Smart Cities

Smart City PDX is Portland’s plan to bring residents into tech policymaking

The office was created in 2016 and has several initiatives to solicit feedback from residents on tech policy.
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Luís Henrique Boucault/Getty Images

· 5 min read

The Department of Transportation’s 2015 Smart City Challenge meant different things for different applicants.

For the winner, Columbus, Ohio, it was maybe best described as exciting, but overambitious. For Pittsburgh, one of six finalists, it was just the beginning of a long road to building out smart traffic-management infrastructure.

And for Portland, Oregon—another contest finalist—it sparked an eventual shift in the city’s posture toward smart-city projects, according to Kevin Martin, the current head of Portland’s Smart Cities program, who also worked on the 2016 proposal. Specifically, the city has tried to become more aligned with what experts say is now becoming conventional wisdom: Cities should prioritize the functional over the flashy.

In recent years, the city has kicked off programs that invite city residents to participate in its tech policy-making, at times even paying residents to get involved. Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of Oregon-based World Privacy Forum, told Emerging Tech Brew that the city has really “gone the extra mile” to engage its citizens and collect their input when developing data and tech policies that will affect them.

From “smart” to Smart

Portland’s 2016 proposal was—like many others at the time—centered around autonomous vehicles. It planned to focus on three corridors in the city, in which city officials planned to deploy more than 2,000 safety and air-quality sensors that could be paired with improved lighting, laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles to “see” better. Ultimately, the city installed 300 of these sensors, Martin said, and the project cost just over $1 million.

“We put together a proposal for $50 million [in 2016] and very little of it was informed by what the community wanted,” Martin told Emerging Tech Brew. “I think all of us realized after the fact that that was not ideal, and that the fact that we didn’t have community at the table in a way that we could quickly put together a proposal for $50 million was indicative of the larger problem of community really not being involved in data and technologies in the city, and really not having any avenue to be involved in those types of decisions.”

After Portland failed to win the challenge in 2016, the city government consolidated the work it was doing into Smart City PDX, a group that manages the city’s smart-city programs and projects. Smart City PDX is housed within Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and today, it has three staff members and a FY 2021–22 budget of $616,461.

In 2019, Smart City PDX created Community Leads, a program that recruits ordinary residents to give feedback and learn from city officials how the city’s smart-city division operates. The hope is that embedding a rotation of residents in the program will enable better dialogue between city government and the people who live there. The program, now in its third iteration, invites up to six people to work in the office, with a 20-hour-per-month schedule, paid at $100 an hour for nine months.

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“[We had] to figure out mechanisms to bring community to the table and not just bring them to the table and tell them what we think they they need, but bring them to the table as true partners,” Martin said, “Which means a lot of digital literacy, a lot of a lot of information sharing, and a lot of us really transferring power that comes from an understanding of data and technology, to community members who have been on the other side of that power dynamic for a very long time.”

The city has used the program to help gain input on initiatives like its surveillance-technologies policy, which it is planning to release this summer, after wrapping up a multi-step community-engagement process that kicked off last June.

“There is not any such thing as a perfect policy; it will never exist. Never,” Dixon said. “The right thing to do, really, is to bring the community in, fit the policy to its exact municipal context, and then have a really good team that you train on the ground and work with them to have them become local experts. As time goes on, you look to grow that expertise. You hope that the policy is a living document, but it grows and changes with time.”

In 2020, the office played an instrumental role in the city’s groundbreaking ban of facial recognition both for city departments—including law enforcement—and private business, over concerns the technology would disproportionately affect minority and disadvantaged populations.

Smart City PDX also partnered with the city’s Office of Community Technology in 2020 to develop a $5 million program funded by the CARES Act, which provided laptops, internet access, and culturally-specific training to members of 24 community organizations in underserved and underrepresented communities in the city. The city also managed to acquire an additional $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding in mid-March 2022, which it plans to use to purchase additional laptops and tablets for Portland residents.

The city has also tried a number of more traditional smart-city projects, including working with data management company Replica, a spin-off of Google’s Sidewalk Labs focused on transit data, to improve traffic conditions in the city. In February 2021, Portland parted ways with Replica due to “disputes over data quality and transparency, access, privacy and equity,” according to RedTail.

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