Govlaunch Podcast

Smart Cities Part 1 of 3: Tips for getting started

Episode Summary

Dr. Jonathan Reichental joins the Govlaunch podcast in a 3 part series to utilize his vast experience in the public sector exploring how to break down barriers to innovation and help you begin or continue your smart cities journey.

Episode Notes

Dr. Jonathan Reichental is the founder of human future, which is a global business and technology advisory investment and education firm. Former CIO for the city of Palo Alto in California and is also the bestselling author of Smart Cities for Dummies.

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Episode Transcription

Lindsay: (00:05)

Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host. Today, I'm joined by Dr. Jonathan Reichental. Dr. Reichental is the founder of human future, which is a global business and technology advisory investment and education firm. He's also the former CIO for the city of Palo Alto in California. In this series, we're going to tap into the vast experience he has in the public sector to break down some of the barriers to innovation and how you can begin or continue your smart cities journey. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining me today. Can you quickly introduce yourself and share with our listeners a bit about you and your background?

Jonathan: (01:02)

Well, I'm just delighted to be with you, Lindsay. It's lovely to be on your show. I am a technology guy really at heart. I'm an educator. I've been doing this for now over 30 years, although I can't believe it. And I've worked in the private sector and also the public sector and academia. You know,** I've always been interested in tech and at a very young age, I programmed and got hooked on it. I saw the opportunity there, uh, particularly like technology innovation and emerging technologies. And I had a chance to work with a large American consulting firm for almost 15 years.

Jonathan: (01:40)

Eventually leading their innovation practice, the technology innovation practice both internally and to some degree with their, with their big clients on the outside as well. Uh, worked for a media company, worked for Tim O'Reilly up at O'Reilly media, uh, just north of San Francisco. And then I had this incredible invitation from a head hunter to, uh, to explore whether I might work for a city. And I ended up, uh, three series of conversations and research and a little bit of a bet and, and, and taking a risk, which we all should do from time to time. I said, let's do this and, and became the chief information officer and chief technology officer for the city of Palo Alto here in Northern California. And that really changed my life in so many ways, uh, really positive. I fell in love with cities and now that I've left the city a few years, I've, I've started a business around this with a huge emphasis on cities on urbanization. So, you know, that's sort of the bulk of my life. I, you know, big part of who I am as an educator, and I think that'll come out to you as we, as we chat today.

Lindsay: (02:49)

Great. Well, I know in our previous discussions, you've talked about a recent project of yours, which is your book, smart cities for dummies. And you've called this a passion project of yours. Tell us a little bit more about the book to start, and then maybe what's the most common question you get from folks in local government.

Jonathan: (03:07)

Yeah. I always wanted to write a book for sure. I always thought I had a book inside me and while I was working at the city. I just didn't have the capacity. And, uh, it just didn't seem like the right time. When I finally left the city and started my own business, uh, my world changed of course. I had been thinking about writing and I had it on my list of things I was going to get to and, you know, life can be surprising sometimes. I got a call from a major publisher from Wiley and they said, Hey, would you be interested in writing a book about cities? So it was like, well, the planets aligned, that's kind of cool. And we talked about a whole lot of different formats. In fact, at the time they were exploring a new brand that they, they felt this would work well with.

Jonathan: (03:56)

And I wrote the proposal and we talked about it and they went back and talked about it with their teams. And finally, they came back and said, you know what? This would make a great dummies book. So I ended up writing smart cities for dummies, you know, so I love the title, by the way, I have the word smart and dummy and the title is it's quite an achievement. So, um, I wrote this thing and, and it really is, if you think of it, like it's, for me, it's just a huge brain dump. It's like, you know, 10 years of experience and real examples and real world life, building a digital, a smarter city, working with leaders around the world.

