Jack Aldane spoke to Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Palo Alto to hear what it’s like to run the digital operations of the city that gave birth to Silicon Valley
You’re the CIO of a city that is seen as the world’s centre of technological innovation. Your job must be as overwhelming as it is exhilarating. How do you manage your priorities between the challenges of today and the world of tomorrow?
When I took this position, I was sure we’d have some really good partners in the tech community to work with, but I didn’t anticipate the scale of what it could become, nor the level of interest in what my team and I would be doing here. In hindsight it makes sense. If you think about the basics of the city, you’ve got to make sure that those basics work–a good communication system, and that departments have their basic services, whether it’s for police or the library, or public works or the many others.
The biggest challenge now is not that we’re overwhelmed with different directions we could go in. As a small city, we have got to be selective in what we do. You’ve got to have that process by which you decide to do five things out of the 50 things you could do. We spend the right amount of time, which is longer than most, making sure we’re working on the right things, because time and capacity are two constraints that are really difficult to manage in a small city context. But we have a lot of ambition. We want to do incredible things around the Internet of Things, sensor networks, blockchain, and Artificial Intelligence. I’m thinking practically about this, however. In working with the city manager’s office and my colleagues, we have to be super-focused on what we do. We make sure it aligns, we make sure it’s what the community wants, we talk to our council about it, and then we dive in and try to produce results from our experiments.
Given that you have so many tech firms in your backyard, so to speak, how do you enforce the public’s interest when there are so many interests of the private sector to contend with?
Clearly one of the privileges we have here is that we do have all these tech companies that are willing to experiment with us. Often, they’ll offer up tech capacity and they’re willing to be volunteers occasionally. They’ll offer their facilities sometimes so we can work with them at their location. They help us learn. Big companies like VMware or Tesla who have their headquarters here in Palo Alto are interested in helping their local city. On the other hand, they have other corporate social responsibility goals which go way beyond our city.
One of the challenges is having tech firms who want to experiment with stuff in the real world. There’s a bit of momentum right now about using ground-based drones for delivery, and in particular delivering food. They want to put their autonomous robots on our streets. There’s a significant amount of freedom for these companies to do that because the street is a public right of way. Some companies will therefore go ahead and do the experiment. But then we find ourselves responding to community concerns and issues. Maybe people consider things to be a nuisance or they have concerns about wireless technology, which some believe could have medical consequences. What we’re finding now is that these companies are reaching out to us first, and they’re asking to work in concert with the city, as opposed to getting ahead of the city and causing a lot of headaches. We like that.
Another example is the emergence of e-bikes and e-scooters, which have descended upon us in California pretty quickly. This is quite disruptive because they have certain commitments they’re making to their shareholders and investors, and they want to push forward. Sometimes they’ll push forward before we have all the answers. The city is responsible and accountable to its citizens, but we must recognise that this kind of disruption is not going to slow down. As we move forward I think these challenges will become more exaggerated, so that dialogue will be even more important.
Tech engineers have considerable power in Silicon Valley and have relatively few intellectual exchanges with people who may be qualified to point out theoretical or ethical flaws in their designs. What’s your perspective on this issue and how are you addressing this?
This is an area called techno-ethics. As a professor, I’ve been developing and teaching this content to my students and to business leaders because I believe it is so important. This isn’t something we really had to think too much about during the Third Industrial Revolution of personal computers and digitisation, I think it’s currently one of the most important things we have to think about and act upon. The amount of data that is being gathered, as well as the ease with which that data is disseminated and the impact it is having on people’s lives, is something we’re beginning to understand now. We’re beginning to understand that if you enable anyone to drive cars and pick up people and drop them off in the Lyft or Uber model, you’re in a world quite unlike the one we knew just a few years ago, where we wouldn’t get into a stranger’s car. Now, we’re encouraging people to do so. There are real consequences there.
As we enter a world that is complemented by augmented intelligence, we’re going to be more reliant on a computer making decisions both with us and for us. Ethics and techno-ethics are therefore going to be more at the centre of our conversations. The innovation community is beginning to think about this more. When there’s an car accident involving an autonomous vehicle, this topic comes up. We also have to remember to make decisions which focus on safety, inclusion, diversity and equality. How do I address this in my role? I communicate and work with my team to address the consequences of what we’re doing and the consequences of change. One of the most important roles I have therefore is as a coach and educator. My personal desire to make sure techno-ethics is taken seriously and becomes a top leadership competency in the 21st century.
The Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws introduced by the EU this year pose specific challenges for cities, many of which fear that public Wi-Fi could end up capturing media access control addresses and land them in trouble. How are you working with firms and your municipal colleagues to address the issue of data protection?
In the US we’ve been following GDPR with great interest, and generally we’re very impressed by the ambition and seriousness with which Europe has embraced it. We don’t have anything equivalent yet in the US. However, any time a US entity touches a European national, it has certain obligations. We haven’t yet surfaced that conversation, but I will say this: the City of Palo Alto did evaluate all our computer systems to determine whether we do capture any EU content, and the answer is we don’t. We are super-focused on our community and the US. If a European national is swept up into one of our systems, that will be by accident, and we hope if they make us aware of that, we can address it quickly.
Given your experience of so many hopeful ventures in this space, what words of warning would you give to a small company with a great prototype seeking to work with the city and scale?
I want to say that if you are a start-up thinking about what you want to do that has a big impact on the world, I am going to be your biggest champion. However, the procurement lifecycle is tough. If you’re trying to use a typical sales cycle where you just turn up, market the product, send an invoice and get paid, it’s going to be a little more difficult. I recommend that start-ups look for creative ways to partner with cities at least in their first year or two. You can go after the traditional routes for sure; subscription might work and depending on your product I think you’re going to have winners there too. But if you have something significant such as an IoT network you plan to deploy across a neighbourhood, city or region, you’ve got to be creative in your approach.
I recommend looking at creative partnerships where it’s a win-win. The city doesn’t have to commit a lot of dollars, but it gets some benefit, and the start-up meanwhile can demonstrate their product in real-life scenarios. The last point I would make to start-ups is this: be prepared to pivot. It’s a clichéd term, but it’s an important one. Start-ups fall in love with their ideas, and because they don’t change, they end up failing. The strongest advice I’d give to start-ups is that if you’re shopping your product around cities and you’re getting some interest, but people aren’t falling in love with it, you probably need to evolve. If you’re sitting there begging people to understand what your vision is, or begging people to partner with you, I suggest you pivot.