Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The former smart cities manager for Redlands, California believes there’s an opportunity to accelerate public sector innovation—he just moved to the private sector to help make it happen.
There is a maxim that says people seek the stability of government jobs during economic downturns and look to the private sector for wage growth when times are good. While future earnings may be part of my decision to leave local government for a startup, it is not even close to the whole story.
When I first started at Redlands, I was concerned that the city would be slow and bureaucratic, with no innovation to be found. I took the job initially because a long-time friend assured me I would like the people. “They're just like you” he swore, “They’re doing big things.”
As it turned out, that friend was more right than they even knew. I quickly found that the city of Redlands is staffed with truly incredible people. Engineers whose work I would stake my life on, administrative staff who go the extra mile, twice, just to get projects in motion, and leaders who back big ideas even at very real risk to their own careers.
What had started as a small research project into opportunities to harness GIS and smart technologies quickly grew into my full-time role. By six months, I’d officially launched Smart Redlands. That’s when I found out just how quickly cities can innovate when the will exists.
With the support of city leaders, I was able to jump start our program with more than $5 million in grant funding towards transportation innovation. Seemingly overnight, Smart Redlands took off. Our public works department led the charge, finding clever ways to leverage existing Esri software to automate workflow for field staff, saving more than $80,000 annually. Our PARIS Program used big data to shape maintenance decisions around which roads to pave, when, and how to coordinate work between utility divisions. My team was revolutionizing citizen engagement for Redlands, launching on NextDoor, WAZE, Twitter and even Snapchat.
It was like working for a startup. But cooler, because the pay was decent and I got vacation.
Along the way, I also learned that doing new things in local government is incredibly difficult. There are department silos, entrenched interests, countless regulations and overlapping jurisdictions. The budgets are always too small, and the culture just a little too cautious. City employees are mocked for our backwards 1990s websites, but crucified if we build a modern website that experiences growing pains. We’re expected to buy wisely, from companies with top skills and products, but purchasing guidelines say only the lowest bidder is allowed through.
After being on the receiving end of more sales pitches than I can count, I realized that these local government realities aren’t just frustrating for city employees. They have big consequences for every single company that wants to help cities solve problems.
After listening to literally hundreds of proposals from companies across the smart cities spectrum, I can count on just one hand the number of effective sales pitches I’ve seen. Most companies told me about their vaunted history, their years in business, or about how much more compelling their sensor was than their competitor down the street.
What almost none of them could tell me is what specific problem they could help me solve in my city. And I don’t blame them. Cities can often feel like an enigma even from the inside, and figuring out how to communicate effectively with cities as a company with a new solution is far from easy.
I have realized over the last several months that I had to help solve this problem if cities of all kinds and all sizes were ever going to be able to do new things at scale. This is a problem that spans beyond individual jurisdictions, and I believe I can help solve it.
That’s why I am challenging myself to scale up the types of civic innovations we started at Redlands. I want to take them worldwide. There are so many cities, water districts, and county agencies that want to take a stab at innovation but don’t know where to start. There are so many companies that have helped a handful of cities solve urgent problems—problems that range from lead in drinking water to inefficient payment systems—but then struggle to educate, communicate, and engage with other cities in order to grow.
Ultimately, that disconnect means that while cities are struggling to innovate, companies with the most exciting solutions are struggling to scale, and innovation in government creeps forward slowly.
These are the kind of grand challenges I am particularly interested in pursuing. My new teammates are hungry and talented and creative and like every startup, we’re planning to change the world. I believe we need to stop thinking of government as a sort of black box that no one really understands and commit to working together to solve the grand challenges of our era.
Governments the world over badly need a refresh, not the bolt-on looks-good-from-the-outside kind that gets good PR, but deep change management of the kind that makes all of civil society better. This kind of change is going to take a village, both inside and outside city hall, to pull off.
Endnote: Kjeld Lindsted launched a smart city program in Redlands, California prior to his recent transition to Business Development at The Atlas Marketplace.
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