What China Can Teach America About Smart Cities

Chelsea Collier is obsessed with smart cities. The Austin resident recently spent several weeks in China visiting different cities to see how they are using technology to work more efficiently. There she discovered things like a smog-sucking high-rise in Beijing and government organizations dedicated to building bridges between industry and government.

“Their process is very deliberate and streamlined,” Collier told Kish Rajan during CALinnovates’ latest A Step Ahead podcast. “But that’s because it’s a single party. They all march to the beat of the same drum.”

While there may be some appeal to that simplicity, the Chinese system obviously comes with its share of problems. But Collier was happy to focus on the positive and see inspiration in the work happening in China.

Her trip was part of her research through an Eisenhower Fellowship which she won last year. She’s looking all over to see what make some cities smarter and publishing her findings at Digi.city.

“I don’t think of some cities as dumb per se,” said Collier. “They’re just not as connected as they could be.”

Collier believes that cities should be using technology to engage citizens and to make services smarter. In San Diego, for example, the city is using an app to let people instantly report problems such as potholes and downed electrical wires. In her hometown of Austin they’ve created an app to help move excess food from restaurants and stores to people who don’t have enough to eat.

“How do we invite smart people in the private sector to help create these kinds of solutions?” asked Collier. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”

Listen to the full interview here:


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A Step Ahead: Chelsea Collier

Hey everybody. Kish Rajen, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates and welcome to the latest episode of A Step Ahead. We’re talking to Chelsea Collier who is talking about smart cities through her initiative, Digi.City. It’s a fascinating discussion about how innovation and technology can revolutionize the way that communities function. Basic infrastructure, basic civic services, and the way citizens can use technology to get involved in the communities where they live and work. Chelsea here brings a wonderful perspective and we were glad to have her on A Step Ahead. Chelsea Collier, hey, thanks so much for joining us on A Step Ahead, we really appreciate it.

Chelsea Coller: Oh no, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

You and I had a chance to talk and you helped convene a panel in San Diego not long ago. A really great conversation that ensued there, where you brought together the public sector, private sector, people thinking about innovation policy, that was a really informative session.

Glad you enjoyed it, and my hope is to be able to put people in a room who may or may not always find themselves together in conversation. I think smart cities is a great platform to be able to do that.

Well, that certainly worked and it did, it brought very innovative leadership from the city government itself along with people on the business and economic development side. It was a rich conversation about how those public and private interests can align and how we can do important things in places like San Diego and beyond. I gather that’s what your work is, so tell us a little bit about Digi.City and what you’re up to.

Sure. Well, I’ve worked in a variety of different sectors over the course of my career. Public sector in communications, I worked for the governor’s office in Texas so had a little bit of public sector experience. I’ve worked in this tech and startup community, I’ve worked in social impact community, and all of that has felt phonetic over my career but I’m really excited that the topic of smart cities is a chance to bring all of that conversation together. I was really fortunate, I received an Eisenhower Fellowship in January of this year and I chose the topic of my research to be smart cities both across the US and also in China. Really, as a way to study best practices, see what was happening in the fields across both nations, and then use those practices to bring people together to have interesting conversations and to hopefully spur more innovation. I launched Digi.City which is a blog, it’s my personal blog, as a way to foster that conversation. I thought I can publish a Whitepaper in a year that nobody’s going to read or I can talk about it as it’s happening, which might be a little more messy but to me, messy is interesting. That’s the background of where I’ve been and what I’m working on and hopefully being of service to everybody, private sector and public sector, and the smart city spaces, we’re all trying to figure it out.

Well let’s get into that a little bit. Are most of our cities dumb in the United States? Tell us what that means.

I don’t think they’re dumb, per se, but it’s certainly not as connected as it could be. If you look at public sector and private sector, I think cities have really evolved in two different silos and that hasn’t helped anyone. People in the public sector, city staff and city leadership, they’re tasked heavily with serving their community but not always knowing how to engage citizens. Even the whole idea of a city council meeting as a place to involve citizens, most citizens and residents aren’t going to sit through a city council meeting, it doesn’t fit the way that we work and live. On the other side, in the private sector side, technology is moving so fast and it’s enabling this 24/7 connectivity in our lives to where we’re always on, we’re always connected, we’re always creating. I’m really hoping that smart cities is a way to enable technology to connect and bridge those two divided areas. I’m seeing that in some cities.

Are you talking about using technology as a means of reaching the citizenry and enabling them to be more civically engaged, or are you talking about city operations and the way the streets work and the way the water systems work? Help us understand where you see the opportunities for technology to be applied in our civic life.

