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Pittsburgh's PGH Lab 2016 Cohort Brings Startups into City Operations

This cohort is the first step toward bridging government and the vast ocean of private-sector ideas.

As government tries to figure out how to use the huge number of startups, entrepreneurs and civic ideas created each day, cities like Pittsburgh are developing platforms precisely for that effort: On Aug. 2, Mayor William Peduto announced the creation of the PGH Lab 2016 Cohort, in which three startups will be brought into city government for three months to pilot their concepts.

There was no way previously for startups to connect in this way, and the program — developed through a partnership between the city of Pittsburgh's Department of Innovation and Performance and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh — is the first step toward bridging government and the vast ocean of private-sector ideas, said Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer for Pittsburgh.

"There's so many cool startups that come to me and say, 'I have this awesome idea! Can you give me some feedback and insight?' And frankly I could do that," she said, "but I didn't really have any formal mechanism to evaluate any startup that would come to me, let alone to choose to engage with this startup versus another startup. And this is that exact way that offers a platform for startups to engage with us, but also in a meaningful way."

Three startups will work with city agencies for three months to see how much and how viable their ideas are. Those startups and missions are HiberSense, which will test a network of sensors and smart vents designed to create micro-zone climate control within a building; TransitSource, which will provide government data to make better infrastructure planning decisions and increase the quality of people-powered transit; and Renerge Inc., which will test their open-flow, modular water turbine system that can be quickly deployed to rivers with minimal environmental impact.

"Before we did this, we went through an extensive semester-long study with Carnegie Mellon University to prototype and build this out, and we looked at best practices everywhere, especially San Francisco," Lam said. "And one of the key points to a successful startup engagement that we learned is that there was engagement with a city champion or designated lead. That's why we picked the products that we picked, because we identified that in order to be successful we needed to identify who the city champion would be for the startup selected."

Participating startups were chosen from a pool of more than 25 applicants, who presented their technologies and ideas against the backdrop of a specific set of problems that Pittsburgh faces. The three areas of interest presented by the city were climate change and the environment, city operations, and citizen engagement.

After the three-month trial period, which runs from the end of July until early October, the city will have a better idea of what these technologies and startups are capable of providing to the city. At this point, new assessments will be made around what to do next. Civic tech still being a relatively immature space in the public sector leaves a lot of room for new projects and ideas, and Lam said she hopes to see more programs like theirs.

"The idea and the hope is that more organizations can do this, and hopefully we are the lead," Lam said. "We pulled together the Urban Redevelopment Authority to do this, but we're hoping to do more and hopefully there will be more partners that could help us with this."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.