Flying cars and dog-walking robots were all part of a futuristic world of “smart cities” envisioned as early as the 1960s, when they were mainstays in every baby boomer’s favorite cartoon The Jetsons. Fast forward to 2019, however, and the reality seems closer to that of The Flintstones.
Cities today can remain ridden with potholes that go unfilled for months or snow-covered street corners that aren’t ploughed in a timely fashion. Subway services can be suddenly disrupted, leaving straphangers to either run late or be stranded.
Not so in San Antonio, Texas, which now finds itself at the forefront of tackling at least some of these problems with a “311” reporting system called Cityflag.
Its CEO and co-founder, Beto Altamirano, says his goal of his innovative startup is to bridge the gap between governments and people, by providing civic engagement and reporting capabilities to the San Antonio area, where he lives, and beyond.
Altamirano, a blogger for the World Economic Forum (WEF) and an honoree of Forbes’ 2018 list of 30 Under 30, spoke with Karma Network’s Contributing Editor Michael Moran about the future of the so-called “smart city” — and the importance of inclusionary practices in their adoption.
Michael Moran: What is Cityflag, and how does it fit into the concept of a “smart city” that we all hear so much about, yet see so little evidence of?
Beto Altamirano: Cityflag is a one-stop shop for citizens for all government information and non-emergency services. It is designed to place the citizen at the center of the experience — meaning that we don’t just set up a communications channel, but we also build the community in the process.
Let's say you see a pothole (that needs fixing), graffiti (on a wall), (other types of) vandalism, or (experience) power outages. We allow you to communicate these issues directly to your government, and (for them to communicate back to you).
See, I believe that the smartness of the city lies in its ability to bring together all its resources to effectively and seamlessly achieve the goals it has set for itself.
So a smart city is basically a connected city.
Now, how can we build a more connected city? And how did smart cities evolve? Or how do they evolve? Because technology is always evolving, right?
There is a tendency to think that cities are proactive, but the reality is that cities are reactive. Governments also tend to be slower in adopting technology trends. And so I believe that the smart city trend started when companies like IBM, for example, started encouraging the adoption of the same solutions that they were spearheading in the private sector in the cities.
So that was Smart City 1.0, right? Which was to create a government that utilizes technology to address the issues that it faces on a daily basis. And so, you have companies like IBM, Cisco, Amazon, and Honeywell, that are pushing for this adoption of technology platforms. A lot of city governments still have these legacy systems that have been in place for 20 or 25 years. And it's funny because that goes back to my theory, which is that governments are reactive, not proactive. I don't care if everyone talks about how city governments will become proactive because of technology. That's not true.
The reality is that the process of adoption for cities is a lot slower. So these companies that enabled this technology, that introduced this technology, had a head start. And because of that, they now dominate the government tech market.
Michael Moran: So how do you turn that around? If government is the purchaser — or even the designer, sometimes, of smart city systems and software — how do we turn reactive solutions into proactive solutions?
Altamirano: The idea here is to serve the people. In a way, we have to think of government as a platform, and citizens as the consumers. We have to think of technology as a way to serve the constituents, and not the other way around.
Smart City 1.0, which was in the 1990s, early 2000s, was about, “How can we introduce a government-centric approach to technology, so cities can thrive in this environment like the private sector (does)?”
But now Smart City 2.0 is focused on the people. Since 2014 or 2015, it has become essentially about how technology enables people to receive better services from their government. And it has been mostly led by elected officials, who subscribe to the idea of, “I want to connect with my constituents, and I want to provide the services.” The goal is to improve the quality of life, of course.
Michael Moran: In any major city — and even in areas outside the big cities — there are people who for some reason or another might not be as connected, such as the elderly, the sick, and people in economically deprived neighborhoods. You could make the case that they may need this service more than most. What’s the solution there?
Altamirano: Since we're entering into a new environment in which smart city approaches become necessities and not just conveniences, we’re all asking, “How can citizens receive these services in a more equitable environment?” It’s been true that there are a lot of communities in cities that are disenfranchised from the process, either due to age, or poverty, or language skills.
And so when these folks know how to access these digital trends or services, what happens? It drives connectivity. That's a big question that a lot of mayors throughout the world are asking. So far, the result of the “let's put all this technology out there and then see what happens” approach has been very positive, but again, there are a lot of folks that are digitally disenfranchised, meaning they don't have those services, either because they don't have access to a computer or they don't have access to the Internet.
We've seen companies like Google Fiber spearhead initiatives in Austin, for example, and in San Antonio, where I live, in central Texas. And those programs haven't been that successful. So the government has to be part of this solution.
But, the real question is: What can the government do now to build smart city projects that create inclusion in the process?
That's one of the biggest questions that we're experimenting with right now at Cityflag, and that a lot of public and elected leaders are trying to solve.