That’s a perfect question and I’m really grateful that you framed it that way because it gets to the heart of the challenge and to the heart of the promise, I think. In San Diego, I was really impressed to hear about the Get It Done app. This goes to the point of civic engagement, really enabling citizens who are running around their city as a way to connect with how the city operates. The Get It Done app, as I understand it, is basically empowering every citizen and resident with their mobile phone if they see a pothole, if they see an electricity line down, if they see grounds that are unkempt, or something that’s not quite right, or something that’s really wonderful that they want to champion and cheer. They can snap a picture of it, upload it to the app, and then it fosters the conversation between that city department or that city employee and the person who’s recording the issues. That’s an example of smart technology and smart city technology in San Diego that’s doing that citizen engagement piece.

At the same time, your question about how a city operates, smart technology is absolutely critical to that piece of it. I learned a lot about what was happening with street lights and there’s a pilot program where there are sensors connected to the street light that helps them adjust the timing of the traffic lights in accordance to the traffic volumes. A dumb way to operate is somebody shimmying up the street light every two years and clicking how many people go underneath it as opposed to a sensor which communicates in real time what’s happening. If there’s congestion, it can adjust with its current reality.

Yeah, there’s so many great applications you could think of and as you may know, I served on my own city council in a small town in California for four years. I was coming out of the mobile phone industry that I had been in for 10 years and seeing this incredibly rapid evolution of new technologies that were changing everything. We were looking at how city governments function, whether it’s how citizens learn about or report potholes or how traffic flows or how street lights operate from a lighting and safety perspective, to how the trash and recycling gets collected and when and where. You could go on and on and on, all of these seemingly mundane aspects of our daily life in our cities that we take for granted, could and probably should be revolutionized by technology to make them more effective.

That’s exactly right. Yeah and it’s really fun to think about. Having been in the private sector and the public sector, I really appreciate that you have that perspective and can have compassion for both. I live in Austin, Texas, you know, we have such an engaged, super, super intelligent startup community here. Tech entrepreneurs who are priming employees to see a challenge and then fix it. They’re focused on how can we quickly escalate the solutions, and then you apply that to city government, which has been created in the citizen interest, and you can’t experiment in the same way. I think the cities that are unearthing better leaders in the smart city space are finding a way to meet in the middle and to rethink the silos that aren’t about immediate delivery of services, the trash and the potholes and the parks and recreation and those groups. But in thinking cross laterally and especially from a policy perspective, how do we become more nimble, how do we invite smart people in the private sector both in the corporate world and the startup world to help us create these solutions because at the end of the day, we’re all in it together so how does each city want to create the city that it wants to become.

Well, it’s such a great way that you phrased that, how do we invite that kind of talent and entrepreneurship and ingenuity to tackling what again, can often be these mundane but really important public problems. One of the things that we’ve worked on a lot at CALinnovates is around open data and I’m wondering if this is part of your work or the research that you’ve seen in places like San Francisco, San Diego, I’m sure in Austin and Boston and New York and other places. When the city government or the local government will make the data that they possess inside of all of their internal operations, when they’ll expose that and make it available for entrepreneurs to see that data, what often is produced are great new ideas, great applications, great tools that as you said, invite that ingenuity in creating whole new mechanisms around how we deal with important aspects of our daily lives.

Mm-hmm, and the important piece of it for the city is to really message what they’re doing with that data, how they’re managing it, and address the citizen and resident concerns that naturally pop up. It’s easy, I think in the lack of information, for fear to be produced. I think cities that are getting it right are really doing again, that citizen engagement piece where they say wow, I think we have a great opportunity here, we’re going to be capturing all this data because we’re putting sensors on street lights and cameras to make our city safer, all of these sensor, data collection points.

“By the way, here’s the department that’s managing all this data, here’s what was thought about, of course we’re worried about security and privacy and that’s our number one priority. Here’s how we clean the data and here’s how we use it.” Everyone is opting in because as private sector citizens, we exchange privacy for convenience all the time.

Yeah, we check that-

Every single, tiny-

That terms and conditions boxes all the time, right.

Exactly right, every time I try to get from here to there, I’m letting someone know where I’m going and I’m very happy to do that because it helps me live my life more efficiently. I think if the messaging is right and it’s inclusive and there’s a real conversation there, then we can do exactly the same thing on the safe front as well.

