Applying Technology for Smart Cities

By: Devin Reese
June 23, 2019
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Our "Stories from the field" series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities.
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Rich Lechner is a lecturer in the Civil & Environmental Engineering and Urban Studies programs at Stanford University and Vice President of Business Development at UrbanLeap, a startup that provides a platform for local governments to harness innovative solutions. Previously, Lechner was Vice President of Energy & Environment at IBM, working towards efficiencies in energy, carbon, waste, and water. His portfolio included intelligent building design and smart urban infrastructure, for example using IBM’s Traffic Prediction Tool for improved traffic flow in Singapore. ESAL interviewed Lechner about his long background in fostering urban sustainability.

DR: I know that you have used your background in math and computer science in the policy arena, including through the course you are teaching for Stanford. Could you tell me more about it?

Lechner: The course is called Smart Cities and Communities. It’s about how technology can be applied to increase the efficiency of systems, the efficacy of services, and the resiliency of communities against acute shocks and chronic stresses. It’s based on technology as an enabler, such as cloud computing as a source of elastic, affordable computing capacity, systems of insight such as analytics and AI, and systems of engagement, e.g. social media and mobile phones.

Devin: What else goes into a Smart City?

Lechner: To be honest, the course is as much about nontechnical items as it is about the technology. While technology is the enabler, I focus on the policy issues and inhibitors, organizational issues, and ways of effectively engaging citizens with their communities. The course includes behavioral science, dealing with not only how you address the supply side such as making energy systems more efficient, but also the demand side, e.g. how we encourage people to reduce energy consumption, conserve water, or shift their mode of transportation, all with the goal of having a more livable, sustainable, resilient smart city.

DR: What do you think are the best models for smart cities?

Lechner: Models could include Singapore; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco and Palo Alto, CA. I point out to my students, though, that cities vary in the challenges they face. For example, an older city like Washington, D.C. has aging water infrastructure, in contrast to a newer city like Songdo, Korea. Songdo was planned, and built from scratch, to be a high-tech, sustainable city.

DR: Has Songdo worked out well as a model for other cities?

Lechner: Well, it turns out that trying to attract people to a new city with no existing cultural fabric is difficult. Songdo struggles to grow to the expected capacity and create a sense of place. A common criticism of smart cities is that they are too focused on technology and not enough on the human element. I try to make sure the students have a balanced view.

Devin: Your course sounds fascinating. Who gets to take it?

Lechner: I teach it twice a year at Stanford, once in Engineering and once in Urban Studies. It draws a diverse group of students from computer science, urban studies, political science, economics, data science, etc. Because cities are complex, they require systems thinking, across disciplines.

Devin: How does such a diverse group work together on problem solving for complex issues?

Lechner: The students self-organize to do Smart City projects. This summer, we will be trying out having each student propose a project as if pitching to a city, while others vote on it and identify strengths and weaknesses. I want students to think not only academically, but also how they would present it to a city.

Devin: Given that you are engaging people of a particular generation (current college age), what do you notice about how they view technology, policy, and sustainability?

Lechner: What I’ve learned is that the expectations of this generation for government are unique. They expect services will be delivered to them, in real time, on any device — a perspective inspired by Uber, Netflix, phone apps, etc. And they expect services to be outcome-based and personalized, delivering a better quality of life.

Devin: How does that differ from the traditional role of government in other generations?

Lechner: You could argue that governments are the most important service providers in our lives, yet slow to change. Government as a blunt instrument designed to meet the needs of the many is no longer acceptable. It must be far more nimble.

Devin: What about the role of innovation in providing solutions to sticky problems with policy implications?

Lechner: Innovation goes beyond technology, because technology may enable new forms of engagement. For example, PowWow Energy is a start-up that provides a service to farmers to identify irrigation leaks and help optimize irrigation systems. Farmers work on very thin margins, so the idea that they could buy a bunch of leak sensors is not tenable. Instead, PowWow monitors the energy signals of water pumps from existing meters using an open API called GreenButton and advanced analytics to diagnose leaks. There is no capital expenditure, and farmers pay a nominal fee.

Devin: In this example, the innovation is connecting farmers to existing cloud data that allows them to maintain efficiency of their irrigation systems. When did you first get interested in these system-level relationships between technology, data, and policy?

Lechner: I got interested when I was at IBM, responsible for leading IBM’s portfolio of sustainability solutions including: energy efficient IT, green data centers, intelligent buildings, smart transportation, and intelligent utility networks. I had the opportunity to work with hundreds of clients as well as optimizing IBM’s own operations for energy, water, carbon, and waste. It quickly became clear that technology was only a small piece of the puzzle, that sustainability was also limited by policy and organizational inhibitors that must be overcome.

Devin: Can you give an example of one of those inhibitors?

Lechner: Sure. Often there is a misalignment between where costs are incurred and benefits realized. Data centers and IT are huge energy consumers, and yet at that time almost no Chief Information Officer (CIO) was responsible for the energy cost, so they had limited motivation to implement energy efficiency programs, particularly if they involved capital expense. Once the energy bill became their responsibility, energy consumption went down! We also helped our customers identify and apply for relevant incentives offered by utilities and government agencies to help offset the cost of implementing these projects.

DR: Could you talk about how you’re leveraging technology for policy at UrbanLeap?

Lechner: Yes, I am working on partnerships and business development for UrbanLeap, a start-up that helps cities manage the innovation process. Challenges that cities face today are typically not well-defined, and solutions are seldom ‘off the shelf’. Governments at all levels lack process and tools to discover and evaluate innovative solutions in a low-risk, transparent way. As a consequence, something like 80% of urban innovation projects fail.

DR: What is an example of a challenging urban problem that requires innovation?

Lechner: Trying to solve traffic congestion or homelessness. Both are multifaceted, touching many departments and organizations, with no simple solution. It requires an ability to frame the problem, discover a set of potential solutions, pilot a few, use evaluation criteria to assess, and either succeed or fail quickly, then share the learning, identify best practices, and set metrics of success. There is no mechanism to manage that process for cities — traditional procurement methods are not working. We need to get better at the process and that is what UrbanLeap is about.

DR: What advice would you give to people who want to get engaged with their local governments?

Lechner: Look into resources such as the recently announced ‘Small Places, Big Ideas Innovation Cohort’ that Engaging Local Government Leaders and UrbanLeap are sponsoring. ELGL has 4600 members across the US, many of which are small, rural communities that have many of the same challenges as large cities, but may not have the same level of resources or skills to tackle them. The cohort is bringing a dozen small communities together to work collaboratively on a common problem by pooling resources.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 06/23/19
Updated: 08/16/22
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