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Palo Alto’s CIO calls for greater urgency on smart cities

Cities are at the beginning of a crisis and the way we handle it will define the future of humanity, says City of Palo Alto CIO, Jonathan Reichental. Heavy stuff. However, he is optimistic that these challenges, coupled with advancing and emerging technologies, present a huge opportunity to generate economic value and do good for society.


When it comes to the drive for smarter cities, “I’d like to see a bit more urgency to be honest,” Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer, City of Palo Alto, told delegates at the Smart Cities Realised event in Liverpool last week.

Reichental warned: “We are at the beginning of a crisis for our cities,” noting 2017’s Hurricane Harvey which killed over 100 people in Houston, Texas and caused $125 billion worth of infrastructure damage.

“Other extreme weather events are going to happen,” Reichental said, highlighting that these events will mainly happen in cities, at a time when more and more people are moving into urban areas.

Recent analysis from the United Nations (UN) projected that two-thirds (68 per cent) of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, up from just over half (55 per cent) today.

Reichental commented: “The future of our children, our friends, and the rest of humanity is in the city context.”

Paying the cost

“The cost of creating our amazing cities, has been quality of air and quality of water and other challenges like that,” he added. “Now we have to deal with it.”

Research from the World Health Organisation recently revealed that polluted air kills seven million people every year. Reichental also cited the example of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge and growing pile of trash and plastic in the Pacific Ocean which is already three times the size of France.

He said cities have a lot of work to do to tackle issues like these: “We are not in good shape,” he commented. “None of us really have the benefit of creating our cities from scratch so we are doing an incredible re-engineering job over the next few decades.”

The ones to watch

Reichental sees particular opportunity in a few key areas and technologies.

  • Autonomous vehicles

He called self-driving cars “the most important technology for the first 50 years of the 21st century,” with the potential to drastically reduce the millions of road deaths we currently see each year.

Autonomous vehicles also offer the opportunity for cities to organise around people again, rather than cars, he said.

  • Solar energy

Solar energy is another hugely promising area, Reichental said, predicting: “We are at the beginning of a massive revolution in energy. We are moving to a non-carbon-based energy future and I’m going to make the bet that it’s going to be solar,” as increasing amounts of solar energy are produced, and the price falls dramatically.

He said a unit of solar power is now the cheapest form of energy ever produced on the planet.

To capitalise on solar: “We have to innovate around us,” Reichental said and that we need new ecosystems and business models to support solar.

  • AI

He also urged city leaders to get on board with artificial intelligence (AI), commenting: “If you’re just superficially looking at artificial intelligence, may I recommend you that you start getting deep into it because it’s going to change the world in such a way that we won’t be able to recognise it in about 30 years from now.”

Already in Palo Alto, for example, a company is applying machine learning to determine the optimum change frequency for traffic lights, based on previous historical data.

Innovation worth trillions

In order to innovate fast enough and at the scale required, there’s no way cities can do everything themselves. They have to create an environment where businesses and citizens can take action.

Reichental highlighted a “massive gap” between the expectations of citizens and what cities are actually delivering.

For example, when citizens think of government and its services, they often think of waiting in line at a physical office, rather than the frictionless online experience they have come to expect elsewhere.

“That’s opportunity,” he said. “Innovation worth probably over a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. It’s a necessary opportunity; it is also an economic opportunity.”

For example, the City Palo Alto needed a solution to help citizens track the status of permit applications. Building it themselves would have cost the city at least $100,000 and taken over 18 months. Instead, they opened permit data and gave it away for free, enabling a third-party company to create an application and sell it more quickly than the city ever could have.

“That’s what smart citizens do,” Reichental said. “They don’t just wait for government…if you’re waiting for government, you’ll be waiting a long time. But if you are a smart and you can use data, you can not only solve a very big problem for every city in the world; you can create jobs. This is about economic opportunity too.”

The power is in the data – like many cities, Palo Alto has a free app: PaloAlto311.

“The important things about these apps is that they produce an awful lot of data. This is the one thing all cities have in abundance. We make all our data available for more people to innovate around them.”

The best is yet to come

Reichental concluded: “Were just in the very, very beginning of this incredible phenomenon. The best stuff is yet to come. The innovations we need to respond to the big problems of the 21st century haven’t been invented yet.”

He urged companies: “Is there a problem that is valuable that needs solving? If you answer that yes: go for it, do it, solve it. You’ll address a social good which you will also make some money on.”

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