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Are SuperClusters the Future of Gov Tech Collaboration?

A growing number of stakeholders are participating in a new concept aimed at sharing solutions to common governmental challenges.

Seeking to better connect all stakeholders in the gov tech space, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has created SuperClusters, which are international networks that share ideas in order to accelerate the development of smart city technology with the potential to improve residents’ lives.

The idea behind SuperClusters is simple: create a group that can easily learn from the victories (and setbacks) of others pursuing similar goals. NIST, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, brings cities and other stakeholders together to share lessons and new ideas by using its vast federal convening powers. What happens when the SuperClusters are assembled is then entirely up to the participants, who are subject to zero federal oversight.

“It’s to share best practices,” said Bob Bennett, CIO for Kansas City, Mo. and chair of the City Platform/Dashboard SuperCluster. “Probably more importantly it’s to explain what they’ve done that didn’t work, so that folks from a different city don’t recreate failure.”

Currently, there are SuperClusters in one of five areas: transportation, city platform/dashboard, public safety, energy/water/waste management and public Wi-Fi. Officials expect to add more groups soon, likely related to procurement strategies, data governance and cybersecurity, although agriculture and rural broadband are also under consideration.

The creation of the SuperCluster concept dates back about four years, when Sokwoo Rhee came to government from the private sector as a Presidential Innovation Fellow. When Rhee began working at the federal level, he looked into how best to encourage deployment of practical IoT applications, ultimately determining the biggest obstacle was fragmentation between sectors, research facilities and local governments. To combat this, Rhee and his cohort started the SmartAmerica Challenge, which fostered collaboration among innovators in the service of better government.

That iteration has since run its course, but a decision was made to continue the program within the NIST, turning it into an agency called the Global City Teams Challenge, and Rhee was brought on as a permanent staffer. The SuperCluster concept grew from that, and now connects cities, private companies, universities, nonprofits and other public agencies such as school systems. They all focus on activities that Rhee said must share one overarching goal, which is that “the final beneficiary of the activity should be the residents and citizens, whether it goes through city government or goes directly to the citizens.”

Rhee said that, coming from the private sector, his expectation was that such technology would grow exponentially, but instead he found it happening in slower increments. His goal is to create a standardized international collaboration network to change that.

“It’s very fragmented if you look at it,” Rhee said. “Every city is doing their own things. There’s really no coordinated efforts and there’s no standards. This lack of coordination and the fact that they’re all fragmented is really slowing down the adoption and growth in the industry, and the benefits for the citizens.”

One of the biggest values of this concept, to Rhee’s mind, is that the focus is always on deployments, not untested ideas or PowerPoint presentations. In fact, in order to be approved as a participant, a stakeholder must show a real-world deployment.

SuperClusters generally bring participants together in the same room for at least one annual event, in locations that range from Bellevue, Wash. to San Jose, Calif. Tony Batalla, the IT manager/director for San Leandro, Calif., is one of the co-chairs of the public Wi-Fi SuperCluster, and he said he’s seen immense benefit for everyone involved.

His work with SuperClusters has involved assembling a 74-page blueprint that takes readers through every nuanced aspect of a public Wi-Fi framework, including different avenues that are available, funding models, legal concerns, project management, procurement, case studies and more. Batalla called it an unprecedented level of collaboration, and noted that every team has put together “these really rich blueprints, and, going forward, we’re going to look at how they overlap and intersect, and how we can even it a little higher than the SuperClusters.”

The future of the program looks bright, with membership steadily growing. Amazon has even created an AWS Marketplace specifically for GCTC apps and companies. This platform is a good example of why private companies are eager to participate in the concept as well, in that it organizes some of the solutions that have been conceptualized and created through the work. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.