Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer of Palo Alto, answered our questions on being a CIO in a smart city and on how to help a startup ecosystem grow.
As the true birthplace of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto appears as an interesting example to look at when it comes to Smart City innovation. Indeed, the city has been ranked No°5 among 2016 top digital US cities for its size category (ie. up to 75,000 inhabitants) by the Center for Digital Government.
Since 2011, Jonathan Reichental has been Palo Alto Chief Information Officer (CIO). He’s been recognized as one of the top 20 most influential CIO’s in the US. As a popular writer and a public figure, he travels the word to spread the word about Smart City and GovTech. In this interview, he goes over his core responsibilities as a CIO, Palo Alto’s achievements as a Smart City and his own vision of urban innovation.
Being a city’s CIO might be seen as peculiar since it’s usually a position held inside of a company. How would you describe your mission?
Still today, people tend to be surprised that cities have CIOs. At the federal level, it is quite a common thing to see but when you get to county and city levels, it is still less common.. However, it is gaining popularity, especially as tech is becoming more central to our work at City Hall.
Of course, there is first a strong IT component to my job. However, there is an increasing need to think differently about how we deliver city services, ranging from transportation, water and waste management to energy and public safety. And tech lies at the center of all of these. We are increasingly trying to solve 21st century problems with 21st century solutions! I also dedicate about a third of my time to building relationships with Silicon Valley startups and beyond to explore how we might bring smart city projects to life.
You talked about creating value and bringing smart city projects to life… How do Palo Alto managing to make such opportunities happen?
We are lucky enough to be close to some of the best tech brains in the world, which is an advantage for sure. Though, we do not only partner with startups but also team with larger players like Microsoft, SAP and Verizon. Urban innovation is not just about tech startups
Also, whatever the geography, I strongly believe that cities need to be willing to take risks to innovate. Even if we are located in Silicon Valley, we need to find ways to engage tech companies on a dialog about the future of our cities. At the end of day, cities are not necessarily an appealing playground for startups. How can we support them?
Palo Alto is still a relatively small city with about 67,000 people, a population that doubles during the day with commuters. The city’s land covers about 25 square miles, which makes it geographically manageable. Our relative small size tends to favor a certain speed of action and easiness to measure results.
However, it’s undeniably a trade-off. The city of San Francisco has for sure bigger budgets and can tackle more projects at the same time. Nevertheless, I’m also convinced that there is no unique answer to the Smart City challenge, no single solution or master plan you can magically apply to all cities. The response has to be distinctive based on local challenges and context.
What is your vision of the smart city?
A smart city should be seen through the following prism: livability, workability, sustainability.
The current experience that citizens have at city hall is usually not that satisfactory. First, there are long lines and outcomes can be unpredictable.. We want to make it a seamless experience, as fast as possible, using apps for instance. When you need a permit to do construction work in your home, you should be able to submit your request through a mobile device. To fulfill this vision, we have digitized about 60 services making it as easy as possible to report an issue, pay a parking ticket, look at your house power consumption. We have also built a virtual library. Directly from your phone, you can download books, music and films. This is in addition to our five physical libraries.
What kind of technologies have you been implementing to turn Palo Alto into a smarter city?
We launched PaloAlto311 a few years ago. It is a free app where community members can report issues such as a fallen tree, graffiti or holes on the sidewalk by taking a picture of them. We now have a few thousand users and receive hundreds of reports every month. We also integrated a feedback section to our work as we ask for user satisfaction, which is a way for us to assess the quality of our services. For example, how long does it take us to deal with a specific issue?
Afterwards, we close the loop by making the data available to our community. We offer open data almost in real time, what we call near real time This way, we want to encourage academics and others to analyze our data. On the one hand, this tool positively connects residents with the city staff and on the other hand, data can help decision-making at the city level.
What are your main challenges you encounter as the CIO of Palo Alto?
We often want to do more than we can possibly do! There are unfortunately more problems than there is time and capacity. As a result, our main challenge is prioritization. We’re a relatively small city, so our staff is limited. Thus we have to be laser-focused on what is important for the community.
Moreover, convincing our stakeholders of the value provided by our products and services is still an ongoing process. If return on investment in the public sector does not matter as much as it does in the private sector, we still have to be committed to defend our projects and look for support. Being a good communicator is important. In addition to that, there are issues around recruitment, especially in Silicon Valley. Turnover is high and talentis hard to find. We are competing with the Bay Area’s tech giants.