Autonomous cars running along the Lake Oswego trolley line?
It could happen.
The Greater Portland Tech Challenge is underway, looking for ideas for improving Portland's transportation system. Instead of running the event on Feb. 28 as the usual pitchfest, where companies name their own challenge and how they would address it, the GPTC is different.
It is soliciting challenges from public agencies around "complex issues relating to mobility in the Greater Portland region." Then the tech firms are given a month to work on their responses before the day of pitching.
They are still looking for participants on both sides.
"The goal is to create public-private partnerships," said Skip Newberry, President and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon, a local nonprofit. TAO is partnering with GPI to alert tech companies to the event.
On the public side are transit agencies and other government and community organizations. On the private side are transportation-focused companies, but the challenge is open to any tech company.
Three of the region's public-sector transit leaders ODOT, WSDOT and Metro have already signed up with mobility challenges.
Newberry told the Business Tribune that the organizers of the challenge are "at least having conversations with" some of the biggest names in tech, such as Amazon and Microsoft.
"There are opportunities for them to have direct relationships with government agencies and to partner with smaller companies and earlier stage companies." He added that the real focus of the event is connecting public and private entities, breaking down the silos between the two and "raising awareness of what the public sector is thinking around leverage through leadership around transportation."
He has found that the problem with such events is participants feel they have had breakthroughs, but the follow through is not structured and often little comes of it.
TAO and GPI will act as matchmakers for the agencies and companies. They will meet in small group sessions after the morning five-minute pitches, and will set a roadmap for delivering a concept or pilot. That delivery will happen in front of an international audience at the national Global Cities Team Challenge Tech Jam, June 20-22 in Portland.
Newberry expects the challenges to focus on last mile delivery as well as freight. Portland's clogged roads slow down freight and can deter companies from doing business here, despite GPi's wooing them.
"They'll have a light at the end of the tunnel to work toward, and we'll all have the opportunity to talk about best practices in front of an international audience."
Newberry thinks three months is enough to get something done. The discussions are all informal and pre-RFP (request for proposals) stage.
He believes private companies often need to learn about the formal procurement procedures of local agencies.
"Cities have relatively antiquated procurement procedures that might work for a bridge but when it comes to new technology, they're not the most agile."
Public workers need a guaranteed budget and team, so that the work isn't buried under a to-do list.
"Another nice thing is the tech executives live here and they confront the challenges of mobility every day. It's not just a contract to them, it's 'How can we improve the region?'"
They started with the planners, to find out the business cases and the policies, and only then hope to move to the technology. The idea is to avoid technology in search of a solution syndrome.
Newberry hopes that the next iteration will include a social media element which allows for crowdsourcing. "One of the challenges is always civic engagement, how do you get more widespread feedback?"
"It's up to each one to decide if they want to monetize the solution," Lloyd Purdy, GPI vice president of regional competitiveness told the Business Tribune. "This is more about making that first date style connection between public sector and private industry than investment gurus."
He noticed that there isn't one single regional challenge so far. Seven have been accepted and they vary widely.
WASHDOT wants to use technology to link different modes of transport — something more other than Google Maps. Another firm suggested using the barely used Lake Oswego to Portland trolley line a place to test autonomous vehicles.
GPI has spent the last two months collecting challenge statements.
"This is not a pop quiz or a hackathon. We want the tech industry forewarned and prepared to explain why they are the right firm to choose," he said. He added that some of the tech firms can solve multiple problems, such as engineering form AECOM.
"The audience of tech firms will have a dance card and they'll be rating which agencies they want to work with."
Metro's challenge is about equity and giving better access to mobility though technology.
"The region is known for transportation solutions, for the Streetcar, MAX lines and Parking Kitty, Globesherpa or Moovel... those all came out of Portland."
Other subjects for future annual tech challenges could be health tech and fitness.
"If it's successful we'll grow it and it will be more about our core values of 2020 which are equity and inclusion. I want to see more community groups working with us. There's where we're going to improve in future years. Next year it could be mobility plus technology plus inclusivity, or tech plus health plus inclusivity."
He hopes everyone has at least one follow up meeting, and he hopes for solutions that include hardware design and engineering instead of just software.
"We're moving the conversation out of the normal world of transportation thinking and asking the problem solvers what they think."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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