Well, it’s a great point you make and again, my experience at government at all levels is that communication is a very difficult thing to do. I think we are entering a very complicated period for government because I think for the reasons that you touched on, one, government is always going to be risk averse, I mean, it should be risk averse. These aren’t startup companies that are inviting risk because failure is part of the process. Failures in government have real consequences and so there’s a natural risk aversion to experimentation and innovation, right? We have to deal with that but the other piece that you mentioned also is that how do you get the citizenry comfortable, let alone participate in new models of engaging their government when the communication channels are old and often are not that effective. These are really vexing challenges right now.

Agreed and I think it’s the tech community that gets it on an entirely different level. In Austin, I think it’s in June, we have the ATX Hack for Change which is a civic hack-a-thon that is sponsored by the city, it’s put on by St. Edward’s University, and it brings all of the people in the tech sector and the broader community, everybody becomes a hacker whether you’re a designer or project manager, a coder, developer, teacher, whatever your role is. It’s this participatory engagement way that you can choose a project and hack the city. Not in a bad way but in a good way, creating an engaging project. That’s one small part of this solution but I think the more that we can talk about it and lovingly challenge cities to be transparent and support them, that they don’t have to have it all figured out and that they can ask for help and that the citizenry can rise up to meet that challenge.

What’s one of your favorite examples that you’ve seen or have you seen anything that really strikes you as a good example of where that kind of hack-a-thon or that engagement between the city and inviting in those entrepreneurs produced some new idea or some new approach that appears to be making a difference in that community?

Yeah, there was a project that came out of the hack-a-thon and I’m playing favorites here, which is a bit unfair. There are literally hundreds of projects that are so cool and we could talk for 10 hours about all of the great stuff but in the early years of the hack-a-thon, I think it’s in its fourth year, coming up on fifth year, there was a project that engaged folks to work with area restaurants around feeding the hungry and handling excess capacity from restaurants and grocery stores. That project was actually recognized by the White House and the leaders of that project went and presented it in front of the White House administration. I think that was two years ago but that’s the one that comes to mind as something that literally was started with a question, like why do we have all this excess capacity and hungry people at the same time? This doesn’t make sense, can technology be some part of the solution to bring people together? The program is still up and running.

Well, that’s a fantastic example. We certainly have seen that if there’s one thing the internet and good applications can do well, it’s find excess supply and demand and put them together in a more efficient way. We see through these new innovations, there’s challenges with home share and with ride share and new types of applications that are doing that really well. Consumers love it but it causes consternation. I think those battles will continue for some time but there you are raising an example of matching supply and demand, it sounds like it’s doing some pretty significant public good.

Yeah and you bring up a great point about the sharing economy policy, that was a big wake up call, I think, for a lot of people that you can’t sit back and wait for the city to unfold the way that you want it. It really requires participation from everyone. In Austin, we’ve had a lot of challenges due to a new city council that’s come on board, and ride sharing and a lot of the home sharing, Airbnb legislation was not what people wanted it to be. It was again, a huge wake up call where people said wait a minute, what do you mean I can’t rent out my home to Airbnb, this is Austin, we’re the founding city of HomeAway. What’s happening? What do you mean Lyft and Uber can’t operate here? It was a rally cry for engagement and that policy doesn’t happen by accident. Another piece that is really top of mind, at least for me right now but doesn’t get a lot of talk, it doesn’t get a lot of air time, is the whole idea around network capacity. We’re seeing all of the IOT, Internet of Things, all the sensors collecting data, that number is proliferating at a speed that none of us are truly conscious of but the numbers are staggering. The capacity for our networks to handle all of that volume is going to be a very, very big issue very soon.

Well, as I mentioned, I spent at least the first part of my career in the mobile industry and I’m old enough that I was around the first go around when we were building out the first generation of what we now take for granted as digital wireless networks. Now that was 1G where now we’re talking about 5G, which is what you’re alluding to, but when you talk to the telecom network providers, they’ll tell you about the amount of physical infrastructure, the number of the repeaters or the mini-towers if you will that need to get deployed. That number is growing dramatically because of the nature of how these more powerful networks need to function in order to accommodate all of the data that you’re talking about. Whether it’s the billions of devices being connected through the Internet of Things or it’s the intensity of video and other varied data intensive services that people really love and want. To your point, it raises a really big challenge at the local level to enable that infrastructure, doesn’t it?

That’s right and to educate the policy makers and also to educate the citizens and residents that this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. One of the things that I’m hoping and attempting to do through Digi.City is really cheerlead and champion cities who are having the right approach to that policy who are creating a streamlined permitting process that really spurs competition and encourages innovation. As opposed to what I hope doesn’t happen in many cities, which is four years down the road, people aren’t getting the connectivity that they want and then all of a sudden, everyone’s mad and not as connected as they could be. Cities will really lose out in that scenario. Trying to raise the profile of that conversation and really get people thinking about it and talking about it and looking at what policies have been successful so far.

