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Jonathan Reichental Interview
Lily Maxwell10. October 201824 min read

Jonathan Reichental on the Importance of Smart Cities & Smart Citizens

The importance of smart cities & smart citizens: In our new interview series, smart city leaders comment on the future of smart cities, the role of technology, and the benefits for citizens. In our first interview of the series, we have asked Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, California to share his expertise, thoughts and insights with us on a number of important smart city topics.

How did you get into urban issues and specifically smart cities?

Jonathan Reichental, former CIO for the City of Palo Alto
The story starts with my decision to enter public service. I’m a private sector guy: I spent 20 years in the private sector, largely defined by technology and innovation in a leadership role. But then one day, a headhunter called me and asked me if I would consider working for government. The offer was for the city of Palo Alto, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, and back in 2011 things were changing and it seemed like an amazing opportunity, so I took it.
At first the strategy was to focus on modernizing the city itself - the city organization that is - to modernize the systems, put in place a team, create a strategy etc. But then I realized there was a bigger momentum happening around the state of cities and the challenges they were facing: it wasn’t just about the provision of information systems to enable city workers to do their work.

I began to really understand that our cities are ill-prepared for the future. Cities are growing rapidly all over the world - this is one of the defining phenomena of our time - with 2 million people moving in per week, and we have challenges around air quality, water quality, transportation, energy, public safety etc. So I became more and more interested, and started really thinking about this and getting engaged in communities and their interests.

The City of Palo Alto began to step up in terms of our reaction to these issues, and in a way the smart city movement seemed to encapsulate these responses, risks, and challenges for the future. So I was in the logical place to be the person who could affect the necessary change because technology plays such an important part in preparing cities for the future. I think today IT leaders in cities all over the world find themselves either at the forefront of change in their city, or part of the leadership teams that are helping mayors or city manager/administrators to think through the things that need to happen to help prepare their cities for the significant change that lies ahead.

All of this happened relatively quickly over the course of a year or two - I suddenly found myself as a leader tasked with finding out what we needed to do as a city. Then we became a model for other small-medium sized cities around the world, and people seemed to be - and still are - really interested in what we’re doing. Maybe it’s because of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, and the reputation of Silicon Valley, but I believe our city has a significant footprint in the world around mindset, not just physical CO2 footprint.

What would you say motivates you in your work to develop Palo Alto as a smart city?

I sometimes describe public service and city work in this way: when I worked in the private sector, I used my brain a lot for intellectual work - thinking through problems, solving things, and then moving on. Then I moved into the public sector and found something else - not only do you use your brain, but also your heart. If you connect your brain with your heart in your work, you find a completely new meaning that rewires what you do and why you do it. My time in public service has been an incredible personal journey; because of that connection between the brain and the heart, I really have a passion for what I do. I really want to see great things happen and be part of it. One of the things about city work relative to that at the state, county, and federal levels is that you really get to see the effects of what you do, because the people you affect are right in front of you. Often policymakers and leaders are sitting in an abstract place, disconnected by five degrees of separation from anybody who is impacted by their decisions. If I make a decision today sat in this office, I can potentially see the impact tomorrow or the day after in our parks or libraries.

The reason why smart cities are specifically interesting to me is because I am often thinking in terms of the future of cities. I was initially struck, as I think a lot of people are, that it wasn’t so long ago that the planet was a rural place to live; in America, it used to be that 94% of people were rural. Over the course of not so long - 100 years or so - all of this changed. Everybody moved into cities, and today in America the population distribution is the reverse of what it was before - now, 96% Americans are urban. We’ve seen this huge flip and now our destiny is in our cities. If we want to have great lives, great schools, clean air, clean water and abundant energy, urban security, and choice over what work we do - and if we’re going to save the planet - it’s all going to happen inside cities.

