Smart Cities: How Palo Alto is preparing for The Day After Tomorrow

by Prof. Steven Van Belleghem / 11/30/2017 9:49:30 AM

There has been a lot of interest in the concept of smart since Bill Gates’ announcement of his $80million plans for Arizona, but pioneering the world of smart cities, Palo Alto is already working to become the sustainable, connected heart of Silicon Valley. I wanted to know more about how we can expect cities to change as technology develops, so as part of the research for my new book, Customers The Day After Tomorrow, I spoke to the CIO of Palo Alto, Jonathan Reichental.

Palo Alto has an expectation placed on it to lead the way with technology. This is an important obligation for the city, and they are trying lead the way when it comes to smart cities. Jonathan feels that technology can be used to make cities run more efficiently, and he is aiming to create a truly sustainable city, with a world-leading quality of life and great public services.

Creating a smart city

Becoming more sustainable and eco-friendly is an important way that Palo Alto is trying to be a smart city. “We are encouraging drivers not to drive alone,” Jonathan says, “and to drive electric cars.” This will help to address some of the transportation challenges the modern city faces, and will try to reduce their carbon footprint.

Jonathan is also looking at how he can take the manual experiences of a government, such as filling out forms and paperwork, and bring it to the next level by making it digital and accessible on a smartphone.

The future of driverless cars

Jonathan is no stranger to driverless cars. He predicts than it will take anywhere between 10-30 years until all cars on the road are driverless. Tech companies everywhere are experimenting in this field, but it will be a gradual transition until the road is filled with driverless cars. There will likely be a transition period where there are both humans and computers on the road.

Jonathan says that this will be “the most impactful shift in society in the first half of the twenty-first century.” Driverless cars respond very well to traffic and hopefully the amount of vehicle accidents will drop. People will no longer have to worry about drinking and driving, and the entire way we spend time in cars will change.

“Today we build cities for cars, tomorrow we build cities for people.”

In America, the roads are built around cars. The roads are set out in blocks and there are limited amount of sidewalks to walk anywhere. People began choosing to live further out from the cities as they began being able to drive there. However, with driverless cars, all this could change quickly. The urban sprawl could be converted back to green spaces, and cities can go back to being about people, rather than cars. Driverless cars could be an opportunity to combine technology and transportation in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Technology creates effortless customer service

Technology can help to make customer service easy and effortless for everybody – and smart cities can use technology to meet the expectations of its residents. Jonathan says that cities need to start to move government onto smartphone to make things easier, as there is now a generation of people who are smartphone native.

There are opportunities for cities to use AI, chatbots and data to drive quicker solutions and help to keep things effortless and simple. This is something that cities need to start doing – but even if they won’t, communities will demand it eventually. To keep up with the evolving technology, it is best for cities to make this change now.

What AI and bots have been used and created for the community?

In Palo Alto – things are developing quickly. “We have moved 60 platforms to digital over the past 5 years,” he says. “There are 5 physical libraries in Palo Alto – and a sixth which is entirely online.”

They also have an app for public safety – residents can report non-urgent crimes on the app and someone will get back to them with updates. There is an app for reporting things that are broken or trash on the street, and someone will tell you when it is fixed and ask you to rate it.

Residents can also ask for permits online. Some permits now are entirely digital – with no human interaction needed at all. It might seem like a reasonably small step, but it shows how Palo Alto is slowly making the lives of its residents easier by transitioning into a completely digital city.

Handling data collection

With so much data being collected, it means that there are also inevitably some privacy issues. Jonathan says that in Palo Alto, they have a laser focus on privacy, exceeding law expectations. For example, when they collect traffic information at an intersection, they can collect the data without any personal information or license plate numbers.

They can count the traffic at an intersection, monitoring what speed, what direction, and how many cars there are. This way of measuring traffic is helpful in thinking about risk safety, but doesn’t interfere with any of the resident’s privacy. They have made changes with intersections based on the data they found and have seen real improvements in the flow traffic, without collecting any data on individuals.

The role of bots in customer service

I asked Jonathan whether he thinks bots will ever be used in government. “They could,” he says, “but you have to be careful how to apply them. It is very important for people to talk to people in customer service and government.”

People are still experimenting with the use of bots in customer service, and they are still unsure what they will use it for. At the moment, the use of a bot would be good for providing phone numbers or opening hours – data questions that don’t require a complex answer.

Palo Alto is an insight into the kinds of things we can expect for cities of the future. Within just a few decades we could have entirely digital cities with driverless cars, AI and a new level of customer service for residents, but transforming a city is a huge, complex project, so authorities must start preparing for the day after tomorrow, today.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s is an award-winning author, and his new book Customers The Day After Tomorrow is due to be published in December 2017. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

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