EI2 Asks: Harnessing the Power of Collaboration

a book cover
The book was released in Spring 2024, by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Empowering Smart Cities through Community-Centered Public Private Partnerships and Innovations was released in Spring 2024 by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Co-edited by longtime colleagues Debra Lam, the founding executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (PIN), and Andrea Fernández, managing director at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the book presents eight case studies from around the world that showcase ways in which cities can harness the power of cooperation to address some of the 21st century’s biggest issues: climate change, digitalization and innovation, economic revitalization, and social inclusion. Here, Lam and Fernández discuss the book in advance of a webinar that shares its name on June 5, 2024.

What is the difference between a traditional public private partnership and a community-centered public private partnership?

a photo of a woman standing in front of a building
Debra Lam, founding executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (PHOTO: Daemon Baizan)

Debra Lam: Community-centered public private partnerships (P3s) are not just based on the funding, financing, and operating big public, physical infrastructure pieces, like bridges and dams. Traditional P3s are ineffective against the the backdrop of the rise of Artificial Intelligence, data, and virtual infrastructure, including how people interact between physical and virtual infrastructures. We mapped out different types of currencies that are needed for this new type of partnership. First, it’s not confined to a fixed, limited period of time. You have to go through a much longer period to really address these complex problems, like climate change. Second, it’s based on relationships. You need a lot more actors, not just public sector and private sector, but also civic society and universities. The biggest currency is relationships and building a coalition of sectors that all contribute.

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Andrea Fernández, managing director at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

Andrea Fernández: One of the things that separates these types of partnerships from the more traditional public private partnerships we’ve seen in the past for infrastructures is its stakeholders coming together, leveraging their resources and experience toward the common good. There’s a shared vision for common good, all around creating stronger, more resilient, greener, healthier cities or places or community. It’s a shared vision, which I think is really key, because these other types of partnerships are dictated by commercial terms, by transactions.

Why is now the right time to introduce readers to this concept?

Lam: There’s a virtual infrastructure that has come about, a technological revolution, so we’re not just living in the physical built environment anymore. There is a whole virtual infrastructure with data and innovations and technologies that we need to account for. The other big driver that sparked the shift is climate change. Within the confines of any one city or community, there have been a lot of shifts regarding the impact of these two factors and what must be done. Andrea and I thought there was a need for a new kind of public private partnership to address the interplay between the physical and the virtual infrastructure, taking into account not only innovation and technology but also ways to address climate change.

How did you decide which projects to feature in the book?

Lam: Not every case study that we looked at was a perfect example of a community-centered public private partnership, and that was intentional, because we wanted to show the process and the outcomes. There were some case studies that had very good intentions — they had all the people together and the vision, but they had difficulty with execution. So there were never any outcomes, but that to us was good, because that showed things that didn’t work and what you could learn from it. Then there were others that had a haphazard startup process but have been durable, and they have been building and improving upon that. What we wanted to show was a variety — at different stages. different development levels, different sizes, different geographies, and different politics — to give people examples to choose from what they see as most relevant. When you pull them together, the sum is greater than each of its individual parts, because you have lessons learned and best practices that can be used for future community-centered public private partnerships.

Can you point to a particular case study that changed your idea of what was possible in this area?

Fernández: One of the youngest of the partnerships we looked at is an initiative in the U.K. called Oh Yes! Net Zero, which is comprised of the Hull City Council; Future Humber, which is the marketing organization for the region; University of Hull; and Reckitt, a large multinational fast-moving consumer goods company that was founded in Hull and has a really strong connection to place. The partnership was formed because the Hull City Council had declared a climate emergency in 2019, but it’s not a huge city and it doesn’t have a lot of resources, and it was clear that there wasn’t a strong enough plan for how to get there.

Reckitt saw the need for bringing stakeholders together to create this initiative, which I would describe as an unincorporated alliance. It’s not a legal entity, but it’s an initiative to bring these partners together so that they could support businesses, including the small SMEs, in not just committing to net zero but actually helping them understand what it means, practically speaking, to reduce your energy use, for example. It was a collective effort, but very much with a strong private sector lead. In the book we reported they got 150 companies to commit, but I believe the number may be a lot closer to 200 now.

Climate change is one of those difficult challenges where you’ve got to set an ambitious target to reduce emissions in line with what science says is needed. In my work, we’ve got cities all over the world saying they need finance, that they need to know how they are going to deliver these ambitious targets. So I was just fascinated that this relatively small city could have such an amazing program to engage its local businesses and its local community. It shows what you can do when you’ve got companies and stakeholders that really care about place and want to do something for that community. You don’t need necessarily need a tremendous amount of resources.

What surprised you most in putting together this book?

