberg’s existing activities in the world of government innovation, WhatWorksCities is a $42 million program meant to help bring data-driven governance to 100 mid-sized US cities in the next few years. This announcement (not to mention some clerical errors in our initial mapping!) make for an excellent occasion to revisit our map from last December about where these kinds of technical assistance investments are being made around the country, and update it based on the latest data. While there are just six new cities participating in the program, they’re interesting in that they represent a diversity of trajectories in terms of how cities are leveraging their participation in such programs as an attempt to appear – and ultimately become – ‘smarter’.


Perhaps most notable among the six additions to WhatWorksCities is Boston. A city long known for being at the cutting edge of applying technology to city government due to the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston now officially represents the leader among cities participating in these technical assistance programs. With its addition to the WWC roster, Boston becomes the first and (as of yet) only city to participate in all seven programs we’re tracking [1]. So even though Boston, much like other larger cities around the country known for the tech industry, doesn’t have to participate in these programs in order to be seen as innovative, there is clearly some value in their continued participation in these programs, even if it’s just for appearances. Moreover, Boston’s ascent to the top of the proverbial league table also tells the bigger story of how the many of the recent investments made by these programs represent a doubling-down of resources in a small number of highly active cities. While Boston got the benefit of the latest round of WWC investments, the 2016 Code for America fellowship cities (also announced since our initial post) are particularly telling of this trend. Of the six cities hosting Code for America fellows this year, five had previously participated in the program (Salt Lake County, Utah being the lone exception here), with four of these five having a total of at least four programs participated in. So rather than focusing largely on spreading these ideas to the places that have yet to come into substantive contact with them, there seems to be a trend of deepening the engagements in the places that have already signaled their interest and desire in becoming ‘smart’ and ‘data-driven.’

Also among the new WhatWorksCities participants are Charlotte, NC and Milwaukee, WI, cities that were among the very first to participate in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010 and 2011. Despite being early movers in this space, neither city has actively sought to expand its involvement in these technical assistance programs. Up until now, Milwaukee had seen no further participation, while Charlotte’s hosting of Code for America fellows in 2014 represents its only other engagement since that first round of the Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010. Nonetheless, after a relatively prolonged absence, we can see some of these quick-starting, but also quickly fading, cities attempting to reinsert themselves into these conversations.

But even though the doubling-down of resources in already-successful cities seems to be the new trend, these latest rounds of funding haven’t entirely neglected to reach out to some of the places that have been overlooked by these programs in the past. Before this latest WWC announcement, the Riverside-San Bernardino, CA and Raleigh-Cary, NC MSAs were two of just eleven MSAs across the country with populations greater than 1 million that had yet to see any participation in our seven programs of interest, with the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA having been the largest among these eleven. Even though the Inland Empire has finally gotten on the board, it’s worth noting that it’s thanks to Victorville, which is just the 8th largest city in the metropolitan area! Also of note among the other large metro areas without any participation in our seven technical assistance programs is Columbus, Ohio, the 32nd largest metro area in the country and now the third-largest MSA without any participation. This omission from our own data is despite the city having been named the 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year, as well as being one of seven finalists for the US Department of Transportation’s much-coveted $50 million Smart Cities Challenge competition.



It will be illuminating to observe the distribution of technical assistance programs in the coming years in light of the nation-wide attention the USDoT challenge has brought to the issue of making cities smarter. It is possible that, with greater citizen awareness, grassroots demand may make smarter city projects bloom in the currently underserved great national divide.


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