Talking Digital Future: Smart Cities

My journey into smart cities and their future development was a really big surprise, as the way I arrived there was not something that I had planned. I was working as the chief information officer for a company in Northern California called O’Reilly Media when I got a call from a headhunter who asked if I would consider being the chief information office for the City of Palo Alto. I can vividly remember — it was only about eight years ago — my feeling when she asked the question. The first thing that came into my mind: I would never consider working for the government. And the next quick emotion I had was: but that’s really interesting and I’d like to know more.

So, fortunately, my willingness to be open minded was a good thing, and I asked her to explain what the opportunity was. I think because it was the birthplace of Silicon Valley, as the city was Palo Alto, one of the things that interested me was that the city had not been notable for being technologically developed, despite being at the very heart of technological innovations. That definitely raised my curiosity. 

I’ve always been fascinated by cities and urbanism in general. I’ve always been interested in the political mechanisms by which cities and governments function. But these were just interests. I had no particular thought that I would ever work in that context. So, I went ahead and investigated it more. The rest is history: I accepted the opportunity. 

I had been focused on the city: building a team and figuring out how we could collaborate with the community and with the innovators in the area, like the big tech companies. How we could do things with them that would help us think differently about how you deliver governmental services.

The idea of working as a technologist in an interesting city with the permission to try new things was very attractive to me, and I was pleased by the level of engagement. So, my thesis was right that the community and the technology companies, whether it was Hewlett-Packard, VMware or Tesla, were all interested and willing to take my call and to think about how we can apply technology and processes to change the way that city functions are done. 

One of my first projects with open government was to improve trust between the community and city hall. Secondly, we’d need to open up the data to all sorts of innovators to be able to produce new solutions.

Other cities and other stakeholders became interested in what we were doing. Palo Alto was not on the map with regard to government innovation. Of course, everybody knew Palo Alto because of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple: all the companies that had started there. But they never thought of Palo Alto as a place where government was run digitally.

In 2011, open data was becoming a really important thing and it was just emerging. It was the time when people, governments and leaders were beginning to think about this. The Open Government Partnership was launched in September 2011 and important world leaders signed on to it. That and the United Nations were sort of a great impetus to starting to think about data, opening up data and data sets.

Many governments thought that opening up their data when they did not have an obligation to do it could be risky. But my posture was different. I was of the opinion that opening data up — giving it back while protecting privacy — was an important right for humans and that it shouldn’t be my decision. So, in fact, I was lucky enough to convince all the right people, including the mayor and the city manager, that we should make the data open; that we start city hall with open data by default. 

Having open data by default really caught on. I don’t think we were the first, but we were certainly among the first five in the world to approach it this way. So, I really wanted to share with you that story of how I found my way into a city. My intention was to be very local and focused, which I continue to do, but there were a number of triggers that elevated what we were doing. As a consequence, I would go to these conferences to speak and would meet other people. I got deeper and deeper into this emerging smart city movement where eventually, after a few years, I was considered — and I’m still considered — one of the top 20 thought leaders on this topic. And of course, I still write about it, I still talk about it and I still consult in this area. And now I am working on my book, Smart Cities for Dummies, which will come out in 2020.

I really believe that this sort of movement — whatever we call it, we can use the term smart city — today is really at the beginning. We’re just getting started. I’ll just give you one data point and then we can go to your next question. In the United States alone, there are 90,000 cities, towns and associated government agencies. That’s 90,000. I could tell you very quickly 20 cities that are doing interesting things. I could maybe push further and name you 50. So, let’s say I know 50 cities. Maybe somebody else can give you another list of 200 or 500. Even if they could give you 1,000, that’s still only a tiny percentage of government agencies just in America that are doing something in the space. It’s gonna take a good few more years before we see this being mainstream and having real substantive momentum, for it to be more widely adopted, and for us to see real action happen and real innovation.

Defining “smartness”

Let’s focus on the definitions of this concept. The keywords here are smart, information and digital technologies. I think that the term smart city in particular is definitely fluid, and I would probably be an advocate for a better way to describe this in the future. I actually am a very big fan of urban innovation, but I’m not sure it has meaning. It’s meaningful enough to some people, but we’ll see. The term smart got popular. It’s definitely a strong marketing term, and you’re beginning to see smart cities, smart nations, smart factories and smart hospitals. It’s becoming quite used in lots of contexts. I would say the best definition would be the one that is super focused on the use of technology to innovate and advance a subject.

