- Veröffentlicht: 11. September 2018
Commentary: The former smart city program manager at Redlands, California, points out some "grossly overlooked" ideas and demystifies others. For most of the last three years, I’ve had the privilege of launching and implementing the smart city program in Redlands, California. Now I’m leaving local government for The Atlas Marketplace, where I will help proven urban innovations — the kinds we implemented in Redlands — reach more cities, faster.
Here is part one of a list of 11 key things about smart cities I learned while building one from the inside:
1. Yes, cities are risk-averse
Two of the worst things that can happen for a city official is to 1) make a bad decision and have the consequences splashed all over local news and 2) unintentionally break a law and suffer major consequences. Avoiding these two worst things becomes a major incentive for anyone who works for a local government. Every step of the way, culture, systems and processes tell city employees “slow down, don’t screw up.” Given that there’s often a tremendous amount of money — and sometimes lives! — on the line, this is perfectly logical. Acknowledging the reasons for local government risk aversion can go a long way when trying to pursue something new in local government like a smart cities initiative. Bonus points if you’re able to figure out creative ways to “de-risk” a new technology or partnership arrangement for the city without slowing progress down.
2. Some silos exist for good reason
There’s a maxim in innovation that silos are bad, and cool things can’t be achieved without abolishing them. We’re always talking about breaking down silos, cutting across silos, opening up silos, sharing data between silos. But often silos exist for really good reasons. One consequence of city risk aversion is that analysis paralysis can be a huge problem. Everything has to be studied 10 different ways, more people always need to weigh in and even then, no one wants to make the call.
Silos can help sometimes. By assigning a topic to only one department or division, city leaders can more effectively build employee ownership of the topic. When someone owns a project, not only are they more likely to build the necessary expertise, but they’re also more motivated to make tough choices because they know they’ll own the failure of doing nothing.
3. Cities should focus on problems and outcomes, not solutions and tech
Too often, people focus on the new shiny thing in smart cities rather than the problem that the new shiny thing can help a city solve. The projects that get built and the tech that gets adopted all address pain points for citizens or pain points for government employees. What are the biggest problems in citizens’ daily lives? How can we improve the daily effectiveness and efficiency of our city employees? The solutions that scale are the ones with awesome, measurable outcomes: taxpayer dollars saved, hours of staff time that could be reallocated to other projects, number of road closures avoided, percentage decrease in traffic accidents, amount of time reduced from average commute, etc.
4. For vendors: engage at the right level (which is probably not the city council)
Please stop calling the city council with your sales pitches. It’s tempting, I know. It seems like they’re the final decision makers anyway. But it’s not that simple. In my experience, council members will listen politely, but then turn around and kick the idea down to a director, who will kick it down to a manager, who will assign the actual investigation to some staffer who already has a million things to do and little context for any of it. Now, instead of this being an investigation undertaken to solve concrete problems, the staffer who calls you back is merely checking boxes. You’ve likely already lost.
Instead, do your homework. Figure out what problem your tech solves, and who owns that problem. Engage with this person. They may actually care.
5. Don’t put lipstick on a pig
Whether you’re a city official tasked with building a smart city, or you’re an entrepreneur who’s developing the tech that makes a smart city possible, it’s easy to get caught up in the magic of extreme possibilities and forget about all the critical stuff that every government is built on. This is true of internal government processes: things like time sheets, email storage, shared file management, work order processing, land use tracking, rental inspections, and employee training tools all represent huge opportunities for improvement and must be in place before doing anything fancier.
But it’s also true of our built infrastructure: things like broadband access, a more flexible and resilient energy grid, and equitable transportation infrastructure are all prerequisites for pursuing sexier smart cities efforts as well. Perhaps the best example is basic cybersecurity, which is grossly overlooked all across the smart cities industry. It’s rarely sufficient to simply bolt new ideas onto the super broken substructures of existing organizations. Whatever the case, make sure you’ve included at least some of the basics in your smart city strategy, or you run the risk of burning out before you really get started.