I think a lot of people around the world are motivated to be a voice in helping move forward the needle in this area. Of course, it’s a big topic and it’s very easy to get frustrated by how intractable things seem to be. For example, yesterday I had to give a talk in San Francisco and it took me 3 hours to get there from Palo Alto. I sat in traffic for 3 hours for a 35 mile journey. This is the epitome of a failed transportation environment. And this congestion problem is not only happening in northern California; it’s an issue in Barcelona, London, Moscow, Paris - all over the world.

How is Palo Alto engaging citizens in smart city changes, in an era where we seem to be moving from away from national towards local action?

Part of this question makes me think about the role of government - in your question there’s an assumption about government and the degree to which government is involved in your life - I think that’s changing to some degree. For a good part of the 20th century, government was in your life but because of scarcity, because of an exaggerated tension between people and government, there is now a stepping back where people are saying “I don’t want government in my life” or “if they’re gonna be in my life, it has to be very subtle and rare”. So, I think we have to think about the question in this context.

The 21st century does seem to be more about human empowerment at the individual level, and hopefully also ultimately at the group level. There is more and more focus on the ability for people to have a voice where they never had a voice before. Social media enables us to complain about everything to the people who can actually make the decisions: you can now complain about an airline and the CEO will find out about it pretty fast. We’ve never had that kind of voice as individuals before. Before, we relied heavily on government or we felt disempowered.

Given this, I’m probably not personally a big advocate of thinking of the question in terms of how we make smart community members or how we drive civic empowerment. There’s a new generation of people - millennials and generation Y and the upcoming youth - who believe and have the tools and education to be much more individually empowered to do the things they want do, to solve societal problems themselves. If you’re frustrated by something in your community, it’s never been easier for an individual to do something about it - you write a few lines of code and create an app or make a local sensor that you can use to diagnose or monitor something and use data to affect decision-making. So, there’s a lot to be said for less involvement by government and the greater empowerment of individuals.

Having said all of that though, government can actually play an interesting role in convening or facilitating this empowerment. It has strength in its ability to bring parties together and mediate. It also has its own niche advantages: one of the things that cities do well, for example, is collecting and storing enormous amounts of useful data. So there remains an essential role for local government - for city government - and it can of course elicit input from people, it can be more responsive. I think democracy can improve in the future and I remain hopeful, although we’re living through a bit of a difficult time, because at the local, city level, democracy is alive and well. You get beyond that level and it’s certainly a more troubling time. Tools enable more democratization at least at the local level. It’s useful to compare today against the past and realize that most people got their information from a single newspaper or maybe two; today people are more informed, or at least they have more channels to become informed should they choose to be. Today you and I can get information from hundreds of resources in order to be more informed on a topic and decide what we want to be active and passionate about. Hopefully this translates into some form of activism and to the creation of “citizen scientists” who can do solve society’s problems.

This is how you get smarter citizens: through empowerment, and knowledge-sharing, through more tools, and lower entry barriers, and ultimately, through government facilitation.

In Palo Alto, what’s the most important smart city solution?

It’s probably not as “innovative” as you might think. We have an application that we purchased and configured a few years ago, we call it Palo Alto 311. Many communities around the world have similar apps. It’s free and as a community member, you have access to some basic features on it. For instance, you can report local problems - if you see a pothole, or an abandoned bicycle, or a light that doesn’t work, you just take a photograph and submit it directly to city hall. It routes electronically to the right place, we assign somebody to that issue, then that person goes out and inspects it, and all the time the person who reported it is getting updated and informed. Eventually we fix it, and they get told “hey the problem that you reported has been fixed”. And then you have a happy customer - a happy community member - and a city hall that is accountable. Years ago, if the person even bothered to come to city hall, they’d fill out a form and that would be the last they’d hear of it; with an app, there’s full accountability for the whole life cycle of the issue. Then there are other features: we have an online library in there, we have city announcements, there’s information on how to recycle things. If you’re not sure how to get rid of, say, old electronics, we have information on that in there. So, there are a multitude of useful, community member features within this one Palo Alto 311 app.

