It takes smart people to make the subject of smart cities accessible to all. The timing couldn’t be better, as the worldwide movement is creating badly needed sea changes, from intelligent utilities grids to interactive kiosks and apps that help tourists organize their visits. As a whole, smart technology has enhanced livability, promoted sustainability, and increased public safety. But alas, what messenger can reduce the essential lessons and learnings to a level fit for ... “dummies”?
Enter Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D., whose April appearance at ASUG Express: Utilities Insights 2021 showcased his smart cities acumen, while making the crucial case for growing the technology in an era beset by climate change challenges and a stubborn pandemic. A professor at the University of San Francisco and Menlo College, he’s also the founder of Human Future, a global business and technology advisory, investment, and education firm.
And if you haven’t guessed already, Reichental is also the author of “Smart Cities for Dummies.” Give him this much: It’s the most cleverly named book to date in the Dummies series.
ASUG sat down with Reichental to learn more about his groundbreaking work and recap some of the key insights he presented at the ASUG Express event. He also discusses his new book, which he wrote “for the singular purpose of trying to help us all build a better world.” That’s not just smart—that’s wise.
ASUG: With the new book, you’re obviously moving to increase awareness of smart cities among urban planners and utilities leaders. Why do you believe this of critical importance for everyday people?
Jonathan: Our future belongs to cities. By mid-century, two-thirds of humanity will live in an urban context. Cities will be where we live, work, and play. While many cities are doing quite well in providing services and a good quality of life for many, most are struggling to provide a good experience. This includes areas such as reliable, low-cost, clean energy; efficient public transportation options; low-cost housing; quality online public services; and more.
If you have an interest in a better future—one with good jobs, clean air and water, a managed environment and climate, great health care, beautiful parks, and equality for everyone—then you must care about smarter and more sustainable cities.
ASUG: Singapore is often cited as the world leader by a long distance for its smart city infrastructure. What do you see going on there—or in other cities worldwide—that you find especially exciting?
Jonathan: Singapore is among a small group of top-tier big cities that are having success in their smart city efforts. A big part of this success can be attributed to leadership. In the cities that are doing well, city management has made innovation and technology priorities in reinventing the local government experience.
While some smart city projects are large, complex, and expensive, there is a lot that all cities can do. What the top leaders do well is in digitizing common services. The entry barriers are really low now. In addition, the best city leaders use data for better decision-making and for driving innovative solutions.
ASUG: One major challenge of the smart cities movement is that development is largely left for cities to embrace individually—and some local leaders will argue that it is an investment they simply can’t afford. What might be your response to this?
Jonathan: We could ask whether they can afford to have a city without opportunity, with poor infrastructure, with rising crime, inefficient transportation, greater inequality, and leaking water systems. The price of all that is much larger than an ongoing, progressive approach to innovation.
Of course, innovation has a price, too, that needs to be addressed. But now, more than ever, there are many financing and funding solutions. There are also more opportunities for public-private partnerships. There are local, regional, national, and international grants. If city leaders get creative and take some bold risks, they'll find that the cost of building smarter cities is more within their reach than they think.
ASUG: In your presentation, you mentioned multiple environmental urgencies, from hydrocarbon pollution to water supply inequalities. What is a way that smart cities technology might tip the balance for improving these and other stark realities?
Jonathan: That's a big question for a short interview! [Laughs.] But here are two suggestions. First, start with data. Cities have a lot of data that often goes untapped. Use this data to understand the challenges and to help persuade stakeholders that action is required. More data with greater access means the community will be informed and can be engaged. These big problems need a lot of partners.
The second suggestion is that cities can work on the bigger challenges in a regional way. Far too often, I see cities tackle and buy solutions alone. If they work regionally, better terms can be negotiated, and the cost and risk can be shared.
ASUG: The world is accelerating towards ESG investment, based on environmental, social, and governance concerns. It’s often misunderstood in the U.S. The wonderful aspect here is that investors can do good and still realize a robust rate of return. How might smart cities technologies produce significant returns and savings?
Jonathan: They already do. Investment in “urbantech,” while historically a poor performer, is beginning to show excellent returns in the era of smarter cities. The demand for city solutions is nearing fever pitch, and in the post-COVID world, I only anticipate this to increase.
ASUG: What are the technology challenges that lie ahead, and how are they currently being addressed?
Jonathan: There will continue to be more challenges than solutions for the foreseeable future. That's why I continue to encourage more entrepreneurs and innovations to step up. They can do well and do good. More near-term challenges include the fact that many city leaders don't even know what's possible today.
For example, how many mayors recognize the opportunity that data, AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain can bring to their communities? Another challenge is procurement. It's still far too complex for many cities to buy technology and for vendors to sell into cities. Fortunately, there's some good work being done in this area.
ASUG: If you could forecast where the smart cities movement will be in, say, five years, what might you see?
Jonathan: Five years is not a long time in city terms. That said, I think the smart city movement will continue to mature. We'll see more cities engaged, more success stories, more solutions, and greater momentum. In terms of what we'll experience, I think autonomous vehicles will play a larger role, and we'll see a lot of delivery drones in the sky and on the sidewalk. Perhaps we'll also see some innovation that doesn't yet exist.
It’s that time of year again! ASUGFORWARD is right around the corner. ASUG members can join us online for executive programming on June 15‒17. Later, on June 21‒24, be sure to tune in for sessions from SAP customers and experts. Register now for the virtual event.