What Makes a Smart City um, Smart?
This week we chat on the complexities and opportunities smart cities can deliver in the US and around the globe with guest Chris Teale, reporter at Smart Cities Dive. He’s spent years meeting with government and community leaders on the growth of smart cities. And shares thoughts on just how fluid defining what a smart city is today. Learn which cities around the world are leading in the smart city evolution and how a patchwork of state-by-state laws and regulatory frameworks help and/or hinder progress.
As well as examples of US cities you may not have expected that can share best practices and lessons learned with cities large and small across the country to help get them on the path to better utilizing technology and digitization to improve essential services (such as trash pick-up) and quality of life. He also shares insights of the ‘hackers as city consultant’ trend and how a federal government playbook for cities could help more cities get smarter, faster.
What Makes a Smart City um, Smart?
[1:33] What’s Going on With Smart Cities
Rachael: We've got Chris Teale. He is a reporter at Smart Cities Dive. He’s talking to all the movers and shakers across the country, and what's going on with smart cities in the US. There's some really interesting things happening, so I'm really looking forward to this conversation today.
Rachael: I just want to start at the beginning, because you write this volume of articles. What have been your most interesting stories that have shocked you, or just been illuminating in terms of the opportunity ahead. For cities to become more digitized and improve services and all the things that come with technological advancements.
Chris: Some of the things I've been most interested in writing about has been the evolution of how we get around. How we move beyond just driving around in our cars. That's been everything from the evolution of ride hailing to micromobility, which is dockless bikes, dockless scooters, and all that sort of thing. And also, autonomous vehicles which is a very interesting opportunity that I think has been dogged by a lot of hype.
Chris: A lot of industry people are saying, "Oh, it'll be ready soon." And then you look at the calendar and you go, "Well, it's soon now." I know Lyft promised autonomous vehicles this year, and that's not going to happen. So, I think, yes, just how people get around is the most interesting thing because we all live it every day.
Define a Smart City
Eric: Can we take a step back for a second? Because I actually had to do some research. How would you define smart cities to our audience? I don't think a lot of people understand what we're talking about here.
Rachael: That's a great question.
Eric: Like, I had to look it up and I've been in this business a long time.
Chris: Yes. That's the million-dollar question. I often say that if you ask 10 people to define a smart city, you'll get 11 different answers.
Eric: And most would say, "I don't know. The cities are pretty dumb. I give them a lot of tax money. They don't do a lot for me."
Chris: It seems that way, doesn't it? For me, I always think of smart cities as a city that uses technology and other ways to make itself more livable for its residents. It makes it easier to get around, easier to do everyday things. And it uses technology to do that while at the same time, in an ideal world, cutting emissions and fighting against the worst of climate change. That's my view, and I understand I'm an adult, and we don't agree on everything. But that's where I approach this topic.
Eric: Okay. I'm going to try something here off the rails, maybe, but we'll try it. If we look at cities over time, I won't go back to medieval times, but we talk about industrialization and then electrification. Cities, you finally got electric in things, and we can go into septic or sewer and water and everything else. But we're really talking more about automation now, aren't we?
A Constant Evolution
Chris: Yes, very much so. It's using robots to do different things for us. I mean, even the vending machine could be an example of automation. It used to be that we had to go into the register and buy a kind of whatever. But now we just go to the vending machine and we've been able to do that for years. I think it's just been a constant evolution.
Eric: In the States, I'm assuming it's global but honestly I don't know. We've got traffic cameras and we've got monitoring. You pull up Waze, actually, we have it all over the world, let's be honest. But I know that in some countries there are a lot more cameras. You can plan your routes, and to me that's part of a smart city or smart infrastructure, maybe. I know that there's a traffic jam here and it's faster to go this direction. But there's systems that are telling me that. The only reason I know is there are collectors out there that are providing information to some service that I can subscribe to or take advantage of.
Chris: Yes, absolutely. You have sensors all over the place, and you also have things like Waze, which crowdsources all this stuff.
Rachael: I want to get back to autonomous vehicles, because that's one of my favorite topics.
Eric: You're going right down into Elon Musk and the like? Okay, let's do it.
Rachael: Well, I think the opportunity is huge. I lived in New York City for 15 years and I love mass transit all day long. But also, it is interesting that that payoff hasn't come yet.
The Use of Autonomous Vehicles During the Pandemic
Rachael: One of the things I found interesting was one of the articles you were writing about. It was the use of autonomous vehicles during the pandemic to deliver food, or to deliver tests, or all the other things. I think one of the articles was also getting into this kind of speed. They go, like, nine or 10 miles an hour.
Rachael: So, it could be really slow which may not be good for other traffic patterns. But, what is it going to take for this promise to get here? I mean, is it all on folks like Elon Musk? Or is it up to the cities to also play a much larger partnership role with these technology companies? How do we get there to make this a reality?
Chris: I think it's a two-pronged approach. The technology is still not as mature as we would like it