Jonathan: (04:33)

Uh, but, uh, a heck of a lot of research too. I wanted to write a pretty comprehensive book. I didn't know if I'd write another book in my life. Um, and so this was going to be the one where I'm, I'm all in. About half the book was written before COVID, then COVID hits and March, 2020. And I ended up writing the second half in isolation, which kind of sorta worked. It came out in, in the late summer of 2020, and immediately, uh, was, was a hit. There was a big appetite for it and, you know, all the sort of people that I know, my network, that the smart city leaders around the world, uh, you know, practitioners in city life, the innovators, you know, the, the game changers, they all bought it, right.

Jonathan: (05:13)

That, that was going to be a given. But soon you run out of those people. And then the question is, does it have broader appeal? now? And the book has done very, very well. Why I think people enjoyed and why I think your listeners would like it. Um, it's written for everyone.It doesn't assume you know anything. And if you do know stuff, it helps you, you know, as well. So it, it takes the beginner or the person who knows nothing about the future of cities and white it's, it's probably the most important topic. Um, and it also takes people who've been in cities for 20 years and helps them understand how you can begin to leverage tech, uh, new ideas and innovation to turn the game around and deliver a better quality of life to people. 

Jonathan: (05:52)

I think the question that I get most often and the several, the several questions, which repeat themselves is, well, I get the question, what is a smart city? I’ve had a long time to think about it, and I've answered the question so many times. Part of answering it is to say, you know, a term isn't as important as the outcome, like, what are we trying to communicate and what do we want to achieve? So that will help us understand what the context of the, of the term smart city. Some people hate it by the way. And my answer to that as well, it stuck, we’re stuck with it, right? And so it's the term that we have, uh, for me, you know, the outcome is about two major things. One is improving the quality of life for the most amount of people. So we, I want to maximize a great quality of life, everybody on the planet. And secondly, is the survival of our planet, right? You cannot separate urbanization, the creation of our cities and the growth of our cities from, uh, the human footprint and the potential, uh, for, uh, either.

Jonathan (7:00):

One direction is a world increasingly at risk from a climate crisis, or a beautiful, clean, healthy planet to where everyone thrives. Uh, that is what it's about. And, and getting there means doing smarter things, basically not repeating the mistakes of the 20th century. It means using technologies and ideas in a very progressive way. And for me, that, that's what it's about. If we can improve the lives of more and more people, and at the same time contribute towards a healthier planet, I think that's what we mean by smarter cities.

Lindsay: (07:38)

Yeah, it's fantastic. Besides the smart cities point, which I think is a great overarching theme for, for what the book is about. I love the structure of the book. If you're interested in drones, flip to the section on drones, if you're interested in GIS flipped in the section on GIS, and you're right, there is a little something for everyone in there. It isn't just for the innovation wonks in local government. It's very similar to how we structured Govlaunch with robust search functionality. And we have over 6,000 innovation projects from across the world shared now. If you're curious about innovative practices and city planning, there's a quick way of searching for that. So, definitely check out the book. So for those who aren't totally sold yet, let's elaborate on one or two other key takeaways from your book, what would they be?

Jonathan: (08:26)

Yeah. And by the way, great work on Govlaunch. I often reference it myself and it's a quality resource for so many people. Now there's so much to pick from, I appreciate the question, but,as the author, it's a tough one and I love the whole thing. So I got to pick one, you know, maybe the area that I'd like to share, uh, that would be useful is the one that is Mo is quite accessible for a lot of us. And that's the question of data. Data. People probably are guessing those that know me. I say, bet, Jonathan's going to say data. Maybe I'm too predictable. Right? I come into, you know, city life in 2011, and it's a world of constraints. There's not enough time, not enough talent, too many projects, not enough money, it's all limitations and constraints.