I’ve recently been writing about the digital twin concept, and a big part of the concept exists in factories. So, you have a digital replica of a physical object, and you can use the digital replica for consuming data from a machine. Then you could figure out if the machine is going to break or not, or if we need to replace parts. And as you digitize these factories, which is happening quite rapidly — you’ve got the term industry 4.0 that comes out of Germany, where we’re increasingly using the term smart and where we’re moving from factories to smart factories as we digitize them. Same thing in hospitals as we use more and more technology. We’re using technology for more personalized medicine, more personalized treatment plans, and we’re calling it smart medicine or smart hospitals. 

The term smart cities effectively means a lot. We’re using technology for improving liveability, workability and sustainability. These are the sort of three big categories. I think digital is a very big part of this. You know, digital has a much bigger meaning than just the notion of ones and zeros, really. The kind of movement from analog to binary — in many ways digital now means style. It means behavior. It means business models. I’m just thinking as we work through the answer to this question. 

Maybe digital is more controversial and even broader than the term smart as we think about the future of cities because a digital city doesn’t necessarily just mean cities as connected devices and websites. It means the city’s style and approach to how it delivers is rooted in innovation and in the use of contemporary and emerging technologies. I think with smart cities or digital cities, the terms smart and digital are used interchangeably.

Digital transformation or revolution?

The neat thing about digital is the broad application across all sectors of society. We speak of this idea of digital transformation, which effectively means: Is your business or organization ready for the needs of the 21st century, or at least the first half of the 21st century?

And so, cities are certainly going through digital transformations, but there isn’t so much of a transformation as there is a revolution. I speak about this idea of the fourth Industrial Revolution as: we are not just shifting conservatively from one state to another, but we are going through a big and dramatic change. And it is not only the change of technology and how we work and travel, but it’s about how we think. It’s about our political systems. It’s about our philosophy on how everybody gets compensated. It’s about thinking about things like universal basic income. We are going through this remarkable revolution where everything is changing, not just one part of society or one part of what it means to be a human. 

Cities of the future: transportation

When we think about future cities, it’s fair to say that we are in the beginning stages of a revolution. That means that things will look very, very different.

To really be called a smart city, there are areas where the implementation of technological innovation is the most urgent, ambitious and important. The first I would mention is transportation. There has probably never been a time when transportation has been entirely effective, particularly in a city context, but it’s been better than it is today. It is getting a lot, lot worse.

You do not need to be a scientist or a specialist to just go to any major city in the world and recognize quickly that transportation is fundamentally broken. Whether it’s public transportation or cars, which are such a big part of modern life in our modern cities and in many developing areas of the world where cities are growing very rapidly.

Modern cities face this problem not because people are not qualified or there are no available jobs, but simply because they can’t get to them. It’s so difficult to go from where they live to where the factories or their places of work are. It would take them hours to get there, and it comes down to something as basic as that. We need better ways of getting people to their places of employment, or we need to rethink where people live and how they live. But the car problem is very painful as it is not only a problem of congestion and slow movement, but it’s also about mental health and environmental health.

Here in the United States, every major city has significant transportation issues in the morning and the evening when people go to work and when they come home from work. And here in Silicon Valley where I live, people are commuting an hour and a half or more each way. So, people are spending three to four hours in a car every single day. That can’t be good for themselves or their lives, and it can’t be good for the planet with all that carbon being spewed out.

Many communities have very nice public transit. London has a very good underground system, they have buses and they seem to have developed a comprehensive public transportation system. Paris does. Moscow does. Other major cities around the world have very good public transit, but it’s under duress. It’s aging, and it was built for populations that were much smaller than they are today. And of course, our populations are growing. There is some good movement in this area toward, for example, more cycling. The Netherlands is a great model for other communities to look at and say, “What kind of a life do you create when lots of people have access to bicycles? What kind of infrastructure do you need to support that?” I mean, it’s really fascinating to be in Amsterdam, Utrecht or different areas of the country. As a person who’s in a society that doesn’t have as much bike utilization, the degree to which everybody’s on their bike is quite remarkable. 

Our movement toward using more electric vehicles is a very positive notion: finally seeing the end of the combustion engine. There are some very ambitious goals around the world to sell the last combustion engine.

In Scandinavia, it’s in the 2035 time period. In England, it’s 2045. India is 2045. So, we can see we’ll be seeing a great transformation there. You’ve also got autonomous vehicles, which are making great progress but with some ways to go. It does seem to me, based on my research, that we are going to see widespread vehicles driving themselves over the next few decades.

