Over the past week, it has become increasingly apparent that Oakland’s response to the US Dept. of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge grant for $50 million will not only respond to a set of transportation problems with a suite of smart technology solutions, but also and perhaps more importantly it will respond to a significant institutional or business model challenge by putting forward an organizational innovation that builds directly on policies and practices that have been decades in the making.

We are calling our proposed organizational innovation, “The Future of Smart, Inc.” (TFoS). TFoS would likely take the form of a non-profit organization that has municipal corporations as its members and whose mission is simple this: support its members as they strive to become, individually and collectively, the smartest cities in the world.

This mission would be supported by a certain understanding about the order of things. Technologies may make cities smarter, but constituents empowered by equitable and resourceful cities are the ultimate source of innovation and value. Over the past couple of weeks, Smart Oakland has come to express this combination as a formula that is as simple as it is powerful:

Your ideas + Your City = The Future of Smart

At this point in the process and with little more than a week before we must send the DOT our response, I understand the question or nature of the institutional challenge to be this: How can Oakland and other mid-size American cities afford to make significant investments in smart city technologies? How can they do this in a sustainable way when those very investments threaten to undermine important sources of revenue such as parking citations and parking meter fees (e.g., see again the article that appeared on 1/10/16 in the SF Chronicle entitled, “Self-driving cars to drain millions from city, state coffers”)?

At present, there appear to be only two available options for Oakland and other mid-size cities that are increasingly aware of the benefits of smart cities:  (1) apply for and receive financial and technical help from the DOT and other funding and support agencies; or (2) enter into a franchise agreement with a qualified private-party who builds and owns the network infrastructure and pays the city a royalty fee that can be used in turn by the city to purchase and run smart city applications over that private network.

The big idea behind TFoS is to use the DOT’s support for more than just a demonstration project that improves safety, enhances mobility and addresses climate change in equitable ways in areas of Oakland that are especially challenged. Beyond this, we will work with the DOT, other municipalities and private partners to develop an alternative to the current available options.

That 3rd alternative comes into view with greater clarity when we take two developments into consideration, one that has been less than a year in the making and another that has shaped Oakland and other cities for more than half-a-century.

June, 2015: Google launches Sidewalk Labs by (1) acquiring Intersection (itself the result of a merger between Titan LLC and Control Group LLC) and (2) hiring Dan Doctoroff (former CEO of Bloomberg LP and Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for the City of New York) to lead the company. (See the two press releases at the bottom of the Sidewalk Labs website for more details on these two founding actions.)

Why is this development so important? This means that Sidewalk Labs is now the “managing member” of the consortium of businesses called Citybridge LLC that is behind LinkNYC, one of the most ambitious broadband initiatives in history that just last week launched the first of hundreds of phone-booth-replacing supercharged wifi installations in six NYC boroughs. (The NYC-Citybridge franchise agreement documents can be found here.)

As a result, Google is positioning itself and its partners to build, own and control the network infrastructure of smart cities across American and around the world.

When we looked around for an adequate response to this situation, we didn’t find it in the DOT’s thirty-year survey of of our nation’s transportation future; rather, we found it waiting for us just over sixty years in the past.

1955: In the case of the LinkNYC initiative, NYC used its power to extend franchise rights to private parties when it set up its contract with Citybridge for a period of twelve years. Oakland has this same power as a local government agency responsible for a certain geographical territory. This power is found in ARTICLE X of The Charter of the City of Oakland.

Recognizing as much, the question then becomes, what other power or authority does the City already have that can be used or built upon in order to engineer an alternative to franchise arrangements like LinkNYC–one that results in Oakland owning and maintaining control of its smart city infrastructure, platform, applications and data?

In fact, the kind of investment that Oakland and other mid-size cities are being challenged to make with the support of the DOT in smart transportation systems is not unlike the situation that cities around the country and around the world faced around the middle of the last century. Back then, innovation took the form of financing, constructing, operating and maintaining an adequate supply of “off-street parking facilities”. Today, the City of Oakland owns and maintains control of twenty municipal parking garages and lots, while relying on contractors to help it design, build, operate, maintain and improve them. Article XXVII was added to the City of Oakland Charter for this very reason in 1955.

Today, we need to ask how Article XXVII canempower the City to finance, construct, operate, maintain and continuously improve an “open network and platform” capable of supporting “smart city applications” that begin with transportation solutions and then extend to include other innovative solutions that address public security, housing, law enforcement, fire, safety, healthcare and other challenges. Moreover, that same platform could and should be used for non-essential applications that are developed and sourced by private-sector parties (e.g. Pandora). Again, this is not unlike a municipal parking facility that has more parking stalls than the City requires for its own vehicles; the surplus parking supply or platform capacity can be made available to the public on an occasional or regular basis for a fee or some other consideration as determined by Oakland’s constituents via their elected representatives on the City Council.

I can’t say at this point how much effort it will take to repurpose Article XXVII to support the City’s efforts to become a smart city. It might be as easy as finding and replacing the words “parking facility” with “platform” and then seeking voter approval for the measure.

Beyond this, there will be many other legal, policy and business considerations that must be carefully studied, planned, and carefully executed in order to make TFoS a reality.

However, now that we recognize the similarities between Oakland’s efforts to accommodate the growing number of automobiles for a good part of the 20th century and the effort we are making today with Smart Oakland to usher in a new era that may render many off-street parking facilities unnecessary, I believe we are a lot closer than we were just a few short days ago.

Thank you for giving this open letter a good read and for your continued support of this important endeavor.

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