Is Palo Alto Ready for the Day After Tomorrow?

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Located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, it seems almost inevitable that Palo Alto should be one of the places pioneering the idea of Smart Cities. As research for my book Customers the Day After Tomorrow, I have been speaking to Jonathan Reichental – the CIO of Palo Alto – about what kind of developments are happening in the city, and how we can expect this to change the lives of its residents. 

Sustainability, liveability, and quality of life  

The local government in Palo Alto are trying to make it the most digital city in the world. They are utilising the latest research and technology in order to help the city to run more efficiently. The city is aiming to offer sustainability, a great service to residents, and a great quality of life, and it see technology as the key, as they find new and innovative ways to boost sustainability and create a new way of governing.  

Jonathan tells me that one of the ways they are doing this is through trying to be proactive about climate change, and moving people away from petrol cars and more towards electric. They are encouraging citizens to car share where they can, and exploring taking technology to the next level with driverless cars.

They are also working on taking the everyday interactions with government departments into the digital world. By bringing manual tasks such as filling out a form onto a smartphone, it could help things to be managed much more efficiently for the administrator, and more conveniently for the resident. 

Today we build cities for cars, tomorrow we build cities for people” 

Many tech companies are experimenting with driverless cars – and Jonathan thinks it could be anywhere between 10 and 30 years until we begin to see only driverless cars on the streets. Switching to an entirely driverless system could hopefully reduce congestion and road traffic accidents. However, for a while, we will go through a transition period where there are both humans and computers on the road. 

Jonathan says that the future of driverless cars will be “the most impactful shift in society in the first half of the twenty-first century.” It will mean that cities can be designed differently, and the need for traffic signs will be eradicated. Cities can focus on people and communities again and have more sidewalks and smaller roads. Urban sprawl is something that many people regret in America – and a change in transport could hopefully mean access to more green spaces.

“Today we build cities for cars, tomorrow we build cities for people,” Jonathan says. With driverless cars, there is a new opportunity to combine technology with transportation for a new generation. Smart Cities have an obligation to meet community expectations – and soon people will demand a more tech-driven city. 

The tech generation 

The new generation is one that is completely smartphone native. Cities have to keep up with their desires in order to stay sustainable. Palo Alto is looking at including AI, chatbots and data in government to drive quicker solutions. 

Palo Alto has moved 60 of its platforms to digital over the past 5 years. There are now five physical libraries – and one that is entirely online. Users can borrow digital books and have an identical library experience without the need for a physical building. There is also an app for public safety where residents can report non-urgent crimes and public areas that need servicing – and be told when the issue has been fixed and given the option to rate the solution. Residents can even ask for permits entirely online – which can be granted within days, with little or no human interaction. 

Privacy problems 

Moving platforms to digital ensures that things run smoothly – but it can also mean data and privacy issues. With so much being done online, just how is Palo Alto attempting to address privacy issues? 

“We have a laser focus on privacy,” he tells me, “meeting or exceeding law expectations.” In Palo Alto, they work on collecting data with little or no personal information. They counted the traffic at an intersection monitoring the speed, number of cars, and the direction, without looking at the people in the cars or the license plate. This is very helpful for monitoring safety but does not interfere with privacy. They then changed the intersections accordingly and saw a huge difference in the number of accidents. 

Automated customer service? 

Jonathan thinks that there could be a use for bots in government – but they will have to be very careful how they apply it. It is still very important for people to speak to people in service.   

Bots might be useful for finding information on things like phone numbers, opening hours, and answering closed questions that have a fixed answer. However, for more complex situations it’s best to speak to a real person so customers do not get frustrated. 

Within the next few decades, it is very likely that we could be seeing increasingly digitalised governments, which use smartphones, apps and data to work more efficiently. As AI develops, the key to Smart Cities being able to use bots to communicate with residents is that they are able to collect data quickly and effortlessly, and with the mindset and expertise in the City, we shouldn’t be surprised if Palo Alto is among those leading the way. 

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s is an award-winning author, and his new book Customers The Day After Tomorrow is due to be published in December 2017. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos on YouTube or visit his website. 

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