Smart Communities & The Biden Administration: What We Should Expect

Now that the pomp and circumstance of the Inauguration is in the rearview mirror, we can turn our attention to a far less stately quadrennial Washington DC tradition: predicting the priorities and the impact of an incoming Administration. In this post, I attempt to forecast the impact of the Biden Administration on efforts to advance Smart and Connected Communities. In light of a recent whitepaper I drafted on local government efforts to leverage advanced technologies to expand opportunities and address vexing challenges, I consider key policies and positions endorsed by President Biden during his campaign and identify several likely Smart Community champions among the leaders that President Biden has nominated to senior positions in his Administration.

In the end, my read of the tea leaves is that local government leaders and advocates of smart community initiatives should expect the following:

Federal agencies will expand funding for Smart Community Grants, Pilots and Demonstration projects

New Smart Community champions will bring valuable experience, perspective and enthusiasm to the Smart Community sector

Biden Administration will, like the Obama Administration, provide valuable thought-leadership and stakeholder engagement that will help grow the sector

New Resources for Smart Community Grants, Pilots and Demonstration Projects:

As a candidate, Joe Biden’s most direct endorsement of “Smart Cities” was a commitment to build on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. In his Plan to Invest in Middle Class Competitiveness, he proposed an annual $1 billion grant program to help five cities per year “pilot and new planning strategies and smart-city technologies.” Admittedly, the call for a Federal Smart Community grant program of this size and scale may be seen as aspirational, but I note that proposal for a large-scale grant program for smart cities would seem to have resonated with ITIF, a think-tank supported by the technology sector. ITIF has called upon Congress to fund $2 billion in competitive smart city grants to 60 cities of varying sizes.

The Biden campaign’s Build Back Better in Rural America plan includes a call for a new $300 billion investment in Research & Development in sectors including clean energy, health and medicine and telecommunications. Federal R&D expenditures are an important source of funding for Smart Community projects. During the Obama Administration, for instance, the National Science Foundation began funding Smart and Connected Community collaborations between university-based researchers and local governments.

The incoming Biden Administration clearly appreciates the unique role that local governments will play in advancing what Administration policy documents refer to as “special demonstration projects.” It is very encouraging that, in these documents, cities, towns and counties are specifically called-out as designated recipients of research funding. The Biden Infrastructure Plan asserts that the “Departments [Of Energy and Transportation] will provide grants to cities, towns and counties” for pilots programs that build upon demonstration projects a kin to DoE’s Transportation Electrification Project and Clean Cities Initiative, which were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that then Vice President Biden oversaw.

New Smart Community Champions

In a search for potential new champions for Smart Communities initiatives in the Federal government, three individuals stand-out: Pete Buttigieg, Martha Fudge and Jessica Rosenworcel. Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, is the former Mayor of South Bend, IN. During his administration, South Bend was an active participant in several national smart community organizations and initiatives. One of “Mayor Pete’s” signature projects was a ‘smart streets’ initiative that added bike lanes and used pedestrian-safe elements to help revitalize South Bend’s downtown. South Bend also received national attention for an innovative approach to storm water management. In close collaboration with researchers at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend leveraged advanced sensor technologies to better manage storm water and waste water, ultimately saving the city more than $500 million. As Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg will undoubtedly draw upon his experience leading South Bend’s Smart and Connected Community efforts and champion national initiatives that attempt to leverage advanced technologies and municipal testbeds to address vexing challenges.

Marcia Fudge, President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has represented a district in northeast Ohio for 10+ years. Before she became a member of the House of Representatives, Representative Fudge was Mayor of Warrensville Heights, just east of Cleveland. The significance of Representative Fudge’s experience as a mayor is not lost on the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has strongly endorsed her nomination. According to Candidate Biden’s infrastructure plan, HUD will administer a $10 billion Cities Revitalization Fund that will focus on creative (dare I say “smart”!) revitalization plans for distressed cities. In this role, I expect Marcia Fudge will become a national champion for smart, connected and inclusive cities.

Jessica Rosenworcel, President Biden’s nominee for Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been a member of the FCC since 2012. In 2014, Commissioner Rosenworcel coined the term “homework gap” to describe the need for school aged children and their families to have adequate broadband access at home. Since the challenge of the homework gap has only become more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that closing the homework gap is likely to be a top priority during Commissioner Rosenworcel’s tenure as Chair of the FCC. As she works to close the homework gap, she will also illustrate the value of services (including education, health and wellness, job training, etc) delivered via broadband connections. In so doing, I expect Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel to become a champion for providing services to resident directly in their “smart” homes.

Rekindled Thought-Leadership + Stakeholder Engagement re Smart Communities

The most effective smart community initiatives are those able to leverage collaboration between local government, community anchor institutions, non-profit organizations and the private sector. In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released its new smart cities initiative. After months of work, the initiative spurred collaborations between federal agencies, universities, local governments, non-profits and the private sector. Using its unique power to convene, the Federal government reached-out to hundreds of organizations, secured commitments from scores of them and helped launch several new groups, including MetroLab and GCTC, that continue to advance smart community collaborations to this day. In addition to OSTP’s Smart Cities initiative, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a “Future of Cities” report containing dozens of recommendations for policymakers.

Under the Trump administration, OSTP did not play an apparent role in advancing Smart Community initiatives. The PCAST was not established until October 2019, unusually late in President Trump’s term and did not engage the Smart Community topic. Under the Biden Administration there is every reason to anticipate that OSTP and/or the PCAST will engage on topics such as advancing Smart, Connected and Inclusive Communities. President Biden has elevated his Science Advisor to a cabinet position and has already named several members of the OSTP team. According to organizations including the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), both OSTP and PCAST are expected to play very active roles during a Biden Administration.

Since 2015 when the Obama Administration launched its Smart Cities initiative, the landscape of the Smart Community has expanded to include new stakeholders including real estate developers, utility companies and others. I expect the Biden Administration’s OSTP and/or PCAST to rekindle efforts to convene key stakeholders and set a course for the next five years of working toward Smart, Connected and Inclusive cities.

About this Medium Site

On this Medium site, I explore an array of topics related to the transformative power of smart and connected communities. A central question for this observer of the so-called smart city movement: how will municipalities develop, deploy and support smart and connected community projects at scale?

I welcome feedback and comments from readers.

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Bill Maguire

A recovering policy wonk, Bill is passionate about the transformative power of advanced networks, open data, machine learning & the Internet of Things (IoT).