Breakout Cities

Is Reimagining Public Procurement the Key to Building Better Cities?

Is Reimagining Public Procurement the Key to Building Better Cities?

Cities: we’re adding 3 million more people to them each week, and they account for 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions. That means cities are largely responsible for climate change and will face the most extreme consequences of it at the same time.

Beyond climate change, cities are home to inequities that trap millions of people in poverty, hurting city economies, community wellness, and quality of life.

Dr. Jonathan Reichental, author of Smart Cities for Dummies, summed it up last week, by paraphrasing the words of Tim O’Reilly: “...building better cities will be the grand project of the 21st century.”

Government procurement, though perhaps not the most exciting topic of conversation, is an inescapable, and crucial part of that city building.

Reichental broke down examples of cities’ biggest obstacles into four main categories:

  1. Transportation challenges
    Eighty percent of cities in the world are growing, and 30-40 percent of carbon emissions are from cars. We can’t just keep adding more cars to our roads, we need something new.
  2. Poor air quality
    According to the World Health Organization, about eight million people die because of poor air quality, directly or indirectly.
  3. Homelessness and poverty
    About 500,000 people in the U.S. and over 230,000 people in Canada are experiencing homelessness, most of whom live in cities.
  4. Rising temperatures and extreme weather
    Global temperatures are rising fast, bringing on more and more bouts of extreme weather, especially threatening to coastline cities.  

We have many of the technologies to fix these: new energy sources, autonomous and internet connected devices, sensors, drones, and more. Smart city tech not only can solve these problems, but can also unlock huge economic growth.

Smart cities are projected to generate a value of over $2 trillion by 2025.

We have the tools, but actually getting them in our streets, schools, workplaces, restaurants, grocery stores, and malls is a whole other challenge. 

Reichental is clear about what makes up part of the solution: better public procurement. That means cities need to reconsider the systems on which they rely, and reexamine whether they’re getting the results we need in order to rapidly deploy smart city technologies. 

“We can’t operate in a 20th century model, when we live in a world of the 21st century,” Reichental said. 

A few of his suggestions for local government:

  1. Adopt new tools: New procurement tools, and tools to better manage government work, have to be brought into town halls. As a massive investment in America’s infrastructure comes to cities, software that streamlines procurement will help them get bang for their buck. 
  2. Retrain workforce: City staff must be retrained to use contemporary tools and processes, and learn completely new skills, like data science. 
  3. Make new rules: Reichental suggests developing a whole new set of rules for government procurement that can accelerate the usual process to procure innovative tech, which can often take a minimum of one year.
  4. Incentivize public-private partnerships: Cities can partner with private industry and academia to transform cities. We need to think of ways to encourage and facilitate those partnerships through new programs and engagement platforms. 
  5. Prioritize innovation: Innovation and the procurement of new innovative tech, can sometimes be an afterthought for city governments - something extra to focus on when the basics are taken care of. For Reichental, innovation has to be a top priority for local governments from now on.

Cities are facing unprecedented challenges - unprecedented solutions are the only way forward. Coming up with new ways to procure smart city technology is the bridge between the two.

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