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City Lights: Alby Bocanegra, New York

Alby Bocanegra, the City of New York’s Interim Chief Technology Officer, talks to Smart Cities World about the challenges of keeping up with new technologies, ensuring equitable smart cities and more.

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City Lights: Alby Bocanegra, New York

SCW: What is the main purpose of your role?

 

AB: I lead a team that is successfully implementing strategies and programmes that put New Yorkers at the centre of the development process of technology solutions and policies that impact their daily lives.

 

We are actively looking at technology and methodologies to positively impact the quality of life for residents through universal broadband, the responsible use of smart cities technologies, digital literacy programmes, privacy legislation, coalition-building and policy-making.

 

Our purpose is to make our city more inclusive and equitable and to meet the Mayor’s vision to make New York City the fairest big city in America.

 

We can’t do this alone. This happens through partnerships with city agencies, the tech industry, community leaders and organisations, as well as individual residents to improve services, initiatives and opportunities for equitable growth.

 

SCW: What does the term ’smart city’ mean to you?

 

AB: If you asked a room full of 100 CTOs, you’d get 100 different answers. This is a bit problematic because there is little consensus on what it means to be a ‘smart city’, especially during a time where cities are vying to obtain the title of being listed as a smart city.

 

If you asked a room full of 100 CTOs, you’d get 100 different answers.

 

‘Smart city’ tends to be an overused term with a non-specific strategy or set of outlined principles. In most cases, the outcomes are mostly one-off tech pilots or projects that don’t scale.

 

Instead, cities should be focused on tangible, scalable solutions to real-world urban problems. A truly smart city is focused on the needs of the public. It puts people and their needs first, not technology first, and brings projects to life that can scale to serve the broader public.

 

While each city has unique issues, we also share some common challenges, such as climate change, cybersecurity threats and housing shortages. When one city can share examples of how they’re implementing tech to solve for these challenges, then we are stronger as cities and around the world.

 

When one city can share examples of how they’re implementing tech to solve for these challenges, then we are stronger as cities and around the world.

 

To me, a smart city is fair and equitable. Its residents are digitally literate and empowered. It is a city that is improving quality of life for residents by being safe, clean, sustainable and energy-neutral. It’s a connected city.

 

A couple of ways that we’re making this happen is through tech industry engagement so that we can learn what emerging technologies are on the horizon and engage with those companies, start-ups and academia to solve some of the toughest challenges that come with urbanisation and growth.

 

SCW: What is your number one priority right now?

 

AB: Universal broadband is a top priority. It is foundational to all the other work that we do because people don’t have a fair shot to succeed in the modern world without access to it.

 

We are partnering with agencies, private industry, and academia to further the Mayor’s goal to ensure every New Yorker and NYC business enjoys access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband service everywhere by 2025.

 

In our own research, we found that over one-third of all New Yorkers don’t have access to broadband in the home, among other startling insights that we published in the Truth in Broadband report. We are close to finalising a business model for universal broadband and will be proactively working with partners to implement.

 

Another priority is bringing technology solutions to life in a way that directly helps communities in New York City. We’ve launched what we call Co-Labs, which allow us to work directly with residents to help solve for their most pressing needs.

 

One is in Brownsville, Brooklyn and we just launched one in Inwood, Manhattan. We are using design thinking to help to surface the priority needs of a neighbourhood. From there, we will co-develop a tech challenge that calls on the global tech industry to bring solutions to the table.

 

We give the technology finalists a small award to build and test proposals before they move into a pilot phase. So far, we’ve been successful in launching an organics pilot programme to make it easier for residents to participate in a composting programme. The winning proposal was from a company based in the community so in addition to increasing composting, we’re also helping grow a local company.

 

SCW: What are some of the side effects or downsides of new technologies in cities?

 

AB: Just as technology has the power to revolutionise industries and bring people closer together, it can also divide and leave people behind. New technologies definitely create positive and negative disruptions.

 

Some technologies are adopted very quickly, but in a way that only serves a select group of people. While it creates conveniences for some, it may create inconveniences for other groups of people, such as affordability and access.

 

If technologies are not delivered in a way that is beneficial to ALL people then it’s not equitable, and the digital divide grows. In today’s world, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. But it’s a problem we can solve together.

 

We need stronger partnerships between industry and local government in order to get it done and get it right. This is an exciting time for me because I am seeing more and more engagement between local municipalities and the industry. It’s a great time to be a civic technologist because of this.

 

This is an exciting time for me because I am seeing more and more engagement between local municipalities and the industry. It’s a great time to be a civic technologist because of this.

 

Also, some new technologies may not be adequately protecting personally identifiable information. We’re constantly looking at things through the equity and privacy lens. It’s what is front and centre for us when thinking about the needs of New Yorkers and the intersection with tech.

 

SCW: What do you see as your biggest achievement since you started the role?

 

AB: In October, we launched NYC Digital Safety: Privacy & Security, a project that boosts NYC libraries as a place for the public to get information about internet privacy and security. This was a first-of-its-kind local programme that we intend to continue annually as part of our digital literacy efforts.

 

I’m really excited about the Coalition of Cities for Digital Rights because it’s a truly global initiative. Since the announcement in November 2018, we’ve had a number of enquiries from cities around the world asking how they can be part of the effort.

 

We are also fortunate to have the support of groups such as the U.N. Habitat to help convene the cities. Right now, we are asking any city to join us. More information about the coalition can be found here and cities can fill out this form to indicate their interest in joining. In the new year, we’ll be convening cities to work through the five principles and create strategies and clear outcomes for each one.

 

SCW: What is the best part of the job?

 

AB: The best part of the job is putting people first in all that we do. As much as tech is about machines, it’s meaningless unless it is helping people. I get to do tech for good, not tech for tech’s sake.

 

Sometimes in an executive role, you don’t have the opportunity to be ‘on the ground’, but it’s a key requirement to succeed in this role.

 

I have the unique opportunity to interact with the people we impact. Sometimes in an executive role, you don’t have the opportunity to be ‘on the ground’, but it’s a key requirement to succeed in this role.

 

SCW: What is your biggest challenge?

 

AB: The biggest challenge (and reward) is that there’s always more work to be done.

 

Technology evolves at a rapid pace, and it’s my job to look ahead and understand the benefits and threats that come with using technology in the modern world.

 

Technology, like time, waits for no one.

 

Technology, like time, waits for no one. I love a good challenge and live for problem-solving so I couldn’t have picked a better hybrid of industries that present big problems and challenges: government and tech.

 

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