Investing in Research that Impacts Communities

What do smartphones, GPS, and Internet search algorithms have in common? If you’re like us, then each has fundamentally transformed how you live, work, and play. Beyond that, they have something else in common: each relies on technology developed with research funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports foundational research in all areas of science, engineering, and education. At NSF, we are always looking to the future, including how research can improve the lives of people and the communities in which we live.

We are particularly interested in how new innovations – like real-time sensing, advanced wireless networking, data analytics, machine learning, and computer vision – will impact those with front-line responsibilities on a range of public priorities, like managing critical infrastructure, protecting vulnerable populations, and increasing disaster resilience. This is especially true as our cities and communities face unprecedented challenges as we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Due to the crisis, community members, leaders, and researchers are confronting questions about how civic services and systems should be rebuilt to be stronger and more resilient once we emerge from this crisis. Furthermore, our experiences during this trying time may uncover new challenges, motivate new questions, and highlight the need for new perspectives in many areas: healthcare, economic, and social systems, transportation, service delivery, food access, housing, and more.

In 2016, we launched a program at NSF dedicated to these very topics, called Smart & Connected Communities. The program supports research at the intersection of technology, engineering, and society. With close to 40 projects awarded to date totaling more than $40 million and more under review, the program funds efforts that leverage technical and social sciences to address civic priorities in close partnership with governments and communities. For example, researchers in Indiana are partnering with residents living in affordable housing, the Indiana Housing Authority, and a local development firm to create a community-level energy management tool that uses smart home technology and predictive models to help residents reduce their energy footprint, collaboratively as a community. Similarly, a research team in Michigan is partnering with a local water utility and city government to autonomously optimize the city’s existing stormwater infrastructure to increase storage capacity and improve water quality using a sensor-based control system.

We are doubling down on efforts like these that support research in partnership with communities to achieve outcomes that matter to residents today. In April we launched the Civic Innovation Challenge, a $10+ million “research and action” competition that will support ready-to-implement, research-based pilot projects that have the potential for scalable, sustainable, and transferable impact on community-identified priorities. This competition is jointly by NSF, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reflecting synergies across agencies interested in harnessing research innovations for real-world community impact.

Teams will be asked to respond to one of two tracks that were developed over this past year with input from cities and communities from across the U.S. The first track focuses on communities and mobility and addresses the spatial mismatch between housing affordability and jobs, as well as associated mobility solutions that can increase access to critical services and amenities that foster healthy and thriving communities. The second track focuses on resilience to natural disasters and seeks to increase community preparedness and resilience to natural disasters. NSF recently released additional guidance notifying prospective proposers that pandemic-related topics are appropriate for CIVIC. Although not a requirement for either track, the guidance noted that communities and researchers may wish to address the challenges introduced by COVID-19 by pursuing community-level projects related to mobility in the face of pandemics­­ or resilience to pandemics, including the compound effects of other shocks occurring in the midst of a pandemic.

The Challenge involves two stages. In the first stage, teams will compete for awards to support project planning and development and, if selected by our expert review panels, will receive up to $50,000 each to refine their projects. Teams selected in the first stage will then compete in the second stage for awards of up to $1 million each to support 12-month research and pilot activities. Applications are due August 3, 2020.

Throughout both stages, MetroLab Network, a non-profit organization, will cultivate “communities of practice” among awardees, as teams of researchers work in lock-step with civic partners from states, local governments, public agencies, and other community-focused entities.

While this competition comes at an uncertain time, we are confident in the need to continue to pursue transformative investments in research and communities with lasting impact. Indeed, it is not just smartphones, GPS, and search algorithms that have roots in federal research; NSF has also supported the foundational research that led to barcodes, the doppler weather radar, organ transplant systems, and more. The goal of the Civic Innovation Challenge is to extend that innovation to mobility systems and resilience strategies, underpinned by inclusive community engagement and responsible data governance, with the goal of making our cities and communities even more vibrant and equitable places to live than they are today.

Learn more about the Civic Innovation Challenge at and by following @NSFCIVIC on Twitter.


About the Authors

David Corman, Michal Ziv-El, Linda Bushnell, and Sandip Roy, Program Directors at the National Science Foundation. The Civic Innovation Challenge will support partnerships between communities and universities that address mobility and resilience priorities.