scorecardCity-university partnerships are a win-win. Here's how they can best work together to fight climate change and adopt new tech.
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City-university partnerships are a win-win. Here's how they can best work together to fight climate change and adopt new tech.

Erica Sweeney   

City-university partnerships are a win-win. Here's how they can best work together to fight climate change and adopt new tech.
LifeInternational4 min read

  • When cities work together with local universities, they can achieve more than they could alone.
  • Colleges have knowledge, expertise, and research capabilities to tackle issues like climate change.
  • They also sometimes bring funding to the table, which can help when city budgets are stretched thin.

City governments, colleges, and universities all want what's best for their communities. Cities are tasked with responsibilities like adopting new technology and combating climate change, and colleges and universities have knowledge, expertise, and research capabilities to assist with these initiatives. When cities partner with academia, they can find innovative solutions to their most pressing issues.

These partnerships are a "win-win" scenario, said Karen Lightman, the executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's free advice for the city to take or leave," she told Insider. "City-university collaboration gives researchers an opportunity to do something that's meaningful and real-world based."

Here's how partnering with local higher education institutions can help cities become more innovative.

Cities can gain access to expertise

Both public and private colleges and universities are staffed with experts on technology, urban planning, climate change, and other topics that impact cities. They also have teams of students seeking to learn and conduct research. So academia can offer valuable time, energy, and resources that cities sometimes lack.

"It gives that city an opportunity to access expertise and make connections that they wouldn't otherwise have," Lightman said.

For example, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, is partnering with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to map out the urban heat island effect in the city and come up with equitable solutions to reduce the impact of urban heat islands, including on resident health and well-being.

"Local colleges and universities are wonderful partners, and help us with climate-related analyses and planning," Jessica Price, the sustainability and resilience manager at the city of Madison, Wisconsin, told Insider.

The city of San Antonio also has several partnerships with the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Brian Dillard, San Antonio's chief innovation officer, said UTSA helped the city survey residents about broadband connectivity, access to devices, and digital literacy in 2019. The city then used UTSA to identify which questions to ask and how best to analyze the data. The project led to the city's digital-inclusion strategy, which was established in 2021.

"Cities don't always have the capacity to hire data scientists and researchers, so it's an opportunity to leverage universities," he said. "That's where it really adds value."

Cities can serve as a real-world testbed for research

Partnering with cities gives academic researchers a real-world setting to experiment and test solutions, Dillard said. Universities can also find research topics by examining city problems, like flooding or digital inclusion.

"We've got real-world examples and use-case scenarios that we can provide that they can execute on and help us identify the solutions to these things that cities haven't figured out in the past," Dillard said. "They've got really smart people and we've got really smart people, but different types of focuses."

Sometimes colleges and universities bring grant funding to pay for the projects, which helps cities whose budgets only stretch so far. For example, Columbia University secured a $22.5 million National Science Foundation grant in 2018 to build a large-scale wireless testbed in New York City called COSMOS. Academic researchers can use COSMOS to run experiments, test devices and technologies, and give students a real-life lab, and it will expand network connectivity and involve K-12 students in a West Harlem neighborhood.

Dillard said partnering with local institutions of higher education is crucial for cities as they plan their resilience, innovation, and digital transformation strategies. "It's really refining what we think we do really well into something that's even better," he added.

One way for cities and colleges and universities to connect is via MetroLab, Lightman said. The organization was launched as part of the White House Smart Cities Initiative in 2015 and helps create partnerships between local governments and higher education to develop research- and evidence-based policies and help cities with data and technology transformation.

Cities can retain a skilled workforce

Getting involved with the community gives students the opportunity to learn outside the classroom and see how their skills can make a direct impact, said Brittaney Carter, the city of Atlanta's chief technology officer.

"They're giving back while leveraging what they've learned," she said, adding that incorporating new insights from diverse groups of students can lead to unique, innovative solutions for cities.

Atlanta-based Georgia Tech runs Smart Community Corps, a summer program that pairs the students from Georgia Tech and other colleges and universities in Georgia to work on real smart-city projects across the state. For example, students have worked on a traffic monitoring project in Valdosta and smart-pedestrian planning in Clayton County.

Working on city projects also shows students that public service is a career option, Lightman said. Students may choose to live and work in the city after graduation once they've been involved in a partnership, which helps municipalities retain talented residents and benefits the community in the long run.

Having a partnership with the city also gives colleges and universities a presence in the community, which creates opportunities to recruit locals as future students. This enables cities to retain future generations of residents, and educational institutions gain students who deeply care about their communities.

"It's good for universities to have a relationship with the community that it lives in," Lightman said. "It's good for students. They love working locally."