Street smart: Cities of the future

Luring new fans at SXSW
Luring new fans at SXSW   

South by Southwest isn't usually populated by a lot of suits or American flag lapel pins. Walking through the interactive festival you're more likely to find entrepreneurs in too-tight t-shirts emblazoned with unfamiliar logos or "I heart hackathons" hoodies.

But this year Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and the mayors of half a dozen major cities, each with their own lapel pin, gathered in the Austin, Texas, convention center to commune with these techies about one big area of common ground: Bringing urban transportation into the future.

Foxx unveiled the seven finalist cities in his "Smart City Challenge," a competition to generate high-tech solutions to moving people and goods. Of the 78 cities that submitted applications, the finalists are Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. The final winner will be announced in June.

"This is not just about having one city win. This is about having our incubators of innovation, our cities across the country actually thinking about the future, making plans about the future that can actually be done," said Foxx. "Although we only have one winner, we're going to work with all 77 of the other cities to give them a pathway to move forward as much as we can with what they've planned out."

The winning city will bring home $40 million from the government to spend on its proposal and another $10 million from Paul Allen's Vulcan to invest specifically in electric car infrastructure.

Plus, the challenge is focused on partnering the public and private sectors. The challenge will bring cities as much as another $50 million worth of technological services from a range of private companies, including Amazon Web Services, traffic-sensor company Mobileye and 3-D visualization company Autodesk.

"In technology and transportation there's no way the public sector can solve all of our problems on its own," Foxx said of the key importance of local governments working with a range of companies.

"We're chronically underinvesting for one thing, and I think our imaginations have been stunted by the lack of resources. On the other hand you've got the technology and innovation world that is coming up with all kinds of solutions that could be practically applied to solve these challenges. It's going to take both of us working together and that's part of the power of us coming together at SXSW."

Finalist Denver already has a number of corporations on board.

"We're competitive because we have over 55 partners, public and private companies like Panasonic and Toyota, companies you would remember and know from their brands — National Renewable Energy laboratory," said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. "They've come to the table and said, 'We're in this, let's make this happen.'"

And Steve Adler, mayor of Austin, another one of the finalists, said this funding is imperative to solve what he calls a "severe mobility challenge." Adler said his city is already hard at work, pushing the cutting edge of technology.

"We are actually the only city outside of California that has autonomous vehicles operating right now on our streets being tested. We're excited about that," said Adler. "Electrification of cars is the way of the future. This is a city that owns its own electric utility, so we have opportunities that are unique to Austin."

The Department of Transportation is looking to help cities nationwide embrace the cutting edge with a totally new approach — taking a time horizon of 30 years rather than the more typical five-year vision.

The DOT hosted a booth on the SXSW trade show floor, reaching out to developers to bring a new range of voices into the process of overhauling American transportation, and to keep the innovation going not just for this competition, but for years to come.