Both the downloads and usage figures indicate that this app has been embraced by many in the community. The community members like it and for the most part, the city staff do too, because it tracks and quantifies everything, and we even get feedback. We ask, “how did we do on this project or this service?”, so it allows us to get some performance metrics. To me this type of app represents a new generation of government tools. They’re quite common - I’m not saying for a second that they’re massively innovative - but I’ve been very happy with the results of Palo Alto 311 and so have the city manager and council. We continue to push it and it continues to grow: it’s offers a really solid, evidence-based way of comparing the world that existed pre and post Palo Alto, with the new world providing a completely different (in a positive way) experience for everybody in terms of community life and interactions with city hall.

This is an example of a citizen-focused smart city technology. But how do we ensure that technology is being used for the right purposes and make sure that all smart city initiatives are actually effective and designed to help people, not just tech companies selling solutions purely for profit? How do you deal with this in Palo Alto?

There’s not a good understanding, first of all, of how to work with government, and second of all, of what will work in real communities. No one can fault the passion and motivation of an innovator who believes in what they’re doing - and I want to continue to support that 100%. But with so many more people now exploring how they can provide to government and help cities, there is also a lot more misunderstanding about how you serve people and the needs of community. So, there is an element of that - and it’s a sizeable element.

I think on the cities side though, we are pretty rigorous in our procurement process. As a small city, we’re very judicious: we don’t have the luxury of doing hundreds of projects or buying lots of tech. We have got to be really selective about the technology we go after, and so we’re very finely-tuned and focused on making sure that the thing we’re selecting really meets an in-demand city need or solves a significant city problem. We do have a very open mind to tech though. I get approached by lots of interesting innovators at conferences and meetings, specializing in the environment, or transportation, or public safety, or another topic. There’s a healthy amount of this pitching and we are glad to hear about these new technologies. Firstly, because it educates me and my team; we have to know what we don’t know - just because we’re not thinking about it, doesn’t mean it’s not important. We may have a problem that we don’t know how to solve and suddenly a startup comes along and says, “hey we’ve been working on this for the past year” and I’m like “BINGO!”. Secondly, beyond education, these startups sometimes have initiatives or projects that we can pilot or co-create with.

So overall, I think cities are quite good at procurement. Obviously, it still isn’t a smooth, quick process - I think people would laugh if you quoted me saying Jonathan Reichental thinks local government procurement is fast. It’s tough: it’s one of the more bureaucratic, slow-moving pieces of government for a variety of reasons - laws and regulation are two major factors. But when we do buy something, and go out to market, we (local governments) are pretty good at choosing and being rigorous.

You mentioned regulation: how do you think we navigate regulation around technology? As someone who’s come from the private-sector to the public-sector, what’s your opinion on technology and regulation, and how much it should or should not be done, in terms of smart cities?

I think regulation has a very important role. I’m not excited by the elimination of regulation at all costs. There’s some movement towards removing regulations in the US for economic reasons but many of the regulations that exist are there for good reasons. We wear seatbelts in our cars because its proven to save lives; we have regulations about how factories dispose of chemicals into rivers because we drink that water, and there are fish in those rivers and we eat those fish, and so on. Regulation has a very important role to play in our lives, but at the same time we have to consider the following two points:

  1. Innovation sometimes happens before regulation - think of AirBnb or Uber, where we had very fascinating new ideas emerging well before we had any type of regulatory environment to deal with them.

  2. We have to ask the question: does the regulation inhibit the innovation? There’s a tension between innovation and regulation - how do we make sure that something is innovative and useful but also regulated so that people don’t get hurt, or it doesn’t have negative effects?

