Global call for ideas reveals promising resilience solutions

After Hurricane Sandy took the lives of dozens of New Yorkers, left millions more without power, and caused $19 billion of damage within the five boroughs alone, the need to protect the city from future disasters became all too apparent. Since the storm, government officials, business leaders, and community groups alike have been seeking better ways to protect people and property.

One initiative, the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s RISE : NYC program, used a competition-based model to source innovative technological solutions from around the globe. We spoke with Lara Croushore, who led the effort.

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What is RISE : NYC?

We developed the RISE : NYC program in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. New York’s small businesses are the backbone of our economy, but they were disproportionately impacted by Sandy. They often lack the resources to invest in resiliency measures, leaving them vulnerable to future storms.

There were a number of resiliency programs out there to support business recovery through traditional means, such as loan programs for widely available off-the-shelf commercial solutions. But there weren’t any that pushed the envelope to find better, more innovative ways to prepare for the effects of climate change. So we launched RISE : NYC, which is a $30 million program to support business recovery and resiliency by providing New York City’s small businesses with free, innovative, cost-effective resiliency technologies and solutions.

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Solar installation in the Bronx developed by RISE : NYC winner Bright Power

The first phase of the program involved a global competition to identify and select technologies. We looked for technologies in three categories: energy, telecom, and building systems. These categories were chosen because they represented critical areas that suffered significant damage during Sandy. We received over 200 applications from over 20 countries around the world and selected 11 technology winners in April. Those winners will share up to $30 million to install their technologies at local small businesses.

Now we’re moving into the implementation phase and are working with the winners and small businesses to implement the projects across New York City. It’s a really exciting time to see the projects come to life.

We really see the program as benefiting both the tech providers and the small business project sites. Companies that have developed new technologies get the break they need, the opportunity to demonstrate their innovative solutions. We believe that having real-world test cases will make it easier for them to scale their products and create a big impact. And small businesses in flood zones around the city that are still recovering from Sandy will be better prepared for whatever comes next.

How does this compare to resiliency initiatives happening in other parts of the world? Have other cities been doing similar things, or have you had people reach out from other places to see if something like this could work there?

I think we created an innovative model for identifying new technologies and sourcing new ideas. We started by outlining the problems rather than predefining solutions. And we used a multiphase application process, which allowed us to incorporate feedback into the design of additional application rounds.

We also used a fairly simple web-based application and relied heavily on social media to cast a wide net globally.

This was not your typical federal RFP process. We wanted something that felt accessible and let applicants invest their time and energy in putting forward strong proposals rather than interpreting federal regulations and legalese. We hope the process we set up can act as a model both in the US and internationally.

This is a program about innovation — not just technological innovation but also process innovation.

In terms of similar programs, a lot of really great post-Sandy programs have followed a competitive process: Rebuild by Design and the NY Prize, for example. So the practice of sourcing great ideas through competition is really taking hold.

And we meet fairly regularly with delegations from around the world that are very interested in how we went about this program. Not surprisingly, the countries that are most interested are low-lying countries that face these types of challenges more regularly, like Denmark and the Netherlands.

Can you tell us about one solution that you found particularly interesting or that speaks to the strengths of this procurement model?

They’re all so unique and interesting!

I think goTenna is an excellent example of a homegrown solution that was developed in direct response to Sandy. Two young entrepreneurs who were frustrated by the inability to communicate during the storm developed a small device that pairs wirelessly with any Bluetooth phone and allows you to text even when all communication lines are down. It’s a great example of a low-cost and easily deployable solution that can have a tremendous impact. We think this one has huge potential.

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goTenna

Then there’s the Red Hook Initiative and New America — their mesh networks are fantastic, both in terms of providing resilient communication and also for their workforce development programs. Through their digital stewards programs, they train local residents to install and maintain the networks.

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Red Hook Initiative at the RISE : NYC awards ceremony

There’s also a consortium down in the Rockaways called Home Free. Their proposal is very interesting in that it spans several of our technology categories. They propose to combine technologies into a kit of parts to provide a comprehensive resiliency solution, including backup power, mobile phone boosters, and flood-protection measures. Not only that, the businesses where they intend to work have also agreed to act as a community resource during emergency situations. The team is aiming to create a network of community resiliency nodes throughout the Rockaways.

The Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy.

The Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy

So even though it was an international competition, a number of the winning ideas came out of locals responding to Sandy. Where were the farthest-flung winners from?

Yes, we had a lot of homegrown solutions, which was exciting to see.

As for far-flung technologies, we received applications from over 20 countries around the world and from over 20 US states. Among the winners, Flood Panel’s floodgate was developed in Florida, where storms and flooding are more of an everyday reality in some places.

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Flood panel installation

Go Electric’s blinkless technology was developed in Indiana and is being installed at a Department of Defense facility in Hawaii as part of a microgrid program.

NYC Daylighting is based in the Rockaways, but I believe the Solatube daylighting technology itself was developed in the UK.

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Solatube installation from NYC Daylighting

What current technology trends did the competition entries reveal?

The applications we received in our energy category primarily focused on providing clean, reliable, resilient power to keep the lights on even when the grid is down. I think this was in response to the system-wide failures seen during Sandy for grid-tied energy assets like solar.

Solar installation by competition winner UGE

Solar installation by competition winner UGE

The majority of the solar systems installed in New York City will not work when the power grid is down. This is because the inverters disconnect the systems to prevent backfeeding onto the grid. So when the power went out during Sandy, you had people with solar panels on their roofs that were completely useless. All of this is to say that it wasn’t surprising that we saw a lot of proposals for building-scale microgrids, or nanogrids, that are able to power critical loads even when the grid is down.

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Bright Power solar panel installation

In our telecom category, we saw a trend in mesh network proposals. Similarly, it seems to have developed in response to telecom failures and lack of connectivity experienced during Sandy. The proposed RISE : NYC Wi-Fi mesh networks allow businesses to communicate and receive information even when traditional communication lines are down. And the fact that the networks also include additional measures like solar and battery backup make the systems that much more resilient. The combination of energy and telecom technologies to allow for continued communication even if the power is out was really interesting.

For the building system category, we got a few proposals for floodgates that really emphasized that they’re cheaper, lighter, more compact and modular, and easier to deploy than other models. We enjoyed these, as they seemed particularly tailored to the New York City landscape. Floodgates are affordable and can help protect smaller buildings from flooding; they’re not just for larger infrastructure-level applications.

And maybe less on the specific tech category side, a lot of the applications were really focused on site-specific solutions — looking at how these technologies are being applied in very specific locations and designed for those particular neighborhoods or communities. Some of the best responses put a lot of thought into site specificity.

What are the next steps? You’ve named the winners; what happens now?

Well, now we get to work! Over the next year, we’ll be working alongside the competition winners to get their technologies into the Sandy-impacted small businesses that need them.

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The Rise : NYC program team

And then in the longer term, we’re hoping to use these projects as examples that business owners and building owners can look to for improving their ability to withstand future storms and impacts of climate change. This program was designed to support small business recovery but also to maximize impact and resiliency citywide. One of the selection criteria for the winning technologies was their potential to scale.

So that’s really the next layer of the RISE : NYC program — finding pathways for these innovative technologies and solutions into a greater share of our building stock and infrastructure networks.

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