NSF News

NSF, DOE, DHS empower communities to make local impacts through the Civic Innovation Challenge

Across the country, communities have needs ripe for innovative solutions -- from rethinking transit and housing affordability to operating safe schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Civic Innovation Challenge, led by the U.S. National Science Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seeks to empower communities to address those needs by establishing research partnerships that can achieve not just local impacts but potentially be scaled up regionally, or even nationally.

The Civic Innovation Challenge has now taken a major step by naming 52 teams across 30 states as well as tribal regions, Washington DC and Puerto Rico as Stage-1 awardees.

Teams comprise civic partners -- such as local, state and tribal officials and non-profit and community leaders -- working together with researchers. Each team will receive $50,000 to refine their concepts over four months. At the end of that period, NSF will select Stage-2 awardees, which will each receive awards of up to $1 million for ready-to-implement pilot projects with the potential to produce scalable, sustainable, and transferable solutions to address community-identified challenges.

“This competition’s inclusion of civic and community partners, coupled with an aggressive and fast-paced timeline, empowers awardees to bridge the gap between research and impact in a unique and compelling way,” said Margaret Martonosi, NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “We are excited about our partnership with DOE and DHS on this program. We’re eager to see the projects develop, the teams strengthen, and a national community emerge around the common goal of innovative local solutions over the course of the competition.”

Funded with $11 million from NSF, DOE, and DHS, the Civic Innovation Challenge comprises two tracks. Track A focuses on Communities and Mobility, offering better mobility options to solve the spatial mismatch between housing affordability and jobs. Track B, supported by NSF and DHS, focuses on Resilience to Natural Disasters, equipping communities for greater preparedness and resilience to natural disasters.

Projects in Track A, supported by NSF and DOE, seek to develop mobility hubs, test micro transit and ridesharing approaches, develop analytical tools to uncover spatial mismatch and more.

Acting Assistant Secretary Kelly Speakes-Backman of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, in reflecting on the projects selected as Stage 1 awardees in this track stated: “The projects represent a diverse set of priorities and approaches to solving the challenge of equity in the mobility space. DOE is pleased to support these teams as they explore innovative and sustainable ways to connect residents to work, school, healthcare, and other public services.”

Track B projects, supported by NSF and DHS, address strategies to strengthen and plan for community response to floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. These projects will work to understand how factors including climate change, financial resilience, resource allocation, food security and the ability to deliver clean water during disasters affect community responses.

"The events of the last year have shown us the importance of preparing our communities for all kinds of disasters,” said David J. Alexander, Senior Science Advisor for Resilience, DHS Science and Technology Directorate. “At DHS, we are inspired by the work underway by the Resilience Track awardees and are confident they will generate meaningful impact on a national scale.”

One set of projects addresses challenges directly relevant to communities living with COVID-19, such as access to education in remote communities, providing safe school environments, sharing health information during emergencies and enabling increased use of micro-mobility transportation options. Many others across both tracks have pieces relevant to general resilience that applies to pandemics.

Throughout both stages of the Civic Innovation Challenge, MetroLab Network, a non-profit organization, is cultivating a “community-of-practice” among the awarded project teams of civic and researcher partners.

“The Civic Innovation Challenge will demonstrate how investments in basic research can transform our society,” Martonosi said.

The full list of awarded projects as well as updates on the team’s progress can be found at The Civic Innovation Challenge webpage.