This tension is something we have to grapple with as local government. It’s particularly exaggerated in a city context, because in government life, in city life, our everyday work is about life and death (however dramatic that sounds). If you introduce e-scooters and e-bikes onto roads, for example, people are going to get hurt if you don’t regulate and figure out how to make our intersections safer. Then you throw in self-driving vehicles and aerial drones and autonomous trains, and it all gets even more complicated. We’ve got to figure this stuff out together as a community. Government regulation should be and must be a dialogue between the role of government and the role of people. It takes us back to the discussion we had earlier around individual empowerment. Individuals need to have a voice about what’s appropriate, and through this exercise of democracy hopefully we can reach the best outcome that meets the needs of the most amount of people.

Regulation is probably being discussed more today than ever before because of the rate of innovation. We have never had to respond to so many different impactful changes in our behaviors and in our environments, at least not in such a compacted time period and so frequently. The three defining qualities of the 4th industrial revolution, that I would argue we’re part of right now, is that as things are introduced, they have greater scope, greater impact and they happen faster. In other words, they’re accelerating greater velocity: scope, impact and velocity are the key words of the day. I think because of that, the regulators, of which I am one, and community members are struggling to keep up with and respond to the pace of change.

And this is only going to get harder with time because innovation is going to move even faster in future. We’re going to have to continue to ask the question: do we regulate this very interesting thing to the point at which it’s no longer innovative or do we shut the innovation down because it’s too dangerous for our societies?

You mentioned Airbnb, and Uber - how is Palo Alto dealing with these types of new technologies/ideas that in many cities are already having negative impacts?

This problem has to be dealt with city by city. Our view on Airbnb might be different from a neighboring city, just based on the availability of housing, our political slant, our approach to innovation etc. For instance, recently we were approached by several drone delivery companies and we’ve decided to be pretty open minded about the idea, but many communities refuse to have drones on their streets - out of a concern that they’re going to hurt people, or cause accidents. In Palo Alto, we’re taking each issue that we have to deal with case by case. It’s a dialogue between our elected officials, our council, our city manager, and different executives including myself; we have discussions with our community about different issues and they will make known what they believe.

Basically, unless something is federally regulated, we are going to have our own position. In America, particularly in California, cities do want a lot of self-control. It’s part of our independent streak out here on the left coast; in California, our posture is to try to be more independent - we don’t like state or federal mandates. However, sometimes things are regulated at the federal, county or state level, and cities have no choice. One example of this is aerial drones: cities want to have control over drones, but the federal government has said that it’s the purview of the federal aviation authority and that cities cannot preempt their rules. In terms of Airbnb or even the ground-based drones, though, we do have a say; for every technology, there are different rules. Of course, for Palo Alto, our propensity is towards innovation: we’re the birthplace of Silicon Valley, we want to embrace new ideas that have benefits for our community. But our approach is always going to be case by case.

How do you feel as one of the key leading figures of a city considered to be ‘innovative’ - in terms of local government action - all over the world?

The extent to which people were - and are still - interested in what we were doing here surprised me when I joined the City. I knew that people would be interested in the city of Palo Alto - not so much because of what was happening in the city or the government, but because of who was here - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, Apple, HP, VMware, and all their executives. But as we started to create a vision of what the city could be, particularly in its use of technology, I noticed a lot of interest. Part of it is just the degree to which people were interested in what I was doing, as this guy from the private-sector with a reputation for being somewhat of a maverick. But then the interest exploded, and now I consider it to be a responsibility: people want to know why we selected a particular technology, whether we had any issues, what went well, what we would recommend etc. Being in this fishbowl not only personally makes me more conscious, it also alerts my team to the fact that this is their responsibility too. We don’t try to compete with the big cities like Barcelona or New York, but we are characteristic of a midsize American city, so we can provide some inspiration there.

I get calls and do interviews and podcasts, and I do keynotes all over the US and sometimes I share with other countries, talking about our success here. And I’m not shy about these things: I have a lot of my own beliefs about the future of cities, I have a lot of thoughts on the future of technology because that’s been my world for almost 30 years. I embrace and enjoy having a voice that can help others: in many ways, it’s one of the most significant privileges of my life.

