Innovation Thrives When Governments Embrace Next-Gen Public-Private Partnerships

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By rethinking how sectors collaborate and encouraging long-term institutional relationships, communities can get the most out of technology projects, one expert said.

For innovation to have long-term benefits for communities, leaders should embrace “next generation public-private partnerships” that value relationships between institutions, one expert said this week.

Instead of being focused purely on funding projects, the next generation of P3s, or “P3 2.0,” should emphasize building relationships among a community’s anchor institutions and advocating for the use of new technology and innovation to help solve a community’s problems. 

With a long-term goal of fostering greater trust between governments, academia, businesses and residents, these next-gen P3s support “shared economic prosperity through innovation," said Debra Lam, founding executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation and previously the managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Speaking at Nextgov and GCN’s Emerging Tech and Modernization Summit, Lam said that innovation “can happen anywhere by anyone,” not just by startups.

For communities to reap the rewards of innovation, Lam said barriers to entry must be lowered. That includes removing any challenges around a lack of funding or expertise that could constrain some projects.

For its grants to communities big and small across Georgia, the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, for example, combines funding with a hands-on learning program for students and early-career professionals who receive either internships or one-year fellowships to work on the projects. The Partnership evenly divides the fellowships between public and private sector projects.

The program helps communities innovate and gives participants opportunities to gain expertise in areas like cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, manufacturing and supply chains as well as mentorship and networking. And Lam said it hopefully will create the next generation of public officials.

“They're also learning how to fluidly navigate around different sectors, different organizations, different cultures, different agendas,” she said. It also helps create a stronger partnership between the grant awardee and funding agency that is essential for effective collaboration. Lam said that it’s “not enough for us to give you a grant and expect an annual impact report.” Instead, there must be deeper bonds.

One example of the Partnership’s inclusive approach to innovation came in Valdosta, Georgia, which retrofitted all 121 of its traffic lights to do preemptive signaling to allow first responders priority through intersections. That project also required the fitting of vehicle-to-infrastructure technology onto fire trucks and other public safety vehicles, Lam said.

The successful collaboration between the city, as well as researchers at Georgia Tech and Valdosta State Universities saved up to 10 seconds in emergency response times. Some of the project’s lessons were also integrated into the VSU engineering department’s curriculum.

That project in Valdosta and others like it get away from what Lam said is the “misleading” and sometimes traditional approach where municipal leaders may “start with the technology,” which they think is a “silver bullet.”

“We’d rather start with a problem,” Lam continued. “Whatever the community problem is, start with the community at large, have them tell us what the problem is, have us better understand the local context we need to do our homework.”

When those pilot projects are successful and the bonds between various institutions grow stronger, Lam said, it has the long-term benefit of nurturing “a thriving community with diverse multisectoral anchor institutions all supporting the wellbeing of that community.”