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Podcast: The Future of Smart Cities in a Data-Driven Society, With Jonathan Reichental

Podcast: The Future of Smart Cities in a Data-Driven Society, With Jonathan Reichental

To improve quality of life for as many people as possible, the places to start are cities. Rob and Jackie sat down with multiple award-winning technology and business leader Jonathan Reichental to discuss why the United States is falling behind other countries in the “smart city” movement and why it matters in a data-driven world.




Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I'm Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Jackie Whisman: And I'm Jackie Whisman, head development at ITIF, which I'm proud to say is the world's top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: This podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today we're going to talk about smart cities and big data and data innovation and the policies that make that all possible.

Jackie Whisman: Dr. Jonathan Reichental is a multiple award-winning technology and business leader whose career has spanned both the private and public sectors. He's been a senior software engineering manager, a director of technology innovation, and has served as Chief information officer at both O'Reilly Media and the city of Palo Alto, California. He's currently the founder of advisory, investment, and education firm, Human Future and also creates online education for LinkedIn Learning. He's written three books on the future of cities, Smart Cities for Dummies, Exploring Smart Cities Activity Book for Kids and Exploring Cities Bedtime Rhymes. I love that. His latest book, Data Governance for Dummies is available now and we're happy to have you here.

Jonathan Reichental: Well, thank you so much Rob and Jackie, I've admired your organization at a distance for some time. I love what you do and I'm really privileged to be here.

Rob Atkinson: My son is now a computer scientist in Silicon Valley and when he was a teenager he was really into the, and he would buy all these O'Reilly books because they have the beautiful animals, tiger and the lion or whatever, and I met with Tim one time and he was kind enough to give me a couple of books and I said, "Oh, would you autograph these for me?" And he did and I gave them to my son. My son was super impressed that I got to meet Tim O'Reilly.

Jonathan Reichental: He's a great guy. That's fantastic. If you're in tech, you probably have seen, read, or own Unix in a Nutshell. I mean that is the ultimate tech book.

Rob Atkinson: And they're sort of like what you were writing in a way trying to simplify. Obviously those are for tech people, but you're trying to do the kind of same thing, simplify this space for if you will, normal people and not PhD people.

Jonathan Reichental: Yeah, that's my goal. Sort of central to who I am, I'm an educator. That's what I love. I love to teach, but I also love to learn. And what I discovered was if I write about something or generate a book or I mean a video series, I have to learn a lot. And so in doing that, sometimes I discover how hard it is to learn certain topics. My mission is to convert that into an education that others can much easier understand and that's become my thing. When people know me and they follow my work, what they know is when they are going to consume some of my content or advice around whether it's the future of cities, sustainability, blockchain, crypto, big day in the now, they know they're going to get an explanation that's easy. I don't trivialize it, I just make it easier to consume and people walk away actually understanding what I've just communicated.

Jackie Whisman: Well, I appreciate that. I don't work with a ton of analysts who dumb things down for me, so I'm happy to be talking to you.

Jonathan Reichental: My pleasure.

Jackie Whisman: We thought we'd start with your work on smart cities and mostly we're curious why more movement in that space seems to be happening outside of the US, not within the US, but we can get to that.

Jonathan Reichental: It's interesting, isn't it? Yeah, well my story goes back about goodness only about 12 years ago or so, I was lucky enough to be hired as the head of technology for the city of Palo Alto, the birthplace of Silicon Valley. What an interesting place to be a technology leader in government, in a community that is made up of innovators and entrepreneurs and technologists in the heart, the center of Silicon Valley, and what could I do with that? That was my sort of thesis. How could I deliver working with my team and the council and the city manager, how could we do things differently using technology? And that was my mission.

But what happened along the way is it often does is the sort of life is seldom a straight line, is that I fell in love with this urban movement. I fell in love with the notion of positive progress in our communities. How could we make services more democratic? How could we ensure that drinking water was good and the footprint that we have on the world could be reduced and we could use more renewable?

So I just got completely immersed in this and got very excited about it. And so as I left the city later on and started my own business, I started to focus on this topic. Now the timing was amazing. As we went from the 20th century into the 21st century, we moved from being a rural planet to being now a majority urban planet, approaching about 60% of all human beings living in a city context, first time in history. And that just gets greater as the years go by. As we get into the middle of this century, that number's up at like 80% or so. So if we're going to improve the quality of life for the most amount of people, we have to do it inside our cities.