Random question - what do you think about the idea of free public transport as a way of encouraging more people to use it?

If you think about magazines and newspapers, they are highly subsidized by advertising: most magazines - Time, Wire, Vogue etc. - could probably be free because they’re fully subsidized by advertising. The reason they charge is because their magazine has more value and people treat it better if it has a price. Think about the newspapers you’re handed when you get on public transport in London or Barcelona, people trash them because without a price, there’s no value associated with them. This is a core economic principle, so I fear that if public transport was free, people would abuse it. That’s one component of my opinion, and then there’s another aspect: I’ve been to cities where the public transport is free, and it hasn’t solved the problems you might think it would solve. For example, I was in Melbourne a few months ago, and the tram system is free there but there’s still a huge traffic problem. In other words, making trams free hasn’t really alleviated the traffic situation. Central to this is the question of convenience: I don’t get the train to work because it would be massively inconvenient for me, price is not centrally important to me - it’s ease, comfort and convenience that count most. This is the case for many others. However, when the economics completely change for on-demand cars, I will have a different position.

So, I don’t know if you can solve urban transportation issues by making public transport free. It could be a nice tourism idea, particularly in the city center, but I don’t have a full understanding or faith of it being a real, sustainable solution to the problem of traffic. It also obviously begs the question - who’s paying for free transport? Where’s the money coming from?

Instead of reducing costs to encourage people to do “good” things, it would perhaps be more productive to raise costs to discourage them from doing the “bad” things. It’s far too easy for me to get into my car and drive everywhere, and here in California, millions of people do that every day. If it was cost-prohibitive for me to drive, I would be forced to think about alternatives. So maybe the answer is not decreasing but increasing the price of certain things. Of course, there are a lot of practical issues with this, but we’ve see it done in London and in other cities with the congestion charge. If I suddenly had to pay 40 dollars to get to San Francisco, I would be much more likely to walk up the street and get the train. Even though it would be a little inconvenient, it would be a lot cheaper. To me this idea has more legs to it.

Last overarching question - what’s your vision both for the future of Palo Alto as a smart city and for the future of smart cities in general?

We have to be super focused on quality of life, and we have to have equality when it comes to this. We can’t create a great life for one part of the city at the cost of another part of the city. And this is happening as we speak: equity remains one of the biggest issues of our times, in addition to poverty and a lot of health-related issues. Palo Alto doesn’t have a very extreme environment: we’re pretty small and have a very wealthy community. But there are a lot of stresses on the environment in terms of housing, transportation and energy, so we have to focus on these areas to continue to ensure a stable good quality of life.

In general, I would say two final things about smart cities:

  1. We need more city leaders to think more about innovation, and to step up and recognize the need to bring technology to the center of their strategy. The smart cities phenomenon is under way, but it is not evenly distributed by any means. There are still a lot of communities and cities that have simply ignored it or don’t have any position on it right now. We need the leadership revolution/change to happen.

  2. We’re probably not being bold enough in our reaction. When we think of things like sea-level rise, climate change, economic issues, the emergence of AI - which is going change almost everything about human life - we’re going to have to have very bold and big ideas. My vision, my hope is that the cities of the future, and their leaders, embrace these risks in a very progressive, bold way. Otherwise these communities are going to face real challenges.

To learn more about the City of Palo Alto, its strategic approach and the solutions implemented in the city, read our Smart City Portrait: 'Palo Alto: A Role Model for Smaller Smart Cities'.

Join the free global Smart City Solution Database and learn about the solutions that successful smart cities - like Palo Alto and many others around the globe - have implemented to increase quality of life and to tackle the challenges they face. Register today - be a bee!


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Lily Maxwell

Lily is a freelance writer, translator and content-creator, specialised in smart cities and urbanism. After studying at the University of Cambridge, she moved to Barcelona and is now based between Spain and England, working with several different urban-focused European organisations. She speaks French, Spanish and English, and aims to tackle German and Italian next!