Fernández: I think it’s great that three of our longest standing, very successful partnerships — the one in Medellín, Colombia, the one in Gauteng Province in South Africa, and the Malaysia Think City — are all from the Global South, dating back to 2008 and 2009. Leaders recognized back then the need to create these types of institutions — to invest in them, to have them funded — and those are three that get regular funding. It’s pretty impressive to see how long some of these have been around tackling inclusive economic and sustainable development.

Lam: A surprising feature for me was the role of universities in each of these different case studies. There’s a wide breadth of how universities can support these initiatives and the roles they play. Obviously, they’re an important research partner, and they can provide talent, as in students, researchers, and expertise. But having them as a community anchor is also important. They’re at the table because they care about the community, they want to invest in the community. That’s a very different role than what you think of as a university, which has typically been: “We find students and conduct research, but we don’t get involved in this type of stuff.” But it’s crucial that they have a role to play. It’s to their advantage if they are part of that decision making process.

Fernández: I work at a city network organization where we do peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, and that’s the beauty of cities and people who work at this level. They’re happy to learn from the lessons of others and to build on others’ successes. I think it’s exciting that this book is being sold to universities around the world, with the idea that universities think about how they could create these partnerships in their own community and tackle whatever issues matter to those communities. We want to inspire them, and part of that is showing the huge range of models available.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Lam: We practice what we preach. The chapters are all written by teams of authors, so there’s not one chapter that’s just one author. That was very purposeful, because we wanted to tell the story from the private sector and from the public sector, and you can only do that when you bring a group of people from those different perspectives together.

Debra Lam Appointed to U.S. Department of Commerce’s New Internet of Things Advisory Board

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Commerce has appointed Debra Lam, executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, to its new Internet of Things Advisory Board (IoTAB), to advise the Internet of Things Federal Working Group. Lam joins 15 other experts on a board that includes a wide range of stakeholders outside of the federal government with expertise relating to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Debra Lam, executive director, Partnership for Inclusive Innovation

The appointments are the first for the recently established advisory board, which was created in accordance with the requirements of the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, and in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as amended.

The board will advise the federal working group on matters including the identification of any federal regulations, programs or policies that may inhibit or promote the development of IoT; situations in which IoT could deliver significant and scalable economic and societal benefits to the United States, including smart traffic and transit technologies, augmented logistics and supply chains, environmental monitoring, and health care; IoT opportunities and challenges for small businesses; and any IoT-related international opportunities for the U.S. Full details on the board’s activities are provided in a Federal Register notice.

The board consists of 16 members and represents a broad range of disciplines from across academia, industry and civil society. Board members will serve two-year appointments, and all meetings are open to the public.

Launched in 2020, the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation is a public-private organization that was created to lead coordinated, statewide efforts to position Georgia as the leader for innovation, opportunity, and shared economic success. With support from Georgia Tech and a host of private and public partners, including the State of Georgia, the Partnership’s focus pillars of community research, workforce development, student engagement, and economic opportunity are a powerful combination that provide technical and financial support to democratize innovation through collaboration. Among its offerings, and one of the reasons Lam is on the board is the Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation program, which activates collaborations between researchers and municipalities to explore innovative uses of technology and data in pursuit of prosperity for all.

In addition to Lam, the newly appointed members include:

  • Benson M. Chan (Chair), Chief Operating Officer, Strategy of Things Inc.
  • Daniel W. Caprio Jr. (Vice Chair), Co-founder and Chair, The Providence Group
  • Michael J. Bergman, Vice President, Technology and Standards, Consumer Technology Association
  • Ranveer Chandra, Managing Director of Research for Industry and Chief Technology Officer of Agri-Food, Microsoft
  • Nicholas Emanuel, Product Manager, CropX
  • Steven E. Griffith, Senior Industry Director, National Electrical Manufacturers Association
  • Tom Katsioulas, Chair, Global Semiconductor Alliance
  • Kevin T. Kornegay, Professor and IoT Security Endowed Chair, Morgan State University
  • Ann Mehra, Adviser to Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
  • Robby Moss, President and Principal Consultant, TGL Enterprises LLC
  • Nicole Raimundo, Chief Information Officer, Town of Cary, North Carolina
  • Maria Rerecich, Senior Director of Product Testing, Consumer Reports
  • Debbie A. Reynolds, Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Data Privacy Officer, Debbie Reynolds Consulting
  • Arman Shehabi, Staff Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Peter Tseronis, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Dots and Bridges LLC

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will provide administrative support to the advisory board, and information on board activities can be found on the NIST website.

NSF Awards Georgia Tech Researchers with $100K in Civic Innovation Challenge Grants

National Science Foundation-funded competition supports ready-to-implement, research-based pilot projects
with high potential for scalable, sustainable, and transferable impact on community-identified priorities.