6. Prioritize problem-solving over problem-reporting
In Redlands, we discovered that the single biggest complaint category on the city’s 311 app was reporting around burned out street lights. Our first instinct was to streamline the way alerts flowed through the responsible staff and to add a ‘response to citizen’ step into the process. This is bolt-on innovation. It feels like progress, but the citizen experience hasn’t meaningfully improved. After thinking a bit deeper, we instead worked on digitizing street lights with internet-of-things devices that automatically detected when a bulb was close to blowing. Auto alerts could then be integrated into the maintenance workflow for field staff and bulbs preemptively replaced. Instead of incrementally improving the 311 experience (which ironically forces residents to think even more about frustrating issues), real innovation in this case meant solving the root problem.
This is part two of my list of 11 key things about smart cities I learned while I built one from the inside.
7. Open data often isn’t actionable
Open data programs can drive real value for a community, but too often the information that gets published simply isn’t actionable. It doesn’t let people do anything or solve anything. Governments need to actively seek public input, not just push data outwards. Few citizens get any benefit from a spreadsheet (or worse, a scanned PDF) of property assessments or budget transactions.
Even attempts at interactive data infrequently solve concrete problems. It might be nice to know how often the Parks and Rec department cleans a bike trail, but this kind of data has zero impact on how I live my daily life.
I think we need to truly digitize government interactions. What if open datasets could be automatically pulled into permit applications, for example, in ways that actually saved developers time and effort? Alternatively, open datasets should be open to feedback such that community efforts to clean up data could be posted up along with the original set so that things get better over time à la Wikipedia.
8. Cities must own gov-tech sales meetings
In my work on Smart Redlands, I sat through perhaps 200 gov-tech sales pitches. At first, I let the company set the pace. But I quickly learned that while gov-tech companies know their products, they often don’t know government very well. And they rarely knew Redlands even a little. Now, I routinely ask sales reps to skip a slide (or a whole deck!), and talk about my special use case or show me more detail. Our mantra became, “Don’t pitch something up the management chain unless we’d personally be willing to buy the tech with our own money.”
Kip Harkness, deputy city manager for the City of San Jose, regularly pushes staff, partners and potential partners to ensure that every smart city and innovation effort lands in the middle of this Venn diagram. Flipping the typical sales dynamic around — where discussions center on how a company may help a city address a specific local problem — is good for everyone.
9. Learn from gov-tech failure stories ...but not too much
Anyone who’s worked in government for five minutes has a war story about gov tech. There’s always that “one time” when something sounded too good to be true and then broke. As humans, we love company in our misery. Social science tells us that groups bond effectively around shared problems, and telling stories makes everyone feel connected. Working in a smart city program, I heard more than my share.
While it’s tempting to dismiss these failures as ancient history, there’s often valuable nuggets of information locked up in these stories that should be helping to inform future initiatives. Hear them out, but don’t read too much into them. Sometimes past failures are just that: past failures. You’ll only know if you listen and think about what applies to current efforts.
10. Cities aren’t broke
I’ve talked with a few VC funders who are convinced there’s no money in government. I don’t blame them. Budgets are probably the No. 1 complaint shared across local governments. Don’t believe a word of it. Governments spend plenty of money, much of it on technology. City governments are some of the largest purchasers in the economy. However, most of that funding is locked up in priorities established two decades ago. This makes it incredibly challenging to access money for innovation programs. Fortunately, there’s a trick to getting your smart cities project funded: save more money than you cost. If you can deliver new value more cost effectively than the old approach, you’ll make it really easy to get executive buy-in.
11. Be patient…
Government is slow. Sometimes because of politics, sometimes because of silos, sometimes because of bad processes. Whatever the reason, if you expect quick turnarounds on your tech initiative, you’re deluding yourself. Go in with patience top-of-mind. When government employees tell you they expect a response from their boss shortly, it probably means they’ll bring it up in a couple of weeks and get an answer a week after that. When they say they’ll get it right in front of council, it probably means at least two months. If a document is with the city attorney, don’t follow up next week expecting a result — it’s gonna be closer to four weeks if all goes well.
The future is what we make it one day at a time. If we want smarter, safer, more sustainable cities, we have to do the hard work of solving issues as they come up, one step at a time. That’s the point of the smart city movement. Done right, urban innovation isn’t about tech for tech’s sake. It’s about people. It’s about making lives better for as many of them as we can. It’s with this goal — and with these lessons learned during my time in local government — that I’m enthusiastically switching to the private sector to help scale up proven urban innovations worldwide.
Autor(en)/Author(s): Kjeld Lindsted