john reichentalFor this interview about Smart Cities, we met Dr. Jonathan Reichental who is Chief Information Officer of the city of Palo Alto. For over 20 years, Jonathan Reichental has been helping organizations leverage the value of information and communications technology to solve business problems, increase effectiveness, and support revenue growth opportunities. Following his participation in Futur en Seine in Paris last June, we wanted him to share his vision of smart cities as well as what he learned from this business trip.

Prime: Jonathan, can you share your vision and accomplishments within the city of Palo Alto?

Jonathan Reichental : The vision of our IT organization is to build and enable a digital city. This means we’ll use efficient, Internet-based technologies to connect our agency and services with community, visitors, and businesses. We’ll also use innovative, Internet-based, online technologies to support the objectives of each City department.

Concerning the things that we are most proud—and there are a lot to be proud of–we have won awards for our work in government transparency. The organization California Forward stated that our agency was a model for openness in California.

We also launched PaloAlto311, which enables community members to quickly and easily report infrastructure issues using a smartphone or via a Web browser.

Prime: How is Palo Alto a smart city?

Jonathan Reichental: We recognize that the cost and complexity of running our City is increasing and therefore new ways of approaching challenges must be adopted. We’re particularly focused on sustainability where, for example, we have met and exceeded energy usage goals. We’re also looking at energy innovations such as a smart grid to help homeowners better understand and manage their energy usage. We’re exploring new transportation solutions for parking and carpooling.

Being a smart city also means thinking differently about the relationship between community and government. We are engaged in a multitude of public-private partnerships in order to get things done. As one example, we held the largest hackathon in America in June 2013 where thousands of members of our community came together to innovate and many participated in designing solutions for major challenges in Palo Alto.

Prime: What inspired you in France during Futur en Seine? As a result, what new vision/ideas do you have?

Jonathan Reichental: It was very enlightening to see the level of innovation happening in France. There was a strong focus on building smarter cities. Innovations in energy and transportation were really apparent to me, especially with car and bike sharing. I think that Nice was an essential part of the trip.  I took away a much greater understanding of the activities that France is engaged in. They are taking Smart Cities initiatives seriously.

Prime: After this learning expedition, did you see a difference of culture between Paris and San Francisco ?

Jonathan Reichental : In the areas in Paris and Nice where we were exposed we learned that more than 85% of start-ups still exist after 3 years. This is extremely high but it is often as a result of generous subsidies. Silicon Valley works because start-ups are able to fail quickly, then founders can regroup and try again until their ideas succeed in the free marketplace.

Another difference is that, when I came in France, I was never asked “How can we do business with you?” I thought that this was one of the purposes of my trip! Not a single startup came to me to sell its product even though I had the potential to be a buyer. I think that it is a big cultural difference between France and the U.S.