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Incubating Innovation: Bloomberg Mayors Challenge Profiles, Part 2

This is part two of a series about the 35 cities that have advanced in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. This week, we look at plans from Boulder, Colo.; Charleston, S.C.; Coral Gables, Fla.; and Georgetown, Texas.

Technologists, city officials and other stakeholders in Boulder, Colo., are working hard to make transportation throughout the city as sustainable as possible. In doing so, they are also increasingly aware that it’s important not to leave behind residents from lower income brackets.

To this end, Boulder is conducting a series of experiments — which range from ride sharing to subsidies to an electric car loan program — to find the most efficient ways to improve mobility for low-income residents. Boulder, however, is not alone when it comes to wanting to find ways to help its population move through the city while also remaining environmentally responsible. In fact, for most cities of a certain size, this is of great interest, which is why Boulder was one of the 35 cities named as a champion in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge 2018, which had an initial pool of 320 applicant jurisdictions.

Boulder, and the other 34 cities, will now begin a six-month testing phase for their idea. For Boulder, this will mean continuing to build on extensive human-centric research that saw the city’s technologists accompanying residents as they commuted to work, said Boulder Chief Innovation Officer Julia Richman. Richman compared some of the research she personally did to the popular Carpool Karaoke concept, except instead of singing, she was ideating about solving the obstacles that bar some residents from using existing shared transportation modes.

These obstacles, Richman and other researchers have found, include commutes that take 15 minutes by car but 90 by bus, or work hours that necessitate transportation use during times of day outside of peak commute times, when many modes of public transport aren’t running. What Boulder seeks to do now is test out methods and programs to help its residents overcome this.

This article is the second in a series that will look at the innovative ideas of 35 cities that, like Boulder, are preparing to test with support from Bloomberg that could potentially be scaled to other cities. Ultimately these pilots have the potential to change wide swaths of the gov tech market. In October, four of these cities will receive an additional $1 million in support, while one grand prize winner will receive $5 million to support its idea.

Charleston, S.C.

In Charleston, S.C., sunny-day tidal flooding can be a problem, with experts predicting that it will occur as many as 180 days a year by 2040. Meanwhile, 75 percent of the city lives in a designated flood zone.

In a press release announcing that Charleston had been selected as one of the Mayors Challenge champion cities, officials described it as essential that the city learn to adapt to and coexist with water. To that end, Charleston’s innovation project for the contest involves developing an emergency alert system to get residents, businesses and first responders tailored information about increasingly routine coastal floods.

Essentially Charleston is working on creating a personalized, and thereby more effective, means of emergency notification to help residents during more routine flooding incidents. As with the other municipal projects on this list, the exact logistics of this effort are likely to become clearer as the city advances its work throughout the summer with Bloomberg’s support.

Coral Gables, Fla.

Coral Gables, Fla., is also engaged in work to respond to increasing incidents of natural disasters, specifically to hurricanes, given its location in South Florida, just outside Miami.

Coral Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli recently convened an innovation council made up of different stakeholders from the public and private sectors, as well as from academia. Beatrice Rangel oversees that council, and she said that input from academia helped shape the city’s Mayors Challenge project, which seeks to establish a way to keep critical services powered when tropical storms hit.

“We believe the area that is most important to the city right now is energy,” Rangel said, “because we are all in shock with three hurricanes in a row passing through this area of the United States. The third one was Irma, which was really vicious. Power was lost, and it took over six weeks to restore it.”

The idea of Coral Gables' Mayors Challenge project is to create a web of small power networks operated by social energy, which would be more resilient during hurricanes.

Elk Grove, Calif.

Elk Grove, Calif. — a suburb of Sacramento that has roughly 170,000 residents — is working on a project that would use tech and innovation to make it easier for residents, especially those with low income, to find apartments.

What Elk Grove is building is basically a centralized application aimed at pairing would-be tenants with ideal landlords based on income and rental history, thereby replacing a current system that requires paying application fees for every property a tenant seeks to rent.

“In some cases, applicants burn through the money they had saved up for a security deposit,” said Sarah Bontrager, Elk Grove’s housing and public services manager, “just by applying to apartments and not ultimately getting an apartment. Our goal is to find a way to make the application process simpler and cheaper for all applicants, but especially for those applicants who are often applying to multiple places in order to find housing.”

This idea was born from a citywide effort begun last August to fight homelessness. Research for that project identified a need to help with apartment application fees, and the winning project was then created. Ultimately, city officials said, the result of this project is an application process intended to be online, one that will quickly serve as a model for other cities in California, a state in the midst of a severe housing crisis.  

Georgetown, Texas

In Georgetown, Texas, the city has for some time bought energy that is produced far from the boundaries of its jurisdiction in Central Texas.

In fact, the homes and businesses in Georgetown, which is near Austin, are powered in part by energy that is created in a solar farm in West Texas or in a wind energy farm up in Texas’ panhandle, and then transmitted via powerlines. What this means is that Georgetown, essentially, does not have control over its utilities. Their entry in the Mayors Challenge, however, seeks to change that.

“Our thought was wouldn’t it be great if we just made power in Georgetown and kind of cut out all the other risks,” said Jack Daly, assistant to the city manager in Georgetown.

To accomplish this, the city is exploring an idea to install its own solar energy infrastructure around town, potentially leasing space from local businesses and residents.

The local government there has already completed a substantial amount of research to determine if this would be a viable option. What officials plan to do with the support resulting from being selected as a champion city is finalize what an eventual business model might look like, including determining a price point of what businesses and residents are willing to lease space at, as well as what the city is willing to pay to lease it.

And while the mix of solar and wind energy already means that Georgetown is 100 percent powered by renewable energy sources, officials acknowledge that Bloomberg may be interested in part because a model created in Georgetown could potentially help other jurisdictions take advantage of that sort of energy as well.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.