Jonathan: (09:15)

It's how do we navigate through that? Get stuff done. But I noticed one thing, I noticed that we had a lot of data, you know, the behavior, the act of running a city creates a lot of data and, and this is pretty consistent in cities all over the world. Now I do want to recognize this is something I learned recently, that there are communities in the world in developing areas that don't have data and they suffer because of that. There isn't good information on people and, and all sorts of, uh, important characteristics of their community. And that's something we, we actually have to solve. But for the majority of cities around the world, there is too much, there's a lot there's too. And when I say too much, there's more than we can possibly, uh, process todaywith the talent and tools we have. You either are wanting to work with the city or you are in a city and you have this abundant resource now, what do you do with it? And that's what people have been discovering over the last decade is what are the patterns and signals that we can, uh, find in the data about our communities? 

Jonathan: (10:23) 

And so you can take any set, like what can data tell us about, uh, transportation in our community? What can data tell us about energy use, environmental issues of violence, perhaps, you know, public safety issues, fires, permit requests, are there trends in there? You start to see suddenly that there's, wow, there's, uh, all of this, uh, insight. It just has to be unlocked. What many cities and communities have discovered is if they have a good talent and good tools and they continue to learn, plus they open that data up to all sorts of stakeholders.

Jonathan: (11:02)

There's a great opportunity for collaboration to really dig deep and get answers and help that data guide future decisions. I remember often in the early days sitting in front of our city council or being in the audience, you know, waiting to be called up to, to do my piece, and there'd be some deep discussion about something that was being built in the community. These were always, uh, heated and important topics. Sometimes when, when the council member asked a member of the staff, uh, for a particular answer that the, the staff member said, well, we'll have to find that out for you and, and get back to you. We don't have the data on that. Or the council member would say, do you have data on this topic? I mean, what, what does the data tell us and staff members would often be?

Jonathan: (11:50)

We don't know, we'll have to get back to you. And I, I always felt watching that, there's an opportunity, you know, if we bring more good quality data to that conversation, uh, everybody's going to benefit the staff member, the elected leaders, the community. And over time, we started to do that. We started to train people and get people to acquire better data science skills. You don't need to be a data scientist, but you need to have some basic skills, how to communicate and tell stories with data, which is today, you know, a real hot and important topic, um, and then the data to contribute towards better informed decision-making. So that, that topic I think, is, is accessible to every, almost every city, uh, you know, cause you already have the data, uh, and you don't have to make massive investments.

Lindsay: (12:40)

I love that you bring up the data piece. This data issue can be pretty basic like, how do we get people to understand how to organize an Excel sheet and get the Excel sheet to talk with another department? Something as simple as that. To, you know, big policy changes around how are we collecting data, how we're using data? We did an episode a few weeks ago with Adam Beck. Who's the executive director of Smart Cities Australia and New Zealand and fantastic resource. He is big on data leadership. He brought up the point that regardless of where your city is at size wise, budget wise, he doesn't recommend necessarily going with any new, big technology solutions or even collecting new data.  His advice would be to take a pause and figure out what legacy systems we have now and what data are we collecting now. So really being clear to your point earlier about the outcome you're trying to get to and, and what data you need to get there. You don't need to collect all the data, but just some key points can help give you some really valuable insights. 

Jonathan: (13:43)

So first of all, excellent point and I, I completely agree.This is about what we already have. That's the whole thing of sort of that morning when the mayor or the city manager wakes up and says, I, you know, I think maybe we should hop on this smart city journey, you know, how do we start? And that person comes to city hall and says, uh, asks the team and they talk about it. The starting point for me can be the data question. Let's catalog what we have, let's understand what that can do to help inform our decisions. How can it drive different types of outcomes? I want it to give you a union listens to two quick examples, uh, of, of data, uh, you know in action here in the U S and in increasing numbers of cities around the world there is an obligation to make data available.

