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6 Organizations Making a Big Impact on Smart Cities

Partnerships with nonprofits and foundations drive city innovation.

For city governments, getting the most out of their digital transformations requires planning, engagement with residents and the ability to measure the impact of their investments. But because of limited resources and the demands of their day-to-day work, sometimes cities can be reactive to grant announcements or vendor pilot projects, leading to disjointed efforts.

Several nonprofit foundations and academic centers have focused their efforts on supporting planning and development, best practice guideline creation, and cross-pollination between cities. Each has its own area of expertise and focus. Some are grant-making organizations, while others have received grants from the federal government and foundations to bring together city departments and researchers to develop tools and new approaches. Here are profiles of six of the organizations having a significant impact on how smart cities are developing across the country.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities
Launched: 2015

Part of philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Initiative, What Works Cities was launched in April 2015 to enhance the use of data and evidence-based decision-making in cities. The What Works Cities initiative is a three-year, $42 million effort to support mayors and local leaders in 100 mid-sized U.S. cities with technical assistance, access to expertise and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

“When we looked at the landscape of cities using data to effectively manage local government, most of the great work was happening in large cities,” said Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities. “Mid-sized cities were eager to take on this kind of work but didn’t have the knowledge or skills to do so.” To fill this gap, Bloomberg Philanthropies stood up What Works Cities, bringing together five expert partners that provide pro bono technical assistance to city staff, helping them build the capacity and skills to use data to make more informed decisions, deliver more effective services and programs, and ultimately, improve residents’ lives.

Brody stressed that the technical assistance is designed to be issue-agnostic. “Our goal is to help cities build capabilities that can be applied to all local issues they’re looking to address,” she said.

What Works Cities brings city leaders and staff together with peers in other cities as well as experts and resources. “This community is committed to learning from each other’s challenges and building on each other’s work, enabling them to accelerate the pace of progress.”

One example of a What Works Cities project is Seattle’s work with Bloomberg partner Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School to revamp its contracting practices with providers of homelessness services. The changes ensure providers are measured on their ability to place people in permanent housing, rather than just providing services along the way. A portion of the contract value is also tied to hitting established performance metrics.

In May 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced an additional $42 million investment to deepen and expand current efforts, as well as lower the population threshold so that smaller cities — with populations of more than 30,000 — can participate. 


A What Works Cities project in Seattle is changing the way the city contracts with homless service providers. (Photo:

Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab
Founded: 2011

Smart city efforts often involve using sensors and connected IoT devices to bring more efficiency to lighting, transportation or public safety. Yet following a broader definition, the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) helps governments get smarter in several other ways — with performance improvement, procurement and results-driven contracting.

GPL conducts research and holds national competitions to select government partners for technical assistance, usually in the form of consulting help from a Kennedy School government innovation fellow. Philanthropically funded, GPL is one of five technical assistance partners for the What Works Cities initiative. In that program it is assisting cities that seek to adopt results-driven contracting strategies for critical grants and procurements. Of the 100 cities in that program, GPL has worked with 26.

“Sometimes it is difficult for governments confronted by daily operational challenges and frequent crises to think about how to address important long-term priorities,” said Gloria Gong, director of research and innovation. “A lot of our work fits into a definition of a smart city or smart government because it involves developing tools and approaches that can balance the difficult day-to-day work of running a government with trying to accomplish things in a more strategic way.”

GPL, for example, helped Chicago social services agencies redesign how they use data and metrics in their outcome contracts to re-envision cross-agency cooperative services.

“We are thinking about smart cities in a broader sense,” agreed Hanna Azemati, program director. “We think about it as governments that are modernizing the way they operate in their core functions by better utilizing up-to-date technologies and partnering with the private sector to make sure they can adopt all the tools available to help them use data to better support, track and analyze performance.”

She cited several projects GPL has done with the city of Boston, including smart streetlights, procurement of an IT system to oversee capital works programs, and development of a tool to better prioritize capital works projects based on specific goals.

GPL also worked with Charleston, S.C., on improving the use of data on vendor management in waste collection. “The city wanted to know in real time when a vendor was unable to finish a route or experienced property damage so it could be better prepared to respond to residents,” she said.


Harvard Kennedy School's Government Performance Lab drives innovations like Boston's smart streetlights. (Photo:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Founded: 1950

Although the nonprofit Knight Foundation has been funding civic technology projects for some time, it jumped into the smart city space in 2017 when it announced $1.2 million in grant support for six cities to explore how the Internet of Things (IoT) can be deployed responsibly and equitably. Akron, Ohio; Boston; Detroit; Miami; Philadelphia; and San Jose, Calif., all received planning grants.

Lilian Coral, director of national strategy and technology innovation, leads the foundation’s smart city strategy development. “We see a real opportunity to bring the needs and preferences of the residents back to the center of the conversation,” she said. “We want to see if we can engage more residents and show them the value of this work.”

In a March 2018 blog post, Coral highlighted a series of questions Knight hopes to address, including:

  • How can technology enable deeper resident participation in local government, including program planning, design and delivery?
  • To what extent can technology solutions empower residents to make decisions through greater access to information, positioning them not just as creators of data but also as active consumers?
Coral admitted that engaging more residents around smart city efforts is a challenge. “But that is what we saw as the opportunity and the missing piece,” she said. “We think it is critical and aligns with our mission. Unlike other groups in this sector, we have strong and deep relationships in the communities where we work because of the history of Knight in those cities. We are a tried and tested partner.”

