My journey into smart cities and their future development was a really big surprise, as the way I arrived there was not something that I had planned. I was working as the chief information officer for a company in Northern California called O’Reilly Media when I got a call from a headhunter who asked if I would consider being the chief information office for the City of Palo Alto. I can vividly remember — it was only about eight years ago — my feeling when she asked the question. The first thing that came into my mind: I would never consider working for the government. And the next quick emotion I had was: but that’s really interesting and I’d like to know more.
So, fortunately, my willingness to be open minded was a good thing, and I asked her to explain what the opportunity was. I think because it was the birthplace of Silicon Valley, as the city was Palo Alto, one of the things that interested me was that the city had not been notable for being technologically developed, despite being at the very heart of technological innovations. That definitely raised my curiosity.
I’ve always been fascinated by cities and urbanism in general. I’ve always been interested in the political mechanisms by which cities and governments function. But these were just interests. I had no particular thought that I would ever work in that context. So, I went ahead and investigated it more. The rest is history: I accepted the opportunity.
I had been focused on the city: building a team and figuring out how we could collaborate with the community and with the innovators in the area, like the big tech companies. How we could do things with them that would help us think differently about how you deliver governmental services.
The idea of working as a technologist in an interesting city with the permission to try new things was very attractive to me, and I was pleased by the level of engagement. So, my thesis was right that the community and the technology companies, whether it was Hewlett-Packard, VMware or Tesla, were all interested and willing to take my call and to think about how we can apply technology and processes to change the way that city functions are done.
Dr. Jonathan Reichental is the CEO of Human Future, a global business and technology education, advisory and investment firm. He is the former chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, and is a multiple-award-winning technology leader whose 30-year career has spanned both the public and private sectors.