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Financing the future of our cities

construction workers overlooking a city street
April 24, 2014

The promise of technology-driven, “smart” cities offers a genuine opportunity to improve the livability of the world’s cities, but the challenge of financing infrastructure updates can be daunting.

A new report released by the Smart Cities Council and Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation outlines some of the most promising tools to help cities improve the efficiency of large-scale systems, such as water and transportation, to smaller projects.

“Knowledge of financial instruments and the processes to engage in sustainable financing of technologies is vital, yet few know how to navigate these complexities,” says Kevin Desouza, associate dean for research in the College of Public Programs at ASU. “This guide provides practitioners, whether it be local governments or businesses, with an insight into the myriad of financial options that one can use to underwrite investments in smart technologies.”

“The problem is rarely the technology, which has been proven in thousands of projects around the world,” said Smart Cities Council chairman Jesse Berst. “So often, the biggest barrier is how to pay for it.”

The findings in the guide, which outlines 28 tools for municipal financing, will be a focal point of discussion at the upcoming ASU Annual Public Finance Conference on May 8-9. Berst and Sandra Baer, director, public sector transformation and research, Smart Cities Council, will lead the opening panel discussion.

“More than two dozen creative techniques have emerged in recent years. Arizona State University was the perfect partner to develop this guide, given their international reputation for insight into municipal governments and finance,” Berst says.

Addressing a changing landscape

While the federal government is the leading source for public financing, alternative approaches are increasing.

“Financial capacity in the public sector is one of the key challenges in governance,” says Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Programs. “We are looking at innovative approaches to help city officials implement the infrastructure needed to build strong communities.”

“This is an issue that affects local and global communities. This conference is one of the many ways we bring together researchers and practitioners to discuss solutions and implement best practices,” says Koppell.

At the conference, keynote speaker Georgia Levenson Keohane, a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, will explore innovations in the public finance space, including novel approaches to financing for catastrophe bonds and the growing use of social impact bonds and pay-for-success in social finance.

Complexities in the financing sector go beyond navigating the options. The Securities and Exchange Commission implemented new rules and regulations governing municipal bond disclosure.

Other sessions will bring experts from around the country to discuss their experience with large-scale projects, including sports and amenities and transit financing.

The closing session will be led by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s incoming director, Thom Reilly, who will address current challenges in financing public pensions. Reilly formerly served as county manager and CEO of Clark County, Nevada’s most populated county with 1.8 million people.

For more information on the ASU Public Finance Conference, visit