18 May 2016


Our last day in New York City focused on data driven solutions to urban problems. We focused on the role of the private sector in forming solutions and partnering with government to deliver them; and the role of philanthropy in building the capacity of elected leaders so they are best able to utilise the data driven solutions availble for their pressing urban problems. The Exchange is presented by the Future Cities Collaborative, an initiative of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Our last day in New York City focused on data driven solutions to urban problems. We started at Sidewalk Labs, part of the Alphabet/Google family, where Chief Policy Officer Rit Aggarwala, and Research Associate Marie Buckingham, launched the delegation of the US – Australia City Exchange on Innovation Ecosystems into the digital phase of the urban revolution which will underpin the 21st Century economy and provide the amenity for citizens living in innovation precincts and beyond.

Sidewalk Labs

Rit Aggrawala and Marie Buckingham of Sidewalk Labs address the delegation

The focus of Sidewalk Labs is the application of data and technology to make cities work, identifying opportunities to provide solutions, and forming companies to support that work. The initial projects of Sidewalk Labs include Flow, a platform to promote the smart optimisation of transit, and LinkNYC, a commercial solution to bridge the digital divide and repurpose out-dated infrastructure to connect citizens with super-fast public Wi-Fi.

In a deal with City of New York, Intersection (a company spawned by Sidewalk Labs), in partnership with a consortium of experts in technology, media, user experience and connectivity, will replace the underutilised pay-phone system with new structures called Links. Each Link will provide superfast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for Internet browsing, access to city services, maps and directions. Funded by advertising space sold to neighbouring businesses over the 12 year franchise deal, over 7,500 coin operated pay phones in New York City will be turned into Links, and will transmit free public Wi-Fi to citizens and visitors and a physical interface to access city services and the digital world.

“We have bridged the digital divide for citizens,” says Rit, as the guiding principle behind LinkNYC is not the device, but an innovative and community-first approach to providing essential services to the whole city. For many, a $100 a month broadband contract is a luxury. LinkNYC removes this barrier and provides access to services and information for all citizens regardless of access to a smartphone, broadband contract, or connection to a protected Wi-Fi network.


Experimenting with a Link on 3rd Ave.

Future uses of the ultra fast gigabit Wi-Fi network, which will be seamless across the city when fully deployed, are almost endless with citizen interaction, sensor use, and equality of access to all, acting platform to provide real insights into city life.

Sandra Baer

Sandra Baer from Personal Cities joined the delegation over lunch to discuss smart cities approaches. 

From Sidewalks Labs, we travelled uptown to be hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Among many aims, Bloomberg Philanthropies fosters innovation in local government and helps elected leaders solve problems and improve city life. The Government Innovation team’s mission is to give cities the support they need to innovatively and successfully overcome pressing urban issues. They promote public sector innovation capacity and spread proven and promising solutions among cities worldwide. They are also strong supporters and encouragers the use of Open Data as an enabler for innovation and civic leadership.

Katie Appel Duda

Katie Appel Duda from Bloomberg Philanthropies

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we heard from Katie Appel Duda, from the Government Innovation Team, and Simone Brody, Executive Director of What Works Cities initiative. The Government Innovation Teams are dedicated teams that help mayors generate better approaches to problems and track their progress and impact. The teams rely on data, design thinking, and strong performance management to achieve their goals, and are currently in the expansion phase of taking their proven approaches and methodologies to scale across the United States and Israel.

In addition to the Government Innovation Teams, Bloomberg Philanthropies has launched a dedicated program to build capacity within civic leaders and promote innovation solutions to urban problems. The What Works Cities initiative, launched in April 2015, is a national initiative to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making, and engage residents. There are currently 27 cities in the program, who receive expert advice and guidance from Bloomberg Philanthropies and their partners, and who form an active national network of civic leaders who share learnings, advice, and assist in developing best practices for effective city government.

Bloomberg Philanthropies

Our delegates listen to Simone Brody discuss What Works Cities

Our final stop in New York and for the Exchange was with our sponsor, AECOM. This was an opportunity for all our delegates to debrief, share insights, and hear the perspective of AECOM in building cities that foster innovation, economic development, and enhance the civic fabric demanded of 21st century life. Special thanks must go to our New York hosts from AECOM: Tom Scerbo, Vice President, New York Business Unit Leader – Buildings and Places; Gonzalo Cruz, Principal and Design Director, Landscape and Urban Design Studio Leader; and Geoffrey Lynch, Vice President and Director of Architecture, New York Metro; and many others from AECOM New York for hosting us and contributing to the dialogue around cities, innovation, and what lessons there are for Australia from our new friends in New York. Thanks also to James Rosenwax, Market Sector Director for Cities from AECOM’s Sydney office for driving the conversation and pulling together the links between New York’s experiences and Australia’s visions for building innovative, dynamic and competitive 21st cities.


Wrapping up with perspectives from our sponsor, AECOM

Thank you to all of our New York partners for generously hosting our delegation, especially Marie Buckingham and Katie Appel Duda. A special thanks to AECOM and their New York office for sponsoring the United States – Australia City Exchange on Innovation Ecosystems.

(Hero Image Credit:


Sponsored by: AECOM


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