Jonathan: (14:28)

When I arrived at my city back in 2011, uh, one of the things that the local media loved was to be able to get, uh, annually the salaries of all, uh, city staff. This is quite common, there's an interest in that. Every year that the city would produce it, cause it was obligated. I mean, there's law, you have to do it. Uh, but you know, it, wasn't so specific in how you delivered it. Uh, and I can imagine in prior years they sent a paper document over, uh, but later on they, they sent a PDF, right. Well, I came along and, you know, definitely wanted to work with the city to make, uh, all our data sets much more easily accessible. And by the way, remove the human as the middle part of that. So that anyone who wants the data could go directly to, to our interface and pull the data they needed. And so we did that and we did that with salaries and I remember journalists, uh, local journalists popular one came to me, uh, saw me in the street and came over and I actually thought he was going to be critical. And he said what you and your team did completely exceeded our expectations. We went from really little access or difficult access to complete transparent access.

Jonathan: (15:36)

So that was game changing. Um, so just in building trust between entities in a, in a city, which is so important for doing important work together, uh, opening up data was valuable. The second quick one I'll give you is, and this talks a little bit to the point you made in the thought you had was how can we use existing data? Now, most, a lot of communities have, uh, 311 apps, right? They have these apps that, uh, community members can use to report, um, all sorts of community issues, right? Everything from abandoned bicycles to potholes, and, um, know other things like that. And, uh, they're very successful. And you're going about your business one day, you're you see this, a big problem, and, and the, you think the city should know about it. So you take a photograph and you submit it with your smartphone. Uh, the city gets it, hopefully, and it then acts sends a team over and tries to fix the issue. 

Jonathan: (16:27)

And then you get notified that this has been resolved, and that's a great process if it works well like that. What we decided to do was here, we have, uh, of course that process we supported and it worked, but we also recognize that we had now a repository of incredible data of hundreds and after a while, thousands of reports. And so now what you can do is many, many things. You can start to map that data against a, a map of the city and begin to look for trends, even visually, you know, heat maps. So you can see, like, is there an area of the city that has more graffiti or an area of the city that has particularly has some infrastructure challenges? Um, and now what you're doing is you're giving people different tools to see, uh, the story of the city and fold through data that's been collected in a different way. And this was a, this was game changing again for us.

Lindsay: (17:20)

So data's obviously a great place to start when we talk about starting our smart city journey. We could go down a bunch of different rabbit holes for what to talk about in terms of what makes you a smart city? So we'll get into those in another chat, but I want to focus today on a really important question. Often the most challenging question for a local government practitioners and that's, how do we begin? What's a good starting point to launching a smart city journey?

Jonathan: (17:47)

There are a few different entry points. And the reason why this question is a little harder than other types of questions is in a way we need to take a particular city and look at them and their needs and where they're at, uh, because every city has a series of characteristics that are collectively make the city unique. And then what I'm talking about is something as simple as population size, right? How, how big is the city, what's the geography? What's the maturity of the existing infrastructure in terms of power and telecommunications, um, and, uh, the logistics, uh, systems like the roads and the, and the bridges. You've got to kind of look at the city and understand it right.

Jonathan: (18:37)

And its challenges. Um, and that will guide the answer to this question in a big way. But that's not a very satisfying answer. How can we maybe elevate a little bit above the question and say, independent of the different characteristics, where do we start? And it comes down to a few things that I've observed around the world in terms of success outcomes. One is you've got to have a leadership that is fully committed. I'm a pretty practical person and I can very quickly, you know, observe or hear something that seems like that seems very obvious or unspecific, right? But there is a distinctive difference between organizations, any type of organization, by the way, who has a leader or leaders who strongly believe in something, and they're all in every single day. This is baked into everything they do and their behaviors, older processes, uh, the decision-making they make.

Jonathan: (19:34)

Between a community that has said we are going to, um, design and build a better future through smart community practices is distinctively different from the leader who has said our goal is going to be maybe more one dimensional. We're going to try to solve at the cost of everything else, uh, one particular major goal of the community. So we have a mayor in a, sort of a dynamic new mayor in Miami, um, who in the course of just a few months barely has put Miami on the map and said, we want to be the crypto center of the world. Uh, we want to, uh, use technology and new ideas to create a truly international, exciting, attractive city for everyone.

