City of Tomorrow offers unique initiative for GR

The recently announced City of Tomorrow platform presents a unique opportunity for the city of Grand Rapids, and partners on the project said it’s the first program of its kind to debut in a midsize city.

Ford announced a partnership with the city of Grand Rapids, PlanetM, The Right Place and other corporate stakeholders to launch the City of Tomorrow Challenge on July 23. The eight-month challenge asks Grand Rapids residents to collaborate and offer solutions to boost the city’s mobility infrastructure, with the winning ideas receiving $100,000 to run a pilot.

Trevor Pawl, vice president of PlanetM, the mobility arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, said the organization’s goal in this initiative is to push for greater mobility technology by matching corporations with cities.

“We have 96 of the top 100 North American auto suppliers in and around Southeast Michigan, so it’s important that they understand PlanetM, and they get it,” Pawl said. “It’s about getting real technology on the roads … and Grand Rapids is the natural next step.”

Pawl said emerging technologies are going to put autonomous vehicles on the road very soon, and the change could “drastically” impact Michigan’s overall economy.

“How are we going to adjust as an economy? PlanetM was set up to begin to brand the state as this global epicenter for mobility, because we are, but also create an active business development platform to help companies begin to connect with those great startups,” he said.

Ford already announced two weeks ago that it was launching the same program in Miami and Pittsburgh.

When PlanetM found out Ford was scoping out cities to test its platform, Pawl said the organization spoke with them “actively” to bring the same approach to Michigan. Ford also had previously done a beta test of the challenge in Detroit, Pawl said.

“We began to talk about some of (Ford’s) strategic objectives and how they wanted to try this in a midsized city,” Pawl said.

The initiative also has a personal touch for John Kwant, vice president of Ford City Solutions, who said he spent his younger years in the greater Grand Rapids area.

“I’ve been here during rush hours, and they’re not fun,” Kwant said. “But in cities that are even larger, they’re for extended periods of time.”

Kwant said Ford intended to launch the City of Tomorrow challenge in cities of various sizes and with different growth trajectories.

“If you look at the three cities we’ll be working with, they’re all very different,” Kwant said, “but all of them have the commitment and the understanding that if the city is going to continue to grow … they’re going to have to figure out a way to keep people moving freely in order to do that.”

Some of the questions Kwant said came up between Ford and the city were how to make transit “cool again” for people who don’t use it and how to encourage ride share.

“I think what cities are looking at now, especially as they envision — as do we — a more autonomous future, is how do you prepare the city for that future?” Kwant said.

Increase in ride share is one of these preparations, and Kwant also noted the need to increase the productivity of autonomous vehicles to one another. Right now, vehicles can operate independently but revert to safety when they have trouble identifying other variables on the road.

“It really needs to work with the other objects in its system to find parking, to merge and to flow freely,” he said.

As a midsized city in the selection process, Pawl said Grand Rapids presents several variables that Pittsburgh and Miami don’t, including high amounts of congested traffic and poor access to public transit compared to other cities.

“When you think about persons with disabilities — veterans, the elderly — what are we doing to address their needs too as this technology offers new options to get around?” he said.

This also is the first time PlanetM has partnered on a project in a city of Grand Rapid’s size, presenting the challenge of properly scaling solutions as well as working on a small budget of $100,000.

“It’s not a ton, so we’re only going to be able to select multiple pilots; not several, just a couple,” Pawl said.

But he added Grand Rapids has a “great infrastructure,” making it fertile ground for advanced mobility, as well as a “heritage of design thinking.”

“It’s the right makeup of talent and the right makeup of citizen that I think Ford is looking for in this challenge,” Pawl said.

Since announcing the City of Tomorrow challenge in Miami three weeks ago, Kwant said Ford already has received recommendations from at least a couple hundred residents, mostly to encourage a more bike-friendly infrastructure.

“It’s a really good platform for collaborating because the community is not only getting ideas from residents but also globally,” he said.

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