MetroLab’s 10 Principles for Government + University Partnerships

By Stefania Di Mauro-Nava, Director of External Programs and Communications, MetroLab Network

Stefania Di Mauro-Nava is the Director of External Programs and Communications at MetroLab Network and has dedicated her career to the intersection of science, technology and society.

Oct 9, 2019 | Governance, Society | 1 comment


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For the past several years, there has been a buzz around “smart cities” and what these cities of the future actually are. In general, there seems to be a misconception that smart cities are all about hardware (like sensors) and data, but a true smart city is one that uses that hardware and data to ultimately focus on the needs of its people.

Using tools like algorithms and sensors, smart cities increase the quality of life for their residents, by making these communities cleaner, safer and healthier. When done thoughtfully smart cities efforts can also strive to make cities more inclusive and equitable. At the end of the day, it’s all about the people who live in these communities and making their interactions with city and/or county services easier and better.

Of course, local governments are constantly balancing the need to make resident experiences more positive with constrained budgets and human capital. There is a perception that in order to truly transform into a “smart city”, local officials need to adopt the latest and greatest technology all at once or not at all. This is not only infeasible but can deter officials from thinking through what can be done to make incremental changes to improve services, and by extension, resident experiences with their local government.

MetroLab Network, a local government and university collaborative for civic innovation, helps drive partnerships between local governments and universities. We are poised to help the public sector adapt to rapid technology change and we activate this network of stakeholders through convening, collaboration, and programming.

A large part of MetroLab’s ethos is that these partnerships between local governments and their university partners can be mutually beneficial: the university is the city’s R&D department and the city is the university’s test-bed.

By this we mean that faculty and students get access to real-life laboratories to test advanced approaches aimed at addressing city priorities and challenges while cities, and their residents, benefit from research that leverages digital and information technology, data analytics, sensing, and more.

Through MetroLab Network, we promote these relationships and their work and connect the activities underway across the country on what are often overlapping issues that might otherwise operate independently. A community of practice, MetroLab is committed to the idea of better partnerships for the research, development and deployment of smart city solutions to big local government challenges. MetroLab’s partnerships are leveraging scientific and technological change to drive progress in communities across the country.

For those communities interested in forming and formalizing their own partnerships, MetroLab espouses the following 10 Principles for Successful City/County + University Partnerships:

For Mayors, and University Presidents and Provosts:

  1. Embrace the idea of the city as a “living lab” and the university as a research & development resource
  2. Formalize a partnership between your city/county and university with a memorandum of understanding

For Cities and Counties:

3. Assign a lead point-of-contact at the city/county

4. Identify problems that need to be solved and opportunities for innovation;

For Universities:

5. Assign a lead point-of-contact at the university;

6. Form a multi-disciplinary network managed by the university point-of-contact;

Executing on Research, Development, and Deployment:

7. Find the intersection between city/county priorities and university expertise and identify metrics that will define success on these efforts;

8. Arrange regular, predictable, monthly meetings between the city/county and university points-of-contact;

9. Approach your local business and philanthropic community to support your RD&D efforts; and

10. Engage local community groups as partners.

Even armed with these ten principles, the most important thing to consider when creating these local partnerships is to think about how your unique partnership will take shape and what topic or topics the partnership would like to tackle and focus on as an initial jumping off point.

Amongst MetroLab members, we have partnerships that are focused around:

  • Institutionalizing consortiums of local universities
  • Engaging with strong civic tech communities
  • Formalizing collaborative projects to ensure longevity outside of a specific set of individuals
  • Growing existing partnerships that started based on singular issue and wanted to expand their scope
  • Onboarding neighboring governments and university partners who face similar issues in an effort to further expand benefits across a region
  • Expanding intergovernmental structures seeking to work in a more interdisciplinary format
  • Amplifying specific academic institutes that have applications to local issues

Whichever mechanism used to coalesce around an issue or set of issues, our takeaways for cities and universities that are beginning to think about more integrative and applied research approaches are these: invest in the process; respond to the city’s needs; and support faculty focused on developing actionable research for the city.

If you are interested in exploring topics and issues that university and local governments can help address, we recommend reading through our monthly Innovation of the Month series, in partnership with GovTech, that highlights the excellent work happening across the US.

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. There are valuable ideas here but they are in a context that might cause some concern for those who have been building university-community relations. There is a long history of universities using cities and communities as “living-labs” and it is not pretty. My city is Baltimore where residents are more than wary of this framing. They have been test subjects and pilot areas for failed programs and experiments for decades. University folks advance their careers and their fields without making significant or lasting positive change for those they claim to want to help. The resentment that has resulted is one of the biggest obstacles to new work and the trust it requires. I don’t think this is what the author intends but the language here is a red flag to be sure.

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