Jonathan: (20:27)

And you can tell every day that he gets up pounding his fist with that belief, you know, in a positive way. That's very different from other leaders and other communities around the world who, who haven't made those types of choices. What is the vision? Okay, so you have leaders or a mayor or city manager who is completely committed to this now, what is the vision? And that vision is going to be a reflection on what is needed. What are the priorities? So identifying those priorities, and then crafting a strategy around them. I think the last point I would make, because this is rather a large question, but I just want to give a few tidbits here. Is what are the capabilities of the community? What are your strengths, right? What do you bring to the table as a community? For example, I think this is always a neat one to use is Chattanooga in Tennessee, right? 

Jonathan: (21:25)

Uh, at one point was a significantly important manufacturing city in the United States and region, and an industrial area, I should say. And of course, as times changed and industry shifted that that sort of subsided. And they had a moment where they had to decide, you know, who do we want to be? What, what we want to be in the future? And through good leadership and vision, they decided that we were going to be one of the first, if not the first totally broadband community in America.

Jonathan: (21:55)

And that required this strength of leadership and vision to make it happen. And they made it happen and brought broadband high-speed internet to homes and businesses quite rapidly relative to other communities and distinguished that city. Uh, I haven't looked at data recently, but for quite a while, people were moving there just because of the fast internet they could get almost everywhere in the city. So that is a success story in leveraging a community strength to solve some problems across the city.

Lindsay: (22:31)

You bring up some really interesting points. When I think about the leadership that you mentioned a city comes to mind. We have cities across 23 countries at this point participating in the Govlaunch community, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania stands out to me. They're a small to medium sized town that most probably haven't heard of, but I would say they have textbook execution on the leadership and coming to work every single day with a really clearly defined vision and making sure that everybody's jobs across all departments in the city are, are supporting that vision. So my question for you, because there's going to be a shortage of great leaders, unfortunately, for someone who perhaps isn't in a leadership role in their local government, but views themselves as an innovator, what advice would you share with them?

Jonathan: (23:27)

Well, I, I love this question and in fact, I address it head on and the book too towards the end is, you know, there's a role for everyone and then what can I do tomorrow? I think a lot of people, when they look at things like the climate crisis, they, they do feel that they can't help it. It's so big. And so, so complicated that they feel powerless. I think that's something we have to solve, as we begin to elevate the all hands on deck approach to managing our climate problems. Um, you know, ultimately they're existential, if we don't do that. So we need to help people understand, what they can do to make a difference, you know, that things like eating less meat or, or not creating waste, uh, or figuring out, uh, what your energy consumption is.

Jonathan: (24:16)

And perhaps seeing if there's a way for you to migrate your home or your business to increasing amounts of non-carbon based energy. There are things each of us can do every single day. The same question, and you ask now, how do we apply that same thinking, uh, whether you're inside a government or outside of government. Now, I don't want this to sound hokey, but, you know, I strongly believe that everybody can make a difference. Everybody matters every single person, you might feel powerless in your life, but you matter to somebody, you matter to something. And so the question is, you know, finding that and tapping into that strength or doing more of what you're doing, or perhaps starting to do something that you're, you're not starting. Look, if you work in a city, there's many, many ways that you can, uh, participate.

Jonathan: (25:07)

Part of, I think being successful in work today in the 21st century is simply putting up your hand and saying, how can I help, how can I be valuable in this function? You know, can I sit on this committee with you? Can I help analyze some data? Uh, can I create a website? You know, cause Hey, I've been doing some web stuff on the side. I think you can, you can do a lot of that. Of course, if you're assigned the responsibility as a chief innovation officer, chief data officer in your city, then you have a lot of, uh, capability to drive change. If you're not within city hall, what can you do? One of the things I tell people, that surprises them, they don't expect the sensor is asked city hall, what you can do.