Two professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology have each been awarded Civic Innovation Challenge Stage 1 grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further their research in bringing solutions to community problems.


The $50,000 grants, which in addition to the NSF, are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They were awarded in conjunction with the MetroLab Network, a global consortium that includes 28 cities, 6 counties, and 35 universities — including Georgia Tech, a founding member — focused on civic research and innovation.


The two Tech recipients are Pascal Van Hentenryck, the A. Russell Chandler III Chair and Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and Allen Hyde, assistant professor of sociology at the School of History and Sociology in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.


Both researchers’ projects are part of Georgia Tech’s Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation program, which aims to develop innovative approaches to help build resilient and sustainable communities.


“This is an important recognition for our researchers and how Georgia Tech is a leader in incorporating innovation in solving community-level challenges,” said Debra Lam, Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation executive director. “To have two of our projects awarded grants in the two competition categories — communities and mobility, and resilience to natural disasters, underscores the work we are doing has real-world potential to bring quality solutions to some of our most pressing community issues.”


Pascal Van Hentenryck is the A. Russell Chandler III Chair and professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.

Van Hentenryck, who also is associate chair for innovation and entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech, leads the Social Aware Mobility project. Its goal is to increase usage of mass transit systems in metro areas such as Atlanta, by focusing on solutions at the biggest pain points for transit users: the portion of the trips to and from transit stations.


“Transit is very important and giving people greater mobility options is critical for access to job centers and health care,” Van Hentenryck said, explaining the grant will be used to fund the implementation of pilot studies in Gwinnett County and the city of Smyrna.


“Gwinnett County has a very good transit system but it’s also a very large area to cover. The Social Aware Mobility effort is looking at bringing two solutions to the transit challenge,” he said, adding his team’s findings could have broader implications for mass transit systems and planning globally. “The first is getting people to the buses and trains, which have fixed routes, through service options like on-demand shuttles that address the first-leg and last-leg portions of trips.”


Those on-demand shuttles would be flexible both in time and availability and in routes to complement mass transit systems that have fixed routes and schedules. That flexibility would also allow for synchronization of legacy transit systems with those on-demand service options.


The second focus of the Social Aware Mobility project is the development of dynamic pricing algorithms and the implementation of a network of dedicated bus lanes for mass transit commuters. The idea is that those lanes would not be congested at peak travel times — morning and evening rush hour, for example — to keep mass transit as a viable and desirable option to idling in cars on traffic-choked roadways.


Allen Hyde is an assistant professor of sociology at the School of History and Sociology in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech.

Hyde, the sociology professor and other grant principal investigator, is part of a team of professors and grad students from Georgia Tech and Savannah State University. The researchers are working with Harambee House, a non-profit environmental justice organization, and city of Savannah’s Office of Sustainability.


Their work will study the social and physical vulnerabilities of coastal communities — in this case, Savannah, Georgia — and how environmental disasters, such as flooding and hurricanes, affect those communities’ ability to rebound and be resilient.


But a community’s ability to rebound also depends on local policies and practices and implementation, Hyde said. And in historically marginalized communities, such as Savannah’s Hudson Hill area, a working class, predominantly Black neighborhood, there may not be adequate resources to help them recover fully. Hudson Hill is adjacent to the Savannah ports and historically has had environmental concerns related to port activity, challenges with public infrastructure and healthcare, and a lack of job opportunities, which exacerbate the effects of disasters.


“When we think about resilience, whether it’s after a disaster or another event, a lot of the discussion is framed around telling people to just be more resilient,” Hyde said. “But when we think about historically marginalized communities, we’re not often considering what it is that they feel that they need to be resilient to, what does resilience look like for them in their terms, and do they want to return to the way things were?” The researchers intend to use a community-based participatory research model to engage residents as local knowledge experts and co-producers of data and solutions to answer some of these questions.


The discussion around resiliency is often framed as people and communities affected by a disaster returning to a pre-disaster state. “But these communities may not want to return to where things were before,” Hyde said. “They may want to bounce forward into a more thriving, instead of surviving, status.”


“We’re working to understand what resilience and vulnerability to disasters means for residents in historically marginalized communities. We also hope to understand how we can further develop social networks because we believe these communities are already resilient, but networks can enhance the resilience that already exists there,” Hyde said. The teams’ research model and developing tailored solutions to the Hudson Hill community may have applications in other areas across the country that have their own unique sets of challenges to disasters, including towns on the U.S.-Mexico border and Native American communities.


“Here on the Georgia coast, people do care about hurricanes and about flooding,” Hyde said. “But you can’t just think about disasters in isolation without the context. From a community standpoint, you have to think about the historical challenges that these communities face. You really have to think about the bigger picture. Further, residents should be treated as local knowledge experts, and their voices should be heard and valued in planning before and after disasters.”