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The ongoing shift to a city-centric planet will see 68% of the world’s population living in urban areas by 2050. This shift will see the rise of megacities with populations exceeding 10 million residents. Currently, this transition has resulted in positive and negative outcomes for urban dwellers. On the positive side, cities have been instrumental in the reduction of poverty by providing economies of scale in the creation of universal wealth. On the negative side, cities are choked by overpopulation, pollution, pressure on natural resources and infrastructure among other challenges.

To increase the social benefit of cities while mitigating these challenges, cities must transform themselves into the cities of the future. Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer of the City of Palo Alto, California is optimistic that digital technologies will help cities achieve this transformation. Dr. Reichental, having worked in the private sector for close to two decades and subsequently in the public sector for close to seven years, sees first-hand the challenges and opportunities cities face as they work towards serving an increasingly digitized populace. He recently conducted a webinar for the Silicon Valley Innovation Center where he discussed the future of cities. In this article, we cover highlights of the hour-long webinar.

The Future of Urban Transport

Failing transportation systems are at the core of the urban experience, says Dr. Reichental. Traffic snarl-ups and greenhouse gas emissions characterize urban transport systems, a situation that diminishes the sustainability of cities, especially as more people move into cities. He, however, sees a reversal of this trend by the emergence of digital technologies like self-driving electric cars. Top Silicon Valley self-driving car startups like Waymo, Zoox, Nauto, Quanergy Systems, and Cyngyn are all working towards the realization of self-driving cars that meet regulatory approval, all within the next ten years or so. Dr. Reichental sees this trend to self-driving cars as being pivotal in not only reimagining urban transport, but also reinventing urban spaces.

“In the United States today, there are over a billion parking spaces. That’s billion with a B,” says Dr. Reichental. He sees the emergence of self-driving cars as key to reclaiming some of these spaces and repurposing them for green areas like parks. This, he observes, is just one of the far-reaching consequences of autonomous vehicles. He sees a future where children growing up will not need to take a driving test or apply for a driving license, something that would fundamentally alter the fabric of society. While there may be, in the initial phases, resistance from those who may see such advances as threatening livelihoods, Dr. Reichental sees the emergence of alternative use cases and ways of life that will fill in the gaps created by such digital transformations.

One example Dr. Reichental gives is when former Mayor Bloomberg of New York City decided to convert some roads surrounding Times Square into walkways. Bus and taxi drivers initially resisted the move claiming traffic would worsen. However, the city dwellers loved the conversion so much, and traffic did, in fact, not worsen, that city hall opted to make the change permanent. This outcome may well be a glimpse into a future where only a handful of autonomous vehicles use roads, or, if Elon Musk’s Boring Company has its way, subterranean tunnels beneath the city resulting in massive empty spaces within cities.

The Future of Urban Energy

“It’s becoming clear, I think, that we are moving, we are trending towards a non-carbon future,” says Dr. Reichental. He sees this trend as not only inevitable but necessary if we are to stay well below the 2% increase in global temperatures mark. Energy consumption, which is at the core of cities, must transition into green alternatives if cities are to become sustainable and have a reduced impact on the global climate. But this is perhaps the biggest challenge cities will face going into the future. All industries, which count cities as their epicenter, rely heavily on energy. Enmeshed in legacy systems, it will be difficult to change the way cities produce and consume energy. But this transition, says Dr. Reichental, is non-negotiable.

“We’ve got to reinvent and rethink how we produce and deliver energy on the planet. And the good news is we’re moving in some positive directions,” he says. Energy production forecasts support his outlook by predicting that by 2030, oil, gas, and coal will, combined, generate 64 gigawatts of energy compared to 279 produced by a combination of sustainable energy sources including hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, biomass and geothermal.

From these estimates, solar will by far be the biggest winner, generating the lion’s share of this anticipated output. Dr. Reichental, therefore, sees solar as the likely heir to the throne that is currently occupied by fossil fuels. As such, cities must invest in ways to integrate sustainable energy into their infrastructure by partnering with startups like Arcadia Power, which gives renters and homeowners easy access to clean renewable energy.

The Future of Urban Governance

Governance is the nexus at which innovation and large-scale applications intersect. As the appointed gatekeepers of the urban experience, governments are playing an increasingly important role in how innovation is integrated into the transformation of cities. Dr. Reichental knows the importance of government in innovation all too well. He points out that some of the most important technological innovations in recent history emerged from the government. Technologies like the Internet, GPS, barcode readers, and the microchip were all funded by government grants. He sees government as being able to take riskier bets in the advancement of mass-market innovations, something private companies may not be willing to undertake.

However, he is quick to point out that government working alone cannot solve all the challenges associated with cities. “The only way we’re going to solve the problems of the future is by collaboration, by public-private partnerships. And more and more, those problems are going to be solved in the private sector,” he says.  He goes further by pointing out that individual citizens also have a role to play in the transformation of their cities. By coming up with innovative ideas and sharing these with local authorities, he says synergies can be created to help move cities forward.

One example of how this can work is the City of Palo Alto’s Open Data Portal. By opting to be an open data city by default, the city has made it possible for private citizens to experiment with data collected by the city. The city is also planning to launch a city-focused innovation platform in partnership with a local startup, UrbanLeap, where individuals, startups and enterprises can collaborate with government to bring to market city-centric innovations.

Giving Cities Back to People

“I think the future of cities is about, as best we can, bringing the city back to the people. After all, it is for the people,” reflects Dr. Reichental. The smart cities of the future will have to be citizen-centric, a focus that will direct all innovations towards the improved quality of life of citizens. With megacities of 10 million+ residents, public and private organizations must come together to harness emerging technologies on behalf of these residents. Digital transformation will be at the heart of these innovations and so will compel local governments to not only invest in their own digital innovation and transformation agendas but also partner with tech startups to bring cutting-edge technologies to their cities.

Watch an In-depth Webinar on The Digital Transformation of Cities by Dr. Jonathan Reichental

In this in-depth webinar, Dr. Reichental delves into the ways in which digital transformation will affect the cities of the future. He touches on areas such as governance, transportation and energy.


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