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Boston Invites Smart City Providers to the Table

The city has issued a request for information that seeks help in creating better, more efficient services utilizing technology.

Calling all technologists, entrepreneurs and urbanists: Boston is ready for its next wave of innovation.

On Dec. 9, the city released a request for information (RFI) calling for new ideas to help it deliver better services while keeping in mind that adding human value is the primary driver for new technology. But one thing the city wants companies to keep in mind: to please keep the sales speak at home and be ready to deliver a fully thought-out plan after speaking with residents and interest groups that have a stake in the city.

“Our call went out to anybody who is interested in creating some sort of product that adds definitive value to the streets of Boston,” said Jackie Lender, Harvard Presidential City of Boston Fellow. “Providing great and exemplary services is something we always strive for.”

Writing the RFI in colloquial language, void of overly technical jargon, was a conscious decision, said Lender, who co-wrote the request with Boston Chief of Streets Chris Osgood. It is vital, she said, to have the RFI be as open as possible to maximize the number of players coming in to improve Boston.

Co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) Nigel Jacob noted that when thinking about Boston's future, “we need to make sure it is as livable a city as possible, dealing head-on with issues of equity,” he said, adding that too often, businesses will pitch Internet of Things (IoT) devices or smart city technologies that come with a big flashy PowerPoint presentation, but are backed up by little to no human value.

Earlier this year, MONUM issued a soft release of their Smart City Playbook, with tips and notes for smart city tech vendors and IoT devices. The playbook was really getting at an issue that repeatedly arose for city officials.

“We had been having the same conversations over and over,” said MONUM Co-chair Kris Carter.

The playbook gives Boston’s potential partners a baseline knowledge of what city officials are looking for. Boston wants to know who else have they talked to, Carter said, and what kind of response they have received from Boston residents and interested parties.

“The RFI allows us to surface all these different players,” said Jacob. “Frankly, in Boston we have an embarrassment of riches in different vendors, researchers, thinkers and designers. We want to get everyone who has something at stake at the table to discuss how new technology can have the greatest value added for all Boston residents."

Urban designers are key to the projects. Often the technology is there; it's just a matter of how well it can be incorporated into everyday life and how easily accessible it is for residents.

Rather than a presentation by salespeople, Boston is looking for collaborations that affect real people. In the playbook the city acknowledges that while getting pitches for internal systems is useful, they are currently interested in solutions to residents' real problems.

Boston is opening itself and its resources to IoT vendors. The city houses “tens of thousands of assets in the public right of way that could potentially become connected and smart,” according to the RFI. The set of available resources is broken down into priority assets, including streetlights, fire boxes, city-owned fiber lines, and secondary assets including parking meters, manholes and non-emergency public fleet vehicles.

Certain restrictions apply to the coloring of certain assets; for example, city fire hydrants must maintain their black-and-red tops.

The city is ready to embrace the private partnerships that can add value to their citizens' lives. By listing all of the available resources for civic engineers and city planners, Boston has shown it is ready for business.

“We are not looking for pitches that oversell products; we are looking for partners who have good ideas on how to solve hard problems," Jacob said. "Boston is increasingly a city of haves and have-nots; similar to how we align policy with human level impact in mind, we want to use technology in the same way.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.