For Next-Generation City Infrastructure, Consider Partnerships

The 2018 MetroLab Network Summit in New Jersey is bringing university, city and tech leaders from around the country.

NEWARK, N.J. — Sure, modern cities still have to support basic infrastructures like streets and water lines. But some leading cities in the country are looking to grow new types of infrastructure in areas like fiber networks and micro-electric grids.

Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, is blanketed in a 600-square-mile fiber-optic communications network bringing super-high-speed Internet connections to every home and business. It’s part of a mission to grow high-wage jobs, Chattanooga Mayor Andrew Berke said.

“For us, in 2018, it’s all about wages. It’s not just getting a job. It’s being able to pay the bills,” Berke said during a discussion at the 2018 MetroLab Network Summit at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark Oct. 15. “For us, what we want to do is find those high-wage jobs.”

MetroLab is a network of more than 35 city-university partnerships to grow innovation and smart city projects. The concept of partnerships was a key theme during the summit’s first panel discussion, which brought together the mayors from Chattanooga, Newark and Pittsburgh, Pa. The talk was moderated by Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore.

Pittsburgh is in the throes of developing several micro-electric grids, where power is produced at small, local and sustainable sites. The city has two completed, one under construction and four proposed, said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. The concept of microgrids in Pittsburgh is grounded in the idea of partnering with utility providers to create an electric delivery network that is more resilient as well as sustainable. Pittsburgh aims to create all of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

In fact, the last steel mill in the city — a more than 180-acre site — that closed a decade ago, will be converted to a microgrid site to produce all renewable energy. Pittsburgh — and other cities that have made similar commitments — can be a leader in overhauling the nation’s energy production toward renewable sources, said Peduto.

“The motivation is that western Pennsylvania is fueled, not primarily, but by coal and nuclear,” he explained. “There’s other options on the menu, and we should be looking at how the city itself can become the leader in showing us where Pennsylvania is going.” 

Developing microgrids in Pittsburgh, or fiber communications in Newark and Chattanooga, will require partnerships, Peduto stressed. 

“There is no way cities can do it by themselves,” said Peduto.

“We can convene people together. But it’s going to require a partnership. And I know that public-private partnerships, in some circles, are looked at as evil. It’s the corporate takeover of public assets,” he added.

“We need to create a people’s plan for those types of partnerships that allow us to put the needed investment into our infrastructure,” said Peduto. “And that’s where MetroLab plays its part. Because if we can leverage universities, working across this country, to come up with a new envelope for a public-private partnership that will allow us to keep our assets public, allow us to be able to upgrade when it’s failing, create a system of systems, then we’re creating a new model for the 21st century that will be here for the 22nd.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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