Well, no kidding. In the few minutes we have left, you mentioned in your introduction that the work that you’ve been doing or the research is both here and in China. Obviously a very different form of government there where they can move much more deliberately at the government level with things they want to accomplish. I’m wondering, what is your experience in terms of the contract that may be happening there versus what you see in the US?

It’s pretty massive. All of my assumptions were challenged. I was there for four weeks and spent time in five different cities in China and the massive scale at which they think and deploy innovation is absolutely amazing. To your point, which is so well said, it’s very deliberate and it’s very streamlined. It’s a single party system and there’s an edict from the central government to the local government and associations and private sector and citizens, they all march to the beat of the same drum once that vision is communicated. The language that I kept hearing is, “innovation is the way that we will liberate citizens from poverty.” They’re incredibly connected and have I think 298 smart city projects active and another 300 in the works about to be deployed. They’re moving at a rapid, rapid speed and to some that causes fear. I think there’s a lot of hesitation around China but to me, I think it’s incredibly inspiring. We can learn from the advances that they’ve already created and then apply that of course to our system of government and what works here in the US.

Yeah and-

I think if we concentrate on the positive, then we can learn a lot.

Yeah, yeah, you know I mentioned to you when we met that when I worked for governor Brown, we took a ten day trip to China. It was a trade mission but also where the governor was actively working on climate policy with the Chinese government there at the national and at the provincial level. Governor Brown, of course, he’s got a very unique style as you know and he was openly talking about how much he admired at some level the speed and the determination with which big projects and big things could get accomplished in China. No California Environmental Quality act or regulations slowing them down. He of course was a bit tongue in cheek but he was honestly saying here in the United States, we could learn a little bit from them about how, as you said, they get a vision and they make it happen. Of course, they can learn quite a bit from us too in certain ways but he did acknowledge that there’s a lot to look up to in certain ways there.

That’s right and in my experience, again, I’m one person and I was there for four weeks so I’m certainly no expert on Chinese foreign policy or even their rate of technology but what I did understand is that they’re very transparent about the challenges and very determined, to borrow your word about how to leverage technology and innovation to address those challenges. I think it’s definitely something to keep a tab on.

Yeah. Well, back here at home, last question Chelsea, we’ve gone through a national election, we have a new president that’s talked a lot about infrastructure, some policy and potentially investment from the federal level. You’ve been now traveling the United States and seeing examples of what’s possible here. What is your level of optimism and enthusiasm about where we’re headed as a country towards this vision of deploying smarter cities?

In the smart cities space specifically, there has been a very decentralized approach in the US. It’s been every city for themselves, and the private sector has really led that conversation and then tried to apply that to cities. That has some success but I don’t think it’s as efficient as it could be. In June, the Department of Transportation issued a smart cities challenge and chose the winner in June through the Department of Transportation and Secretary Fox chose Columbus, Ohio as that winner. That was really the first time that there was a dialogue between the federal level and the local level of some challenge or even very light policy recommendations about how to go about implementing smart cities, smart city technology. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and that will happen relatively quickly because that conversation can’t happen in isolation.

I was at a conference and I was listening to the chief innovation officer of Chicago talk about when they’re looking at their infrastructure challenges and there are many, whether they were talking about roads or waterways or bridges or you can fill in the blank, whatever big system needs a ton of money to maintain it. They’re looking at smart cities and connected technology as sensors to gather information about what are the most vulnerable, and what’re the most efficient way to go about and deploy resources. They’re using that smart city technology to spend money wiser and more efficiently which in the big picture, means that they save money in the long term. I think that’s perhaps a subcurative answer to your question but I think we’re going to see a lot more collaboration with some vision from the federal level. It can really help to bolster the local level to make decisions smarter.

Well, I think that it’s a hopeful idea that we can find smarter ways to create collaboration at the federal and local level in ways that are also inviting more of that private investment. It certainly seems that that’s going to be the necessary combination to help us to look at all of our legacy infrastructure and the things you touched on before, how do we create a new chapter of civic engagement between the public and their government? Hopefully this vision around what the smart cities can be can stimulate the progress that we’re capable of and that we really need.

Yeah, that’s very well said, great.

Well, listen, Chelsea Collier at Digi.City, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and we’ll be following your travels and the information that you’re sharing on your blog. We really appreciate you spending time with us here on A Step Ahead.

Thanks for the opportunity and for creating a platform. I mean, these are exactly the conversations that we should all be having and thanks for fostering it.