Jonathan: (25:53)

You know, it, particularly in America, I know your audience is international, but I, you know, I, and I, I do travel and advise internationally, but I'll just tell you in the U S most cities are small. First of all, you know, we not, we are not a country of big cities. We're a country of small cities and towns. And your mayor or your city manager is really approachable. You know, it's not like there's hundreds of layers of bureaucracy, and you cant find the person and meet them. With a little bit of effort and a phone, you can probably meet your city manager for coffee. And actually part of the joys of being a city leader is spending time with community.

Jonathan: (26:30)

I mean, that's, if you don't like that, you got the wrong job, right? So you can make a call and say, I want to help. And you'll be surprised. I think the last point I would make is, and this is a bit more where, uh, more specific skills come into play is you can be frustrated by your city. Look, that's a normal reaction. You can say, why don't they do this, or how come this never works? We all say these things and think these things about our governments, whether they're local, state or, or federal. You're pointing at someone else. You're not like looking at yourself or those around you. Perhaps you can solve the problem. And I don't mean this to be sort of flippant and sort of like, uh, you know, if we could all do that, wouldn't we all do it type thing.

Jonathan: (27:16)

Um, no, today with low coding or no coding solutions, with apps that are so accessible and easy to build for most of us, we don't need to wait for government, right? Now I will always say, if you are getting ready or, you know, you are building something or plan to build something, work with your local government, and we tell them, you know, maybe form sort of some lightweight, uh, partnership, cause things will go smoother and you'll get good advice and all that. Um, and don't build it and then ask, because then there could be some issue you haven't resolved early on. Each of us, uh, whether it's through our design skills or ideas or data skills or coding skills, each of us can actually build solutions independent of government and be the source of the solution. I couldn't have said that 15 years ago, but today in 2021, that's totally doable. And by the way, many people all over the world are doing just that.

Lindsay: (28:14)

Right. The community can take initiative to be part of it, but also local government creating opportunities, inviting the community in has been a really effective strategy. Cities across the US and across the world have tried hackathons where they propose a series of public challenges and invite the community to come in and help throw ideas around and how to solve the problem. What better way of getting to a solution, if you have limited time, limited resources and perhaps limited skill set, if you have willing participants to come in and try to make cities work better. So before we wrap up today, I want one more piece of advice you want to leave us with.

Jonathan: (28:51)

Wow. What a great invitation to answer that question. You know, I talked about what a smart city is. We talked about some opportunities, uh, you know, easy ways to get involved. But what I didn't talk about necessarily, and I wanted to make this point, well known is there's some urgency here. There's an urgency that, uh, that is not yet felt by enough people. 80% of the cities on the planet are growing 20% are declining, but the vast majority are growing quickly. Our issues are not going away. We have challenges around energy and transportation and equality and inclusiveness and, uh, making sure that everybody has a home. These are big issues. And on the activities that we have been demonstrating as humans and cities over the last, uh, couple of hundred years have now led to a climate crisis.

Jonathan: (29:43)

That's a certainly big contributor. So there is an urgency here. I'm teaching a class about digital transformation and we're doing it through the lens of cities and the students are our little puzzle to the beginning. Why, why cities? And I spend time convincing them that it's the most important lens through which we view the future of humanity. And if we get our cities wrong, there is no future for any of us, and there's no future for the planet. So, uh, my advice is to recognize the urgency here, to know that work you can do matters and literally if it's a tiny thing or a huge thing, you can change the world.

Lindsay: (30:17)

Wow. What a great point to leave us with. Thanks so much for joining me today, Jonathan, really looking forward to having you back next week to continue our chat on getting your smart cities plan launched.

Jonathan: (30:29)

Great. Thank you.

Lindsay: (30:33)

I'm back next week with Dr. Jonathan Reichental, to talk about the burning question, how are we going to pay for all of this? We'll dive into some traditional and clever funding strategies to ensure your smart city journey can be a success. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch, the Wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.