So, cities that have elaborated ambitious transportation plans and activities are probably playing into the smart term a little more than others. If you have this creative, ambitious and urgent set of goals to transform the transportation of your community, I would say that’s a big part of being a smart community today.

I worry sometimes, though, that it’s not big enough; that the ambition is not big enough. I love when I hear about cities looking at Hyperloop. It at first seems like a crazy idea, but so does every great idea. Suddenly communities are really thinking about how to approach something like Hyperloop and thinking completely differently about moving people and goods. Transportation would probably be up there in terms of one of the areas that is most active around the world in the smart city movement. You’ll see lots and lots of different initiatives in lots of different domains, but if you look at the big ones and the ones that are actually happening that are urgent, ambitious and important, I would say transportation is up there.

Cities of the future: energy

The second deep dive would be energy. You know, it’s fascinating to think about some of the crises that the planet has faced over the last 100 years. At one point we thought we’d run out of food. Well, today we make more food than the world needs. We had a hole in the ozone. We thought it would be very destructive, but we found a way to fix the ozone. We also thought we would not have enough energy, and today we produce enormous amounts of low-cost energy around the world. But it’s still not great energy.

Carbon energy, whether you’re fueling up with electricity or gasoline, is not only bad for the planet because you have beat the Earth to excavate it out of mountains and caves, but it is terrible for the environment and is heating up the Earth. So, we need to find a way to move quickly to alternatives that are abundant, but also better for the environment. 

I think the movement toward solar and wind is rapidly becoming part of the smart city movement. Solar is really making excellent progress at domestic, house and industrial levels. Communities that are super focused on migrating away from gas and coal to green energy have begun to meet the characteristics of a smart city.

The climate crisis is happening in cities and it will be largely solved in cities. So, a smart city is one that operates sustainably. It’s a city that is focused on activities that protect its citizens and its infrastructure from extreme weather events and from rising water.

For example, last summer saw the hottest temperatures we’ve ever seen in many cities, and it’s having repercussions. People are dying, and there’s also all sorts of other problems, such as airplanes not being able to take off because the runways are too hot and may melt plane tires. 

The smart city is dealing with a climate crisis. This is such a big topic, but it’s got to be part of a smart city strategy. And I would again say it’s urgent, needs ambition and is very important.

Cities of the future: digitalization 

The third one would be digital transformation. The fact is that most community members would much rather use their iPhone or Android smartphone to engage with the government than going to a building and spending two hours working with a government official. 

We have to move the most common processes to a digital format and make them available through web browsers and mobile applications. The good news story is that lots of communities are doing this. But I would caution one thing: it’s not just about the technology. You have to put in place the culture processes and the right skills to be able to do it right. You never get the results you want by simply deploying technology. 

Cities of the future: blockchain

Blockchain technology is certainly emerging, and it’s emerging as fundamental to the back-end technology that’s enabling things that weren’t possible before and helping to improve security and trust in transactions. And it’s happening at different rates in different industries. So, you find blockchain, of course, in the financial sector. You see it in the healthcare sector, supply chain and manufacturing, and you see it in the city and government arena. 

Each of these different domains, along with others, are experimenting. Some are implementing different things, but they’re all at different levels. In fact, just like any database, the application of blockchain is extremely varied.

It doesn’t just get you one particular solution. I think blockchain presents a lot of fascinating opportunities for government. The first one that I think is very well worth exploring and seeing where it takes us is identity management. So, you take something as rudimentary — in terms of its importance in our society, I suppose — as voting.

Today, in many cities we go to a place. We go to a polling station and we may use electronic systems, but we also may use a piece of paper or something, so voting is very manual and often very analog. Also, we have concerns about the legitimacy of our votes. Are they counted? Are they being faked? Are people who are voting allowed to vote? These are really core questions here.

So, electronic voting is very compelling if we can get it right. It has happened in a couple of communities, but that’s not enough for the solution to work on a broad basis around the world. We need to figure this out. 

There are many different iterations of this kind of thinking regarding how we might be able to improve voting and not only prove it in terms of integrity, but make it accessible from a smartphone so that I don’t have to mail in my vote or go to the polling booth.

The thing, of course, is authentication across city services. I live here in a place called Foster City. As a member of the community, maybe one day I want to go to the city library, and then another day I want to pay a parking ticket, and maybe another day I want to reserve a room in a community center. Each time I do that, I’m probably going to work with a different system, and it doesn’t know who I am each time. So, I have a unique login name, and I have a unique password. I have to give my credentials each time. But the fact is that I’m the same person interacting with the same government. So, it will be very valuable to have the ability for community members to be authenticated across city services. 

