Treating Smart City Procurements Like Open Data

The city of Pittsburgh recently embarked on a journey to purchase smart city technology. But rather than keep the process internal, they treated it like open data and shared it with the public.

by Nicholas Hall, Robert Burack, Data-Smart City Solutions / February 1, 2018
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This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

Procurement is the process city governments undertake to effectively and fairly purchase goods and services. For large procurements, cities often issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) to collect proposals from entities who might provide these goods or services. This has long happened behind closed doors, with a veil of confidentiality agreements shielding RFP responses from the public eye.

This makes practical and legal sense as cities work to negotiate the most favorable contracts with private actors. While the initial request can and should be public and open to all, the detail often required by cities in the proposal itself means that private actors must respond with proprietary information or solutions that can and perhaps should be shielded by non-disclosure agreements.

However, more cities are now experimenting with a Request for Information (RFI) that precedes an RFP. An RFI process functions as a kind of market analysis, allowing companies to respond with information relevant to the city’s challenge or area of exploration. While companies who respond to a city’s request for information don’t gain any advantage in a subsequent RFP process, they still often choose to respond, seeing the RFI as an opportunity to move cities into the sales funnel.

RFIs are notably emergent and useful in the “smart cities” space. Because of the rapidly-changing nature of smart city technology, few in-depth market analyses exist, and those that do quickly become outdated. An RFI process allows a city to conduct its own market analysis and presents an opportunity for internal learning that informs the eventual call for proposals.

Last March the City of Pittsburgh released an RFI around the replacement of its 40,000 city-owned and operated streetlights. The city is considering the streetlight replacement as an opportunity to enhance city service delivery through connected technology, and to address neighborhood equity issues.

This month, Pittsburgh released highlights from its smart streetlight market analysis as a resource for other cities who are not only considering streetlight replacement, but grappling with smart city solutions and the rapidly-changing technology involved. Additionally, the city has made all of its 25 RFI responses available as open data — expanding the potential for procurement to become not only a process of internal learning, but a catalyst for open learning and community dialogue.

What Pittsburgh Learned About the Overall Smart Cities Market

The City of Pittsburgh received 25 responses from different types of businesses, offering a wide range of services, products, and concepts to replace the city’s streetlights. The city’s analysis revealed an important insight: the wide variety of responses demonstrated that shared best practices, approaches, and solutions have yet to emerge among these companies.

In other words, there appears to be a lack of coherency in the smart city space – and lack of alignment on what a “smart city” solution even is. Because the technology is evolving so rapidly, it is unlikely that the solutions offered today will align with the range of unpredictable applications likely to emerge. The “smart city” terminology is used primarily as a marketing narrative rather than a technical strategy, and does not itself contribute to the work of determining the best municipal-scale technological investments.

However, there was one element that virtually all responses emphasized: the value of the network. Internet connectivity for streetlights has emerged as a solid best practice, and provides a strong foundation for all future solutions. We know, with increasing certainty, that most infrastructure will become heavily dependent on networking technology. This is an imminent reality for streetlights.

Ultimately, Pittsburgh concluded that cities involved in streetlight-centered smart city initiatives would be well-served by making the minimum possible investment in specific device technologies, while still taking advantage of the streetlight deployment project to establish a foundational network for future device technologies.

For its own purposes, the City of Pittsburgh's Department of Innovation and Performance made two recommendations to the preliminary committee that informed its eventual RFP. First, the department recommended that the city replace its existing streetlights with LED luminaires that light the streets as well as or better than its current (high-pressure sodium) lamps - at costs as low or lower than other options. And second, the department suggested that the committee prepare Pittsburgh for the low-latency, high-capacity networking capabilities that will be critical to emerging technologies and future use cases, such as autonomous vehicles.

Three Types of Responses

The city received, generally, three types of responses.

Group #1: Raconteurs, Engineers, Architects, Developers and Yes-men

Respondents in this group included speculations on the future of smart cities, specifications for modular luminaire designs, tech startup pitches for innovative solutions to self-defined problem statements, and advocates for emerging wireless network technologies. These responses ranged from extremely to negligibly informative.

Group #2: Analysts, Integrators, and Middlemen

Respondents in this group included consultants of varying scale and focus, offering to manage the selection of technologies, supplementing or supplanting the role of city decision-makers and subject-matter experts.

Group #3: Fully Integrated and Resourced Endgames

Respondents in this group included broad, low-information sales pitches from major, entrenched industry players and similar entities. These responses provided a useful preview of RFP responses. Individually, they added little value in assessing technical strategy. Collectively, they illustrated the private sector’s incentive for relevance in this space, regardless of applicable competencies. This suggested that the city might gain leverage in negotiation if it could position itself as a proving ground for deployments of their technologies.

Why the Network Matters

In the tech world, the term “infrastructure” refers to servers, data storage arrays, network hardware, and the software that controls those components. In cities, infrastructure means roads, bridges, pipes, wires, lights. These two definitions of the term are likely to merge.

Traditional infrastructure will likely become heavily dependent on networking technology. (Again, this is an imminent reality for streetlights.) As solar panels and electric cars become more prevalent, the electrical grid will require distributed, networked transformers and other components. In relatively short order, the network will become as critical (and as vulnerable) a public asset as the grid or water treatment system.

Given all these factors, digital infrastructure will need the same level of security, oversight, accountability, and democratic process attending it as other infrastructure does today. Cities will at some point need to heavily regulate, if not directly manage, some sort of highly-resilient municipal network infrastructure.

This is not just an impending demand, but an emerging opportunity.

Architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller is famously attributed with the quote, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” As we continue to work to patch and resurface roads, upgrade electrical grids, replace streetlights, and in other ways maintain the infrastructure we have inherited in our cities, to truly sustain them we will also need technologically-current infrastructure that can grow and someday replace the already-creaky systems we rely on. The primary technological component of infrastructure we’ll turn to, and need to invest in, is the network.

Networking technology is the one critical requirement of streetlight upgrades besides lights that use less energy. (This is because they are critical to ensuring that energy efficiency can be managed and monetized.) In Pittsburgh, the streetlight deployment also happens to be such a broad physical upgrade to the city that it has the engineering and financial potential to include the deployment of an entirely new network or massive extension of the existing network’s coverage.

This is a unique opportunity not only to build the network needed, but to build within the city both the networking technology community of practice and the material leverage needed to balance out Pittsburgh’s negotiations with private actors.

Learning Together

This RFI process primarily yielded general thoughts about networking strategy, informed the eventual drafting of the RFP, and better-positioned the city’s release of its RFP.

The release of these 25 RFI responses not only provides a means for other cities to learn from and conduct their own market analysis, but offers a model for how cities might collaboratively and openly keep pace with changing smart city technology.

Cities should prepare the ground into which “smart” devices will be planted, establishing a fertile field for the small experiments, and major reconfigurations, in urban infrastructure that will ultimately yield the smart city, whatever that turns out to be.

Much the same can be said for smarter procurement.