11/12/2012 03:22 pm ET

Bloomberg Ideas Camp Invites Cities To Pitch New Technology In Mayor's $9 Million Contest

Officials from 20 cities pitched proposals Monday at Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day conference in New York City focused on finding innovative solutions to urban issues. The cities were chosen from more than 300 nationwide and are competing for $9 million in prizes -- $5 million to the winner and $1 million to four runners-up -- from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the New York City mayor's personal foundation.

James Anderson, who directs government innovation programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said the purpose of the contest was to inspire innovation in city halls across the country.

"Our goal is to identify the best ideas, support them, and help them spread," Anderson said.

On Monday, each city had 45 seconds to pitch its idea, which spanned a wide range of topics, from reducing infant mortality or domestic violence to increasing charter schools or expanding suburban transportation options. St. Paul, Minn., wants to streamline the local permit process for residents, developers and businesses. Milwaukee officials want to use vacant lots to create urban farms in neighborhoods that don't have enough fresh produce.

Officials in Providence, R.I., believe they have a high-tech solution to a vexing problem: how to ensure low-income children are prepared for school.

Providence officials say underprivileged kids fall behind other students partly because they are not exposed to a wide vocabulary from an early age. The city wants low-income children under 3 years old to wear devices that collect data on how many conversations are taking place around them. The technology would allow city officials to increase library reading programs or alter school curriculums in communities with "vocabulary deficits."

"Kids show up with different levels of school readiness," said Toby Shepherd, Providence's deputy director of policy. "This is one way to adjust that."

Several other cities have plans to solve problems using new technology. Houston officials, for example, want to make it easier for residents to recycle by letting them toss their garbage into a single bin, out of which recyclable material would then be separated through cutting-edge technology.

"We're using technology in a new way to sort your entire residential waste stream," said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for the City of Houston.

Many officials at Monday's conference said they were hoping to win the $5 million grand prize because their city was facing budget deficits and couldn't afford to fund the ideas.

"We are, like many cities, facing really serious financial challenges," Shepherd said.

As city officials pitched their projects, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, served as a moderator. With national leaders and the media focused on problems instead of solutions, Huffington said it was up to city officials to find new ways to help their communities.

Cities, she said, "are the places where real change is going to come from."