The smart cities interview: “There’s marketing and reality; our world is based in reality,” says Palo Alto
Forget the notion of an integrated smart city platform for a moment, says Jonathan Reichental chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto in the US. “What does a park system, a police system, and a library system even have in common?”
We have been here before. Reichental told Enterprise IoT Insights in late 2017, in a state-of-the-market report on smart cities, that cities operate as multiples businesses. “Cities look after the sick and the homeless, and have fire services. I don’t think we’re close to any notion of an integrated platform,” he said.
He is responding, now, as then, to claims technology providers can build a platform to cross civic silos and civic systems, in order to give cities total control of their data, and afford innovators a way to mix-up streams and divine new innovations.
Notably, Cisco has proclaimed its ‘platform of platforms’, piloted in the seminal CityVerve experiment in Manchester in the UK, as a definitive fix for technological and cultural interoperability. But Singapore’s industrial development agency has this just promised the same wizardry on a green-field city in its Punggol district, and most other vendors have been mainlining the Kool-Aid, according to Reichental’s assessment.
“I don’t know what it means to build a platform for a city. I visit cities all over, and I don’t see any platforms. The question is how you solve problems. If you have an issue with crime in your city, and you want data to inform your fight against crime, then that is a very important and specific goal,” he says.
“But what has it got to do with libraries? What do these companies even mean by a platform? If it’s a way to visualise city operations, then it’s only going to work in a small set of cities. The systems we have today are old, and I’m not sure we have confidence in their data.”
Cisco would argue it can tap into any system, and future-proof your every upgrade. Reichental blows out his cheeks, generally, just at the concept, and his own experience of tech-selling in the city context. “I really struggle with vendors selling platforms,” he says.
“Even if they are selling a sensor network, they have to know whether its for parking spaces or air quality, or whatever. There’s marketing and reality.; my world is based in reality. I am extremely supportive of innovation; let’s keep pushing the envelope on ideas. But we have to be dealing in outcomes. What are you trying to solve?”
Reichental knows the scene. Palo Alto is part of Silicon Valley, with the tech world at its door-step. Tesla is headquartered nearby, we note. Palo Alto has more Tesla drivers per capita than most neighbourhoods, he says. His team is building out charging infrastructure for electric cars at pace. Solar-powered cars will be a definitive breakthrough, he suggests. “Silicon Valley is the new Detroit – cars are just computers on wheels.”
Away from the minutiae of city planning, around fibre availability and 5G readiness, he is conspicuous on the international circuit, at smart-city conferences and seminars, and under the hood of the best urban data centres and technology hubs. At the time of speaking, he has just got back from touring China’s smartest civic operations.
“I was taken to some sort of a city operations centre, with massive screens, and they showed us this incredible dashboard, where you could see the traffic conditions, and demand on the electrical grid, and all sorts of interesting stats. It is all valuable at some level, and it looks good. But are decisions actually being made based on that data?”
His dislike of the platform concept is not so simple, actually.
Palo Alto has just issued a request-for-proposal for street lighting, he says, which sets out a series of related demands, which can be served by hanging sensors of lighting poles. “We have whole set of requirements, around data integration. We want to extract data and share it with others. We don’t know how, yet, but we want that facility.”
Similarly, the city is seeking to develop a new parking app, which requires some integration with old IT systems. Parking in Palo Alto has always been free until now, but congestion has thickened and parking controls will help with the flow. The new parking app will be ready-populated with citizen data at launch, if the systems would just work together.
“In private business, that kind of thing is meat-and-potatoes. But that is not the way cities operate. Cities are starkly built and run in silos,” he says.
Platform vendors are attempting to solve these issues of data integration at a city-wide level. Reichental acknowledges the challenge. “We are starting to see that one system can have benefits for another, if we allow for integration,” he says.
His beef is with the sales and marketing of systems integration, symptomatic of the culture clash between civil servants and business people, and the constraints and objectives they work with, which has characterised the smart city market. The theory of integrating data sets is fine, of course, he says.
“We shouldn’t be driving towards integration just for the sake of it. I like to see cities working in response to specific problems, and not just throwing layers of technology down,” says Reichental.
“We have to solve particular problems. We have to solve transportation, for instance, as one of the greatest challenges of our time. We have to solve the energy crisis, likewise. These are all related, of course; the consensus says rising sea levels and extreme weather will effect cities, and particularly coastal cities.
He sees progress in the market, driven by necessity. “We are getting into a more practical phase,” he told Enterprise IoT Insights last year. “We are going from aspirational need to absolute imperative – because we have to do this, or we are screwed. The planet is screwed.”
The idea cities are at the eye of the storm in terms of broad environmental and economic sustainability, and must be at the heart of the planet’s resolve to reimagine society’s burden, continues to gain credence, he says, sharing the vibe he picked up on a recent stop-off in Scandinavia, possibly on his way in or out of China.
“Norway has really woken up to this idea – of how cities can use tech to prepare for the future, and not just in terms of efficiencies, but in terms of economic opportunities, and moving away from oil and gas as the main source of income. It’s the same everywhere, that young people can be engaged with technology help cities.
“The market is gaining some maturity. We’re seeing the beginning of really powerful point solutions,” he says. There is progress, it seems, but it is scattered. “It’s this idea the future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed. Some cities doing remarkable things, doubling down on non-carbon energy production, with solar in particular.”
The drive for greener energy is one of four major challenges for smart cities and opportunities for technology providers, he says. Palo Alto has set a target to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent over 1990 levels by 2030, outrunning the California mandate. “There are tremendous in cities around the world. The UK has pretty aggressive goals; even India will ban combustion engine by 2035.”
The other challenges for cities, in no particular order, are transportation, sustainability at large, and the digital transformation of local government. “These are the challenges for cities; these are the markets that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars to providers over the next few years,” he says, speaking directly to the vendor set, again.