In both the voting world and in this sort of ID verification of an individual and a community, blockchain is beginning to be an interesting way we might achieve that. I think there’s some time to go and now it’s not widespread other than maybe in Zug, Switzerland, and in Estonia. Beyond that, we don’t see the broad use of the technology yet in this context, but we’re seeing fantastic exploration. It could be that within a short amount of time we will begin to see the first development of blockchain-based ID systems.

I think the other one I would just mention in blockchain, then I’ll talk about crypto in a second, is that what governments do most commonly anywhere in the world is store information about societies. They have great repositories of societal history, whether it’s birth certificates, death certificates, property deeds or contracts. They have all sorts of historical documents, declarations and legislation. 

During the 2000s, in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, there unfortunately was a direct hit from a hurricane. The biggest thing wasn’t so much the damage from the wind, rather it was the damage from the water that was created. It created a lot of rain and a lot of flooding. The city of New Orleans was completely and utterly flooded. It was a disaster. Unfortunately, it also flooded a lot of government buildings, and in those government buildings — particularly in the basements — were lots and lots of historical documents belonging to the city of New Orleans. And while it’s not spoken about a lot, all those documents were lost because once they’re underwater for a few days, the paper just disintegrates and the ink comes off.

So, one of the big challenges for New Orleans since that big hurricane has been to replicate, recover and regenerate a lot of documentation. In cities all over the world, unfortunately, there’s still a high volume of content that is stored on paper.

It is not just about the risk of being destroyed by a natural disaster, water or fire, but about the ability to search against that information and the challenges of it maybe being lost or people modifying it. It’s enormously problematic. And yeah, sure, we can just put it in a database, and we should. In some places, such as Palo Alto, we are doing it: scanning and digitizing all of our paper documentation.

Blockchain as an alternative database can be very valuable in that context because of its immutability and its provenance. If a property deed is stored in a blockchain database, while property deeds move from person to person over time, we’re able to easily trace the entire history of that document back to its first creation. Blockchain does this really, really well. So, I think I’m seeing some evidence, and there’s some good examples already, of blockchain being used for document management in the context of cities and governments. You know, I’ve said many things just scratching the surface here, but those are two massive opportunities for blockchain technology.

Cities of the future: cryptocurrency

I think the question of crypto is fascinating and largely unknown. I mean, at some basic level, if a cryptocurrency does become mainstream, of course it has implications for governments. It means thinking about protections. It means thinking about support for it. 

What happens to the financial community and the banking activities of governments? I think crypto sort of has some fundamental possibilities that can be quite disruptive. There will be significant consequences in cities, and in governments more generally, if society begins to more broadly embrace the notion of a reliable, trusted cryptocurrency.

The city with the biggest potential of becoming a smart city

One of the things that I’d like to note is that a smart city is very local. It’s very specific to each community. Smartness in Rio de Janeiro means something different than smartness in southeast Italy, in Melbourne, Australia, or in Palo Alto, California. It really reflects the needs of the community. 

Africa is emerging as an incredible continent. The countries of Africa and the cities of Africa are emerging at different levels. They will need to build and deliver to their people as they emerge rapidly, consistent with what’s important to them and not what’s important to California, Italy or Australia. I can say that Estonia is doing some pretty amazing things. It’s used often as an example, of course, and it’s not always the best example because it’s so small. The big cities of the world have 20 million to 25 million people, while the whole country of Estonia has 1.5 million. So, it’s not always a great example, but it gives us a clue about where things are headed. Of course, the tiny little city of Zug in Switzerland is definitely a smart crypto city, but it’s tiny. I think there’s just thousands of people. A small city, but it’s smart. It’s simpler to be smart when you are small.

It’s actually easier to do a lot of things when you’re a small city. The bigger you get, the harder it is, that’s for sure. But if you think about Mexico with over 25 million people, when you do something important there, it really is a big deal. 

This is part three of a multi-part series on digital future and technological innovations. Read part one about quantum computing here and part two about artificial intelligence here.

This article is from an interview held by Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr with Dr. Jonathan Reichental. It has been condensed and edited.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Dr. Jonathan Reichental is the CEO of Human Future, a global business and technology education, advisory and investment firm. He is the former chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, and is a multiple-award-winning technology leader whose 30-year career has spanned both the public and private sectors.