How Government Agencies Can Better Support Technological Advancements

Access to infrastructure is one way to give engineers a true testing ground for their ideas

20 January 2015

Photo: Center For Data Innovation

Sokwoo Rhee [right], associate director at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md., spoke at a recent panel on how policymakers can help advance innovation.
Governments traditionally have pursued two primary means to advance innovation: funding and regulation. Some call them the carrot and the stick approach. A third approach, which was discussed during the recent panel convened by the Center for Data Innovation, in Washington, D.C., is to provide innovators with a “playground,” so to speak, to test out their ideas in the real world.  

Led by Sokwoo Rhee, associate director for cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md., the panel spurred discussion about how governments at all levels can effectively promote innovation. His use of the word “playground” reflects more than a simple shift in nomenclature. It’s about providing inventors the opportunity to implement their projects outside of the lab, and on a much grander scale. This is especially useful for those working on smart-city technologies as well as with intelligent vehicles.

Having access to streetlights, public buses and public buildings, and other types of infrastructure would be an ideal test bed, or playground, for engineers. Here they can try out their technologies, modifying them based on real-life results, as well as improving their interoperability, and illustrate the value of their innovations to the public.

Some local governments are already experimenting with this concept. In Maryland’s Montgomery Country, a team of engineers and technologists from organizations such as AT&T, IBM, and MIT are working to implement an automated emergency alert system with remote sensor monitoring, which could help first responders reach people sooner when an incident occurs.


To encourage more projects like this one, the Global City Teams Challenge was created by NIST with the help of US Ignite, a nonprofit organization with a mission to advance next-generation networking, in Washington, D.C. More than 30 teams are working on projects related to energy, public safety, and transportation with a focus on Internet-of-Things technologies in order to better connect people and things. The challenge is part of an effort to accelerate IoT innovations and establish “playgrounds” for them to be tested, refined, and deployed.

The National Science Foundation also recently announced it will provide up to US $300,000 for projects that pursue “novel research on effective integration of networked computer systems and physical devices that will have significant impact in meeting the challenges of the smart city.”  

For those who want to get involved in the Global City Teams Challenge, registration is still open. Teams will present their projects to those in attendance, including government officials and the press, in June. (Read about last year’s event to learn more.)

Glenn Ricart is the founder and chief technology officer of US Ignite, a nonprofit organization with a mission to advance next-generation networking, based in Washington, D.C.

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