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If we want equitable smart cities, we need support from philanthropy

Everyone agrees that smart cities—places that deploy technology to deliver government services and improve quality of life—are the future. City leaders and staff are inundated with these new mobility products but have limited capacity to ensure that they are deployed in ways that lead to equitable and sustainable outcomes. Our director Beth Osborne explains why cities, states, and non-profit actors need philanthropic support to pursue policy research and projects that make equitable, sustainable smart cities a reality. 

Close-up of the handlebars of a Lime e-scooter, with “Scan to Ride” written on the scooter’s small computer screen.

Technology holds great promise to help cities monitor and allocate limited public space in ways that ensure safe, equitable, affordable, and sustainable access to jobs and services for everybody, no matter their financial means or physical ability. That’s where we should be heading as a country.  

We hear about the endless possibilities of new mobility technology—like flexible curb management tools and smartphone access to shared scooters, bikes, and cars—in the news and at transportation conferences. However, we know that technology can be deployed in ways that allocate these benefits only to those who can pay, or to the wealthiest neighborhoods, or in ways that benefit the technology provider more than the public. Historically, this has been the case. (Think: automobiles, broadband, and more.) 

To date, the power has been in the hands of those who develop and sell technology. Most of these companies are trying to produce good results for cities and people. But to survive, they have to pay attention to their bottom line. Plus, businesses can only really support cities that have the capacity to explain what kind of technology they need, and are then able to effectively manage that product once deployed and ensure that it supports broad societal benefits, like equity and sustainability. 

That capacity requires funding. Philanthropies are traditionally a powerful force for this support, ensuring that modernization and innovation are used to ways that connect to broad social goals. Philanthropy is already doing this in so many areas, from electric vehicle deployment, transit advocacy, housing affordability, criminal justice reform and more. However, they have been largely absent as cities and non-profits pursue policy research and innovations to make smart cities a reality. 

We learned this the hard way. For the past four years, Transportation for America has hosted the Smart Cities Collaborative, a year-long learning cohort where city transportation officials learn from each others’ efforts to use new mobility technologies in order to improve their transportation networks. The Collaborative has been a success: we’ve brought together  cities from across the country to discuss approaches to new mobility, curbside management, and city innovation, and have launched several useful resources like the Shared Micromobility Playbook.  

However, funding the Collaborative has been difficult. We rely on a combination of fees paid by cash-strapped cities, sponsorship agreements from new mobility and technology companies, and our advocacy peers. While we are so appreciative of the support we received from city participants and our private sector partners, there was a limit to what we could provide Collaborative members with this funding. 

It’s simple: there will never exist a world in which a 1:1 swap between philanthropic dollars and private sector dollars works. Private sector companies have their own priorities that rarely, if ever, line up with city government’s priorities. This is of no fault of the private sector companies. But it’s exactly why philanthropies need to provide funding for smart cities projects and research: philanthropic funding that doesn’t need to boost a company’s profit margins. 

Our Smart Cities Collaborative, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s short-lived Smart City Challenge (the seed that inspired our Collaborative), and similar non-business projects are where cities, states, the federal government, advocates, and philanthropists need to focus their efforts. Philanthropy will be essential for cities to have the capacity to deploy these technologies in ways that promote equity and sustainability. Without them, the future will inevitably be shaped by shorter term private sector interests and as yet unknown long term outcomes of these interests.

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