She said the foundation is already developing a few initiatives with city partners taking this resident engagement approach and future rounds of funding would follow.

MetroLab Network
Founded: 2015

The Obama Administration’s Smart Cities Initiative included federal agency efforts as well as those involving the private sector. One of its offshoots was the MetroLab Network, a nonprofit organization established to foster university-city partnerships to drive research and development related to technology, data and analytics in government.

“The idea behind MetroLab was to take the idea of an institutionalized partnership between city and university and bring that to greater scale,” said Ben Levine, the organization’s executive director. “We wanted to see if technologies or approaches can be scaled across cities. We thought it was important to have an organization to facilitate convening, programming and communication.”

MetroLab launched in 2015 with 22 partnerships between cities and universities and has since doubled its membership in the United States. With funding from the MacArthur, Annie E. Casey and Kresge foundations, MetroLab has an annual budget of between $500,00 and $750,000.

Although the idea of scaling approaches from one city to another has been a challenge across the country for years, Levine said MetroLab is starting to see some cross-pollination: An algorithmic approach to fire inspections developed in Pittsburgh with Carnegie-Mellon University is being adopted elsewhere, and Chicago’s data science approach to restaurant inspection prioritization has taken off in other cities. “We maintain a library of over 100 such projects as a resource,” he said.

MetroLab engages with its members to think about methods and approaches to elevate the work they are doing. As a guiding framework, it has created a list of 10 principles for successful city-university partnerships. As public service agencies work on integrated data systems, MetroLab has also established a data sciences and human services lab that researches how the disciplines intersect. The emerging area requires a framework to deal with ethical considerations and transparency, Levine said.

“For the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve done a good job of creating a community of practice that didn’t exist before and have been an effective convener,” Levine said. “Now we are ready to move to the next level and expand the set of resources available to do this work.”

New York University Center for Urban Science & Progress
Founded: 2012

The Bloomberg Administration’s “Applied Sciences NYC” initiative made underused city-owned properties available to universities if they would start or expand applied sciences or engineering programs. In 2012 NYU took the administration up on its offer and created the Center for Urban Science & Progress (CUSP), now housed at an old transit headquarters building in downtown Brooklyn.

“Our mission is to develop tools of data science to help city agencies do what they do better,” said Mike Holland, executive director. “We have a one-year master’s degree program. The goal is to equip students with data science tools plus the urban context to effectively apply those tools in a coherent way.”

One component of the degree program is a capstone project for which CUSP solicits project ideas from city agencies that students can work on. For instance, students have worked with the parks department to bring together existing park data to develop a quality matrix.

Those master’s degree students are starting to fan out across the country in smart city-related jobs. Approximately 20 percent of students have taken jobs with city, state or federal agencies. Another large percentage are hired by big consulting firms that do public-sector work, while many others have been hired by tech companies, large and small.

CUSP faculty members are also involved in larger research projects that may be exportable to other cities. One such project that received $4.6 million in funding from the National Science Foundation is called Sounds of New York City (SONYC). It combines a network of sensors and a cellphone app to more effectively monitor, analyze and mitigate noise pollution. “We set out to develop a machine learning algorithm to identify and classify the sources of sounds that New Yorkers call 311 to complain about,” Holland said.

Another faculty member is working on the concept of “quantified community” by developing lightweight sensor networks to monitor the baseline behaviors of a neighborhood. The idea is that when vendors make claims about “smart” technologies, cities can better measure whether interventions are making a difference.

Urban Center for Computation and Data
Founded: 2012

The Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) grew out of work researchers at the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory were already doing informally by partnering with city of Chicago departments to help them more effectively use their data to improve city operations.

One UrbanCCD focus is urban measurement — exploiting new Internet-connected hardware and software to help cities measure their environments and operations. Its Array of Things project, established with a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes more than 100 nodes collecting data on temperature, humidity, air pressure, magnetic field, vibration, light and air quality. It publishes the results openly for scientists, city officials and residents to use.

UrbanCCD also works to apply urban computational modeling to planning and design for major projects that involve zoning and investment over hundreds of acres of city land.

With funding from NSF and the MacArthur Foundation, UrbanCCD has created an analytics platform called Plenario, which seeks to make the data released by cities, federal agencies, and other sources more accessible. “We are providing a way for people to search for and explore data about the city that would help them with a data science project,” said Director Charlie Catlett. “If a health scientist wants to investigate the impact of heat waves on different communities, it searches our Array of Things data and Chicago open data sets, and presents available data sets.”


The Array of Things in Chicago comprises 100 nodes collecting data about the city that's available for public and scientific use.

On the educational front, in 2013 UrbanCCD helped create a “data science for social good” summer program, which has since spun off and become independent. It involves a partnership with Chicago public schools, and has trained more than 400 students to think about urban and environmental measurement and to design devices that can help.

Catlett said a key goal is to help other cities besides Chicago deploy its tools and approaches. “Our default approach is open source and we think about how we can enable other cities to take advantage of this technology to replicate it locally.”

In fact, the Array of Things project has created a partnership program that is attracting international interest. “We have 100 devices installed in Chicago and 30 installed or shipped in a half-dozen other cities in the U.S.,” Catlett said. “There are cities around the world wanting to try this technology out with four to six units,” he added. “This partnership program is going to be a major focus of our expansion over the next year or more.”

David Raths is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.