Smart Cities and National Innovation Policy: The #WHFrontiers Conference and the Future or Urban Innovation

by Jennifer Clark

Debra Lam speaking at the Local Frontiers Track, courtesy Next Pittsburgh

On October 13, 2016, President Obama hosted the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted the event with Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the City of Pittsburgh.  The event convened tracks focused on innovations across five domains defined by scale: the personal, the local, the national, the global, and the interplanetary.

For an economic geographer, this was a rare opportunity to observe a national government think strategically across scales and consider how innovation policy simultaneously operates within and across those geographic scales.  The challenge of how to analyze and understand the processes of innovation — including technology diffusion — across scales is central to the work of economic geography.  

There is also the additional challenge of coordinating policy — the role of the state — in facilitating the diffusion of scientific and technological innovation across scales.  This is a key concern of communities of scholars such as those associated with the Regional Studies Association, which focuses on the local, regional, national, supra-national regional, and global processes of policy design and diffusion. CUI’s Director, Jennifer Clark, has written extensively about the coordination of national and local and regional innovation policies.

The emphasis of the “local” track of the White House Frontiers Conference was the evolving opportunities that technologies provide for cities in terms of health, transportation, public safety, and civic engagement — all pillars of “smart cities.”

A key focus was on data and the need not only to generate more data but to better understand existing data and to gather, manage, curate, and provide access to data across domains and across platforms for communities and other stakeholders. This is, in part, a consequence of OSTP’s recent efforts to stimulate research networks and research questions geared toward an emergent US smart cities strategy through two key activities:  

  1. First, OSTP launched the MetroLab Network of 20+ city-university partnerships in September 2015 (of which Atlanta and Georgia Tech are founding members).  The MetroLab Network was modeled after the city-university partnership formed by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh — Metro21 — focused particularly on partnering on the design, development, and deployment of transportation projects.
  2. Second, OSTP published the Technology and the Future of Cities Report in February of 2016.  At the Center for Urban Innovation, we have engaged the recommendations of the PCAST report both from an academic perspective and as fellow applied researchers active in the field.

The Frontiers Conference was in many ways an effort to highlight how investment and attention to science and technology policy has stimulated innovation over the past eight years and underscore that these investments are key to the sustained economic resilience of the national as well as urban and local economies.  Further, the Frontiers Conference highlighted the validity of an approach in which private, public, and academic researchers partner and collaborate on shared initiatives and clear goals.  

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships (AMP 1.0 and AMP 2.0) effort serves as an example of how private, public, and university partners can design policy interventions and then partner to implement them.  This “triple helix” approach to the national-scale design of policy and the regional-scale implementation of programs parallels the point made on this blog last week, asking if Is it Time for a North American Week of Cities and Regions to facilitate this work.

The series of PCAST reports on the role of technology in the economy and the meaning of technology for the country — particularly the breadth and coverage of these reports — is significant too.  The idea that technological change can drive not just the research agenda or an agency like the National Science Foundation but also influence the research and implementation priorities of agencies like the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Commerce — in a broad and coordinated way — changes the landscape of federal research spending on technology design and diffusion.

The Frontiers Conference showcased the economic and societal value of advances in science and technology and distributed innovation.  In other words, one key success factor is facilitating the distribution of innovations across the economy rather than siloed in the research and development labs of large companies and government facilities.  Those places make essential contributions as well, but the broad-based opportunities provided by new technology are distributed — both the data that fuels the applications and the technology and shapes the software and the engineering that optimizes the hardware.  Whether it is for health, public safety, transportation, economic development, or quality of life, technology diffusion crosses scales and domains.  The Frontiers Conference underscored the value of embracing a role for government that facilitates an interdisciplinary approach to innovation.

President Obama hosted the day-long Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University, bringing together researchers, business leaders, technologists, philanthropists, local innovators, and students to discuss building U.S. capacity in science and technology. Among the attendees at the invitation-only White House Frontiers Conference were IPaT Executive Director Beth Mynatt and Georgia Tech Center for Urban Innovation Director Jennifer Clark.  Click here for a live stream of the event, here for an IPaT article about the Frontiers Conference, or check out the Twitter hashtag,  #WHFrontiers.



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