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Traffic, transit - can we solve it? Fastrack Institute will marshall tech, talent and government

Traffic

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

When you think of Miami, images of traffic jams likely cloud the otherwise sunny picture. And don’t get us started on how mobility issues can weigh on the environment, personal livelihoods and the economy as a whole.

What if entrepreneurs, engineers, corporations, legal minds and governments came together to build mobility solutions that could help Miami and be used by other cities?

It’s an experiment that is already being tested in Colombia by a trio of South Florida’s most accomplished entrepreneurs: Rodrigo Arboleda, co-founder of the global nonprofit One Laptop Per Child; Dr. Maurice Ferré, co-founder of Mako Surgical who is now running the brain-health biotech firm Insightec; and Salim Ismail, founding executive director of Singularity University and a guru on the power of exponential technologies.

Their young Miami-based nonprofit foundation, Fastrack Institute, is now turning to Miami, where it will look at the mobility challenge with fresh eyes, seek ideas and “fastrack” some of them into prototypes that can be tested and developed further. Fastrack announced Tuesday that it will launch a 16-week program to help address Miami-Dade's transportation problems, with funding from the Knight Foundation, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and local real estate developer and investor Armando Codina.

The Miami program will kick off Aug. 24 with a free daylong workshop open to the public.

The Miami announcement follows a year of experience in Medellín, Colombia, where Fastrack Institute has launched eight startups aimed at solving urban problems in fast, cost-effective ways using technology. These include not only potential solutions for mobility and air quality but also widening citizens’ access to banking and finance, healthcare and early education.

The Fastrack framework is based on ideas spearheaded by Singularity University and Ismail’s ExO Works, organizations that focus on the impact of “exponential” technologies — that is, technologies doubling in power or speed while their cost drops. The Institute runs 16-week programs, also called Fastracks, in which tech companies or nonprofits collaborate with government regulators, attorneys, sociologists and other experts to solve urban issues. The idea is that legal, regulatory and societal hurdles can be addressed while the concepts are being built and the technology is being being tested. Once deployed, the technologies can be used by other cities.

The three entrepreneurs came together serendipitously, each independently looking at ways to put technology to work on urban issues. Arboleda was looking for ways to engage more young people in Latin America in technology and the sciences after finishing his work with One Laptop Per Child, which provided laptops to more than 3 million children in emerging markets. Ferré was exploring how to accelerate and support advanced healthcare innovation locally as well as globally. Ismail had recently moved to Miami from Silicon Valley, and was helping corporations learn how to develop an innovative mindset.

“In Fastrack, what we have uncovered is a mechanism so that as you are investigating these technologies like solar or autonomous cars, you can ramp up the regulatory, legal and safety changes that need to be made as you are looking at the technology,” said Ismail, in an interview last month.

“We found with Fastrack we can solve a problem facing a city at about one-tenth the current cost, which makes it economically very compelling,” he said. Twenty other global cities, about half in Latin America, have expressed interest in Fastrack programs, according to Ismail.

Arboleda, the Institute’s CEO, Ferré and Ismail launched the first Fastrack programs in Medellín, about a year ago, and found the city to be an ideal partner for its pilot programs. The city has “earned its wings” because it which has risen from the brink of economic collapse by smartly employing the power of innovation, said Arboleda. Fastrack partnered with Colombian entrepreneurial organization Ruta N, which was founded by the city of Medellín and links academia and the private and public sectors, according to Arboleda.

“Cities should embrace and accelerate the adoptions of these technologies but try to minimize the collateral damage to those portions of societies these types of exponential, viral and disruptive technologies will be affecting. We need to complete the circle. Technology alone cannot make it,” Arboleda said in an interview earlier this summer. “That is the genesis of Fastrack Institute.”

Fastrack’s first foray spawned two startups to tackle access financial access and two more focused on transportation, including autonomous vehicles. Programs on air quality and healthcare have followed; one on education is in the works. Large corporations from various industries are providing most of the funding in Colombia, Arboleda said.

Take healthcare, for example. A town two hours from Medellín has the highest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world; it was profiled on CBS’ 60 Minutes and has been drawing the interest of scientists and doctors globally, including Ferré.

“There is a tremendous opportunity [in Colombia] to set up a living laboratory with gigantic potential for mankind,” Arboleda said. “One of the most difficult health challenges will be the aging populations and in that age bracket Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s will become the most damaging elements we have ever seen in humanity for older people and the younger people taking care of them.”

[READ MORE: How a Silicon Valley big thinker is helping to bring world-changing ideas to life – in Miami]

Closer to home, where expanding mass transit it a hot topic, Miami-Dade County and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authoring have asked Fastrack Institute to explore the transportation solutions of the future.

“Traffic — think about it. If we can solve it in Miami, then that becomes an export industry that applies to every city in the world,” Ismail said.

To launch the Miami-Dade Fastrack, the institute received $500,000 from the Knight Foundation, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and local real estate developer and investor Armando Codina, representing the Codina Family.

“This initiative is a prime example of how public/private partnerships are beneficial to the community,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, in a statement.

Gimenez will accompany a delegation from Miami attending a Singularity University program next week, Arboleda said. The University of Miami’s Center for Computational Sciences and Rokk3r Labs are among the organizations already involved in Fastrack programs in Latin America.

In Miami-Dade, Fastrack will kick off Aug. 24 with a daylong public workshop in the Board of County Commission Chambers of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Register here to attend.

The workshop will begin with a presentation and discussion about Miami-Dade's transit issues and the institute will launch an open call for mobility solutions. Two teams will be selected from the pool of applicants to participate in the 16-week Fastrack. The teams will include global experts, local participants, organizations, educational institutions and public offices. The Fastrack will be directed and supported by a full-time Miami-based team and a local advisory board.

Climate change, accessible healthcare and affordable housing all could be issues for future Miami Fastracks.

“What we want to do is make Miami the capital for this kind of thinking,” Ismail said. “Absolutely the biggest success factor for any city is diversity, and the richness that comes from it. All great ideas come when you cross disparate domains together.” 

Nancy Dahlberg: @ndahlberg   

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