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Rapid urbanization and a shift in industry from agriculture to manufacturing and now to information have resulted in an unprecedented population shift from rural to urban areas. Consider the following facts from the UN World Urbanization Prospects Report 2018:

  • Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 55% of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2018.
  • In 1950, 30% of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to be urban.
  • The urban population of the world has grown rapidly since 1950, having increased from 751 million to 4.2 billion in 2018.

This dramatic rise in urban populations has resulted in the growth and expansion of cities. Today, a conversation about the future of the planet involves discussing the future of cities, which are poised to play a central role in creating a sustainable future for humanity. We spoke with Dr. Jonathan Reichental, chief information officer of the City of Palo Alto about the future of cities. As a technology expert with experience from both the private sector and government, he shared his thoughts on the future of smart cities and what governments, the private sector, and citizens ought to focus on to make the dream a reality.

Data and Privacy

In 2015, an International Telecommunications Union working group distilled the definition of a smart city into one statement: “A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.” Dr. Reichental distills this definition further, “Smart cities are the application of digital technologies for improved livability, sustainability, and workability.” However, with this integration of digital technologies, especially through the application of smart sensors and smart devices like smartphones, comes the inevitable discussion about data collection and privacy.

“We live in a post-privacy world,” says Dr. Reichental, “one where everyone must give up a certain level of privacy in a tradeoff for increased convenience and utility.” For smart cities to thrive, he says, the conversation about data and privacy must be framed as a tradeoff and not an all-or-nothing situation. While today the conversation rages on because of the monetization of personal data by large corporations, this conversation can take a different turn when government and civic participation is looped in. Due to the nature of public participation in government, this impediment to the emergence of truly smart cities can be overcome. But for this to become a reality, a second aspect must be considered.

Legislation and Regulation

We asked Dr. Reichental where he sees the momentum for the establishment of smart cities coming from. “The push for smart cities will come from three areas; citizens, government and the private sector.” As citizens live more digitized lives and demand more convenience and efficiency in service provision, government will be compelled to take steps, both regarding investment and in legislation, to support this trend. One example of such legislation is the Internet of Things (IoT) Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017 which is currently before Congress. While legislation may be slow to catch up with technological advances, it holds the key to unlocking the potential of smart cities by regulating technologies like self-driving cars, clean energy generation, smart grids, and others.

To achieve this, Dr. Reichental explains, government relies on the private sector to come up with tried and tested innovations that can be deployed at scale. Considering smart cities are a trillion-dollar opportunity, there is enough incentive for the private sector to push for smarter cities. However, he says, this push from the private sector must include government interest for it to scale to a sizeable urban population. Recent experiments like Google’s plans to build a smart city in Toronto while laudable, fall short of what is needed to create the sort of momentum needed to drive the smart cities agenda. The right approach to smart cities should include government, citizens and private sector with an outlook, not of generating consensus, but rather having the difficult conversations involved with moving today’s cities into the future.

Climate and Environment

At the heart of the push for smart cities is the need to establish sustainable cities. Due to the massive numbers of buildings, vehicles and other machinery and equipment in cities, quality of life tends to get eroded through noise and air pollution, carbon emissions, and others. This is seen, for instance, in some Chinese cities, where air pollution has become a major challenge. “If we are to achieve the dream of smart cities, we must have the focus of creating sustainable cities that help solve the climate challenge,” says Dr. Reichental. This will involve the large-scale adoption of clean energy, as energy is at the core of everything that makes a modern city run. This adoption of clean energy will have to span transportation, lighting and heat generation as well as powering smart IoT devices.

One example of a sustainable city is the Chengdu Great City in China. Envisioned as a fully smart city, “the project has been designed to use 48% less energy and 58% less water than a conventional development of similar population (80,000). It will also produce 89% less landfill waste and generate 60% less carbon dioxide.” It is important to note that this prototype city will have a population density of 61,538 people per square kilometer, one of the highest in the world. Such a city would meet Dr. Reichental’s threshold of what he believes is a city that balances quality of life with sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Closer home, the City of Palo Alto built and deployed an open data portal using lean methodologies to provide citizens, vendors, and developers direct access to raw data produced by the city of Palo Alto. By cutting out the middleman (data miners and processors), the city hopes to make it easier for interested parties to access, process and consume government data. Dr. Reichental, who was part of the task force that spearheaded this project, believes that once the project reaches its full potential, the data may result in the development of scalable solutions that help the city better manage resources as well as possibly become an additional source of revenue for government.


“For government to achieve strong progress in the digital transformation of cities it must attract more talent,” says Dr. Reichental. This talent, while currently flowing slowly but steadily, will make it possible for government to attempt more ambitious projects. However, because government is constantly balancing priorities while working with limited resources, the need for political will to move the digital transformation agenda forward is essential. Framing the smart cities conversation as one that revolves around urban human future, the reinvention of the very nature of living by digital technologies and an emergent climate crisis, it is possible to bring all parties to the table to build the smart cities of the future.

VIDEO: Interview With Dr. Jonathan Reichental


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