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SXSW: The Connected City is closer than you think…

Governments and public institutions are perceived as notoriously slow to innovate, but things are starting to change.

At a SXSW session on the City 2.0, it was clear that large cities are grasping technological innovation with both hands as a way to solve long-running problems. Most major US cities like Chicago and New York have appointed Chief Information Officers or Digital Directors and this is accelerating change at a rate that even exceeds private businesses.

So how are cities innovating? As we wrote in a previous post, the five conditions for fostering innovation revolve around people, stability, training, communication and reducing red tape. So, to become a truly connected city, local governments are working on initiatives based around these conditions.

When it comes to tech talent, many cities are focussed on creating a pipeline. Chicago is currently trialling a publicly-funded initiative that invites the best tech students from other states to the city’s annual rock festival, Riot Fest, for free and taking them to dinner beforehand to woo them into staying. For a long-term solution, it has also been working with key schools to guarantee students an interview with a local tech company on graduation, as well as adding coding to the curriculum with the content developed in partnership with Google.

However, Chicago isn’t the only city entering into these public/private partnerships to attract new talent. Jessica Singleton, Digital Director of New York City, has recently signed a multi-million $ deals with LinkedIn and JP Morgan to attract more tech talent to the city.

Regulation and red tape is often where the public sector falls down. However, many cities such as New York are completely changing their procurement process and ditching legacy practices. This means thinking differently about problems such as what to do with the city’s network of outdated phone boxes. For the first time NYC briefed the problem, not the answer, in an open pitch. It meant that rather than decommissioning the boxes they are now in the process of converting each one into superfast Wi-Fi hotspots, paid for not by the city but through ad revenue.

Finding the right partner is also vital. For cities these are often academic institutions, since universities need the city to act as an ‘Urban Lab’ just as much as the other needs innovative solutions. In Chicago they have been developing the Array of Things Project, a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, which will use mobile signals to understand pedestrian flow data.

Local start-up also provide a great, low cost agile way to innovate. New York runs “Big Apps”, a hackathon run every year where they specifically release data to help entrants solve the cities problems. Past winners include Heat Seek, a small smart tamper proof box that lives in the apartment and measures the temperature all the time, ideal for tenants to report bad living conditions to landlords.

In Austin, the local government has been working with a local tech company to develop free access data modelling software called Envision Tomorrow, which democratises urban and regional planning. The unique part is that the software is open to all, requiring only the same level of technical skill needed to use Google Maps.

Brands and agencies should be excited about the opportunities of the City 2.0. From new opportunities for public/private partnerships with brands to more sources of data, our cities will become smarter and easier places to live in the next 10 years. What’s more this

The increasing innovation in cities can serve as a model to learn from as every company can think in terms of creating the right ecosystem for innovation; focused on tech talent, a future proof infrastructure and making it as easy as possible to do business. What the examples above prove is that technology for a very large institution doesn’t have to cost millions if the right approach is taken.

Chrissy Totty is Head of Innovation for Vizeum
Keep up to date with the Vizeum Innovation Team’s exploits over in Austin at SXSW by following the latest updates from Chrissy and James on Twitter using #southbyviz