And so we have opportunities across the board, whether it's energy or buildings or public safety, climate, everything that makes up life is in this microcosm of the city context and all of it needs innovation, all of it needs progress. We're still using systems in our cities that are a few decades old. We're still using systems that don't align with people's expectations. We all know that because we all interact with our communities at some point.

And so as you look out across the world, a new generation of city leaders and mayors and different officials have sort of recognized this and said, "Hey, what do we do? How do we deliver our cities differently? How do we build trust? How do we not only deliver them differently, but how do we deliver cities so they're economically efficient? That we can actually make the experience good?" And I've had the great privilege to work with leaders in the Middle East where we see a lot of fast-moving economies, whether it's in the United Arab Emirates and now we're actually in Saudi Arabia, also in Southeast Asia. I've been working with a number of governments in there, including the government of Singapore. They are investing a lot and they're putting the leadership of innovation as a priority. It's like in the top sort of three to five of their priorities. I'm not seeing as much in the US, although there are some incredible outliers.

Rob Atkinson: No, it's definitely a top priority. I think the last time we looked at was number 47.

Jonathan Reichental: As a nation?

Rob Atkinson: As a nation.

Jonathan Reichental: One of the ways that I know about this, when I look at my own contracts I have for work, most of them are outside the US, which is again a way of, it's a quick data stat that says, "Hey, why aren't they getting more business? Why aren't we seeing more business here?" I do want to recognize that there are communities that are doing very interesting things and we have some fabulous new leaders and mayors that really are embracing new ways of doing things and understanding that digitalization is at the core now, but not enough, not enough. We need to shift the priority now towards thinking differently and using technology in greater ways to deliver a better experience.

Rob Atkinson: I met with a group of Singaporean government officials a few years ago and I've read a lot, let's just put it that way, I run a think tank, it's pretty hard to have out-read me, and a number of those folks had out-read me. They were pointing out things and I'm like, "Wow, that's cool. I'm going to write that down." Yeah, you're absolutely right. Yeah, Singapore has made this top priority. My son was over there and he told me they have a digital twin of the city.

Jonathan Reichental: They do.

Rob Atkinson: Think about that for planning purposes, for simulations, and Madrid I believe is really, really good. And you're right, there are places in the US where there's pockets of things that are really interesting, but what do you think accounts for the fact that some other cities, Korea, there's a smart city in Korea just over there. What do you think accounts for that? Just being more focused on it being more in the lead on it.

Jonathan Reichental: Like everything, it's multidimensional. There's not single one reason you can point to. When I think about the places that are making rapid progress, Southeast Asia, whether it's Philippines, Vietnam, it's incredible what's happening there. Singapore, a lot of China of course, and then I look at the Gulf States in the Middle East, you look at UAE, Dubai, in particular. Abu Dhabi now is coming up as an Emirate there, Saudi, even Oman and others. What I see is an optimism about the future. You see a younger, educated population now who want a completely different future. And that's an optimism I don't necessarily see in other parts of the world, don't necessarily see at that level in several European capitals and cities and here in the US.

So I see a great relationship between how the population sees the future and their investment and their priorities in their cities. So that's a theme that I see.

Of course, the other one, the more sort of practical, if you like, element is some of these areas, some of these cities that I've pointed out again, things like Dubai and Hanoi for example, they are leapfrogging. The United States took sort of a couple of hundred years to build a country. They're building a country in decades, like 20, 30, 40 years. Everything that's happened in Dubai has happened since the nineties. Before that, it was just the desert. What you're seeing right now in Saudi, I have the chance to go there quite often, I'm doing quite a lot of work across the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is building an entire country of over 80 million people, a massive country building it in two decades.

It's hard to appreciate this as an academic exercise. You literally have to go there and see it with your own eyes. At every corner they're building a mall and a high rise and a theme park and a movie theater because they don't have it. They're building it from scratch and they're doing it fast. So part of it is that US, Europe, we are older now, more mature built environments and it's more complicated. There's more bureaucracy. You can't just build in sort of greenfield you're, you have to work with what's already there. So those are two elements, I think.

Rob Atkinson: One of the things that I find frustrating here in the US, I mean we've done a fair amount of work on smart cities. I remember a number of years ago the folks from the, oh, there was this really cool innovation thing that the mayor of Boston put together, Innovation Shop or something like that was basically about digital innovation. And one of the things they created was this application called Street Bump. And you know Street Bump, you've heard of it.

Basically for the listeners, Street Bump is basically you can download this thing on your iOS or Android phone and when you're driving in Boston, you go over a bump or you're on slippery roads in the wintertime, it'll record that. Totally anonymous, it's totally voluntary and it just tells the public works department, "Hey, we got a pothole here." Or, "We haven't put enough salt on the road," or whatever it might be.

So cool. They've dramatically reduced the amount of time that there are potholes on the street. And so an idea we came up with this is the federal government, maybe through HUD or GSA or somebody comes up with a smart city app store and then other cities could download that, modify it, put in their own GIS coordinates. And there's lots of really cool apps. I know the City of Chicago is working on some cool apps, but we don't seem to have any way to build upon that, build a system, which really requires frankly, the federal government to fund somebody to do that or do it themselves. And Jonathan, any thoughts on that issue?

Jonathan Reichental: Yeah, those guys that you're referring to, the New Urban Mechanics.

Rob Atkinson: That's it.

Jonathan Reichental: That's the cool name for it. Yeah, I have to say our little tribe of smart city folks would want me to say this. Some of that, what you said, that Street Bump thing was a little bit of marketing. The reality of it was a little bit different. They may have got some value from it, but it doesn't exist today.

There's a lot of novelty like that A across the country and actually across the world there's probably as many apps as there are people. So it is a challenge that every community has. One of the things we have to decide for example is do you have one central app for your city or do you work with many? And you look at something like Dubai where they have the one Dubai app and it has hundreds I think over actually, in fact I think they have over a thousand services now, on one app and that's what everybody uses. But here in the US you'd be hard-pressed to go to a city and find a single app for that community. That's a decision. There are benefits. When it's more top down, you get that central app. When it's more market driven, you get lots of participants and that's what we tend towards here in the United States.

I think part of what I've experienced is part of is the political system in the US, right? Federal, state, and local. And there is separation. We have a very unique relationship with our government that many other societies don't.

When I go to some of my European friends, I visit with them and I spend time in their cities and having even been born or brought up in Europe myself, I recognize there's a higher degree of trust and there's a lot of interaction between you as an individual and your local government. Here in the US we've seen it, we see it all the time, we see the manifestation of that, is people want separation. They actually don't want to have that close relationship. And I think that that plays into this.

When I would sit, for example, in a council meeting in a local city here in Silicon Valley on a Monday night, who was there? I mean there was a small group of retired people. Everybody else, young families and things, they were concerned about other things or just were not interested in being engaged in their local democracy. And that's part of why things are the way they are.

The last point I might make is it would make sense that your local government should have an app that you can use for let's say information gathering for updates for even things like where we had big rain here in California for the last few weeks, you know, updates. And I remember having conversations even in my city about the city government deploying this.

Now at the same time, the private sector was developing solutions and one of them that came out was called Nextdoor. A very big success story turned into a multi-billion dollar business here in the US. They could actually deploy this, do their own marketing, not be constrained by any government oversight, and they won. They won the marketplace of ideas. People are more inclined here in the US I think to use that private sector independent app than they are the one that government is insisting or saying you should use. So again, I think that's all part of the environment to which we live here.

Rob Atkinson: So for a long, long time when we wrote about e-government, we would always write about the fact that cities should first and foremost look and see whether there's a robust, scalable, national nationwide app that would do the same thing they want to do. So for example, there was this one on waste oil and it actually had a lot of market share, I can't remember the name of it. And all the oil companies had bought into it, like, [inaudible 00:16:14], for people changing their oil and they had a list. Rather than just saying, "Hey, we're going to use that," you saw a bunch of cities create their own thing. We have this app, or something the federal government's done and it's okay, but I think Travelocity could do it much better kind of thing. There was a partnership with Travelocity or a similar kind of company. How do you think we can get governments to think more about not necessarily having to do it all themselves?

Jonathan Reichental: Well, what this makes me think about and very well aligned with your organization and what I've been thinking about recently is the notion of open data is, and I've worked a lot in this over the last 10 years, those that know me will know this, the examples I used to give were, so we needed to have, the mayor came to me one day about 10 years ago and said, "We need a way in which people can help have input on what roads should be repaired in what sequence. And right now it's just hundreds, actually it's thousands and thousands of columns and rows of a database that is hard to interpret and can we build a solution for this? Can we build an app or a website?" And I thought about it and I kind of talked to a few folks and it would've taken us between the bureaucracy of getting a request for proposals written and getting it out to marketplace, get respondents building it and all the feedback. It'll probably take a year and half a million dollars. This was the kind of baseline.

I said, "That's not fast enough and it's not going to get us where we are. Why don't we just make available the data, which is the road condition or the pavement condition index, PCI data and have others try to build it and let's ask students to build it." And in fact, in this example, it's the best one to give. We built it in two days working with some students, some computer science students.

So I don't say to those city leaders that are listening right now, this is the way you can develop every application.

Jackie Whisman: You can say that.

Jonathan Reichental: Because I don't know that it's scalable, but what I do try to communicate is there's different ways to develop solutions. And part of, I think, the role of government is not only as a convener, but a way to incentivize and say, "Hey, we need this to be solved. Can you help us solve it? And in fact, if you help us solve it, you can build a business out of it, which you can then sell to other cities."

And I have for example, OpenGov, which is now a very successful multimillion-dollar business, started in my office effectively as an idea. And we worked with them to give them ideas and to help them understand the things they needed to understand to build a solution. They built it to lots of cities and today they're a very successful business. That has to happen I think a lot, lot more.

I wanted to come back to one thing though. So I am sort of, I'm giving, I'm being fair. There are lots of good federal applications, no doubt I think that you, Rob, were kind of alluding to that a little bit, that the Park Services have terrific apps. Our climate and weather folks, the CDC has important applications. So there are a lot, even at the state level, there are a lot. And I think where they're niche and it's valuable for government to have extensive oversight and input into them, that definitely makes sense. I don't see in the short term or even the medium term sort of universal apps in the US. I think you'd see this more in countries that are a little bit more federally based. We have this distributed democracy here in the US and so a place like UAE, which has very, very strong central government, they will push it as a central initiative and everyone has to go along with this sort of agreed initiative. I don't really see that in the US anytime soon.

Rob Atkinson: I don't disagree with you, but I think there's a difference between sort of back office G2B, G2C kinds of things. And then the customer facing ones, I get that customer facing ones will be more customized and smaller. But your point about the open government thing where when you talked about the pavement thing and, look, every city in the country, every county in the country faces that exact same problem. There's no need to reinvent the wheel 17,000 times. That can be a shared application. And I think that's the promise of open data and relying on the private sector to be able to scale that.

I get that the sort of front facing things probably going to be a little bit more customized. But even there, I feel like I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which for a long time used to, I don't know if it still does, but it would always win the best county of the year e-government thing. And I was always quite shocked at that because I'm like, "Wow, if I'm living in the best, I hate to see what the worst is." Because, and I don't mean to be critical of people, but it's mediocre. Some of it's good, some of it's not good, just overall you don't get the zing that you do when you would go to a great private sector website.

Jonathan Reichental: Yeah, there's some truth to that for sure. The folks at the federal government, the sort of the US Digital Service, whatever, they come in from the private sector, they do some very nice work. But you're making a bigger point, which is I think needs to be emphasized. And this is something I observed. As a person who worked for many years in the private sector and then as a surprise came into the public sector later in life, I was able to compare a contrast. And what I was amazed was, in fact, to the point you're making how little sharing there was. Nevermind apps and stuff, let's talk about things like a 911 system.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are 40 cities. That's what basically constitutes this area. 40 cities basically it's one big urban area and we do everything 40 times. There's 40 911s basically there's 40 fire services, there's 40 ambulance services, 40 payroll systems. ,That strikes me as something we could do better at just in terms of lowering cost, nevermind standardization, some of those great improvements, sharing of data.

When I was in the city of Palo Alto, we actually, given that we wanted to be progressive in how we viewed these issues, we were seeing that our, yes, our 911 system was needed to be replaced because it was out of a support. And I don't think the product was being made anymore. So one of the things that we did was we asked our neighboring cities, would they like to go in with this on a brand new 911 system? And we were able to secure two of the adjoining cities and we called it the Tri-City 911 system. And we went together and it brought down the costs, which is great. We could share best practices, share training.

But you know what was an incredible, one of the great outcomes of this? And this is sort of just for fun, if we were chasing a bad guy, a bad person, like a robber across one of the borders, today, things would have to just end at the border while the person went into the next city. This tri-city approach allowed the transferal of information and data to the other jurisdiction seamlessly, so I don't know if they ever used it, but technically if they wanted to chase people, the baddies between the different cities, our system would support it for the very first time.

Rob Atkinson: What a crazy idea.

Jackie Whisman: Maybe as a final question to wrap up, how do we get people to buy into data-driven tech? Adoption isn't just a problem when it comes to smart cities and governments, but I mean maybe the answer is they should read Data Governance for Dummies and start there.

Jonathan Reichental: Well Jackie, I love how you think.

Jackie Whisman: Available on Amazon. I've already checked.

Jonathan Reichental: Yeah, exactly. And your local book store. Support your local business.

Jackie Whisman: There you go.

Jonathan Reichental: And yeah, of course. That would be a good starting point, joking aside, I mean what my book tries to do, or the story I try to tell is that data has moved from the sort of periphery into the center of the action. We are a data-driven culture. We are data-driven businesses, a data-driven society.

It turns out, people say that data is the new oil for powering our economy. People say that data is the most important asset. Now, after one year of research, I can sit here confidently say those statements are true. Those statements are true. Data is now the most important asset in every type of organization.

And what's happening is you've got some great organizations that get that and are doing good work with it. That's a sort of one layer. Then you have others that are really the biggest. If it's a graph here, a bell chart, the mass of companies in the center are trying their best. They're not succeeding a lot of the time, by the way. And then you got a few that are just doing nothing. They don't realize that they're sitting on a gold mine.

Governments might fit a little bit into that third section, which is something I observed when I first started working for government. You create data, you consume it in running government, but now can you use it for other things? Is there more derivative value? Can you, for example, use it to understand your community better? Understand trends, how to reach people, who your people are and what they want. Yes. Now, but you have to have skills. You have to have tools to do that.

What I do see though is in, I think I like to be, I am an optimist, that data has rapidly surfaced as a priority in lots and lots of organizations of all types and is quickly rising to the top even in government, you see governments hiring chief data officers, governments starting to use all sorts of data analytics tools, making that data available to their communities.

So we're in the beginning of actually a very good news story. What data governance is about, and this is my sweet spot these days, this is what my book is about, is you can have data, you can have tools, and you can even have people who have skills, but it can all be implemented really poorly and you don't get the results you want. In fact, I have one data point in this of the organizations that go full in on data-driven activities, only about 30% actually succeed. So they're failing 70% of the time, although they want to do this. And that drove me working with my publisher to say, we ought to figure out a way that we can help organizations get those 70%, have more success in managing data better.

And so at the heart of that, I'll just sort of sum up here, when we talk about managing data better, whether it's in government, all levels of government or in the private sector, or even in academia, we're talking about things like securing data. This is a top of mind thing, making sure that we are implementing cybersecurity in a positive way. It means being compliant and meeting regulatory needs. This is really important if you're in government, this is important if you're in healthcare and lots of other sectors.

But what I try to emphasize for a lot of leaders, particularly in the private sector, is the role data plays in business growth, right? Because I can talk about compliance and cybersecurity and it's sort of like the overhead, it's a bit of a headache. But when I say you can use data, if you do it in the right way, to grow your business, to innovate more, to reach more customers, to grow market share, then they listen. Then they're like, "Ah, now I'm interested." So in my view, we've got to tackle that back office, the sort of reactive stuff, but if we do well on the proactive, if we use data governance, businesses can grow and they are more profitable.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah, that's great. And I do think that federal government is making a lot of strides there. We're filing this week with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They have a new initiative to try to get inputs on moving to the bioeconomy and a big part of the questions they're asking as the role of data in the bioeconomy. So there's a lot going on and I wish we could spend more time, but unfortunately we're out of time. So Jonathan, this was really great, really fantastic. Thank you so much. And I encourage listeners to pick up a copy or multiple copies of multiple of your books. If you have kids bedtime stories.

Jackie Whisman: There you go.

Jonathan Reichental: That's it. Thank you.

Jackie Whisman: Something for everyone.

Jonathan Reichental: Well, look, I felt that kids, we weren't being fair. We weren't helping them. Thank you, Rob, and thank you Jackie. Great questions. I love your organization. Love what you do. And I just feel so honored to be a little part of it for the small amount of time we spent together today.

Jackie Whisman: Thank you. And that’s it for this week If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: We have more episodes and great guests lined up. We hope you'll continue to tune in.

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