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Twin Cities, U of M partner to drive growth through tech

Officials from Minneapolis and St. Paul signed onto a $160 million federal initiative using technology to help cities nationwide boost economic growth, sustainability and competitiveness.

The Smart Cities program, a product of the Obama administration launched Monday afternoon, urges collaboration between proven innovators – like university researchers and entrepreneurs – and cities to tackle barriers preventing higher quality of life and more robust development.

St. Paul and Minneapolis will work with the University of Minnesota. As part of a network of more than 20 cities that opted into the initiative, they’ll work together to leverage technology to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure, better deliver services and prop up the regional economy.

Neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul outlined specific plans. Instead, they spotlighted previous joint efforts between cities and universities that focused on transportation and infrastructure, including projects that increased efficiency and reduced the environmental impact of water and other systems.

“Every community is different, with different needs and approaches. But communities that are making the most progress on these issues have some things in common,” Obama said in a statement. “They don’t look for a single silver bullet. Instead, they bring together local government and nonprofits and businesses and teachers and parents around a shared goal.”

The move comes as the world’s urban population grows. Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, according to government figures, and a sustained rush to city centers will add 2.5 billion residents by 2050. The U.S. won’t see the sharpest increase, but its cities will get a population boost.

On any scale, an increasing urban population poses new environmental and infrastructure challenges. But technology offers a gateway to mitigating risk and streamlining solutions.

A central focus of the program will be the so-called “Internet of things” that syncs smartphones and other devices with appliances and sensors, and offers a new spin on analytics. In New York City, a fledgling initiative to outfit a neighborhood with first-of-its-kind monitoring technology could be a model for other communities to gauge and parse energy use, traffic patterns and other data.

To support Smart Cities research and solutions-based investments, the Obama administration announced more than $160 million in federal funding, including from a series of government agencies.

The Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration will funnel $10 million into the effort. That contribution will specifically back research commercialization and entrepreneurship on a regional basis, with a focus on startups that have a direct impact on a given community’s most pressing problems.

Funding from that agency will also support the development of open-source software that uses census data to make it easier for developers to make applications that align with Smart Cities goals.

Aside from the federal contributions, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided $1 million earmarked for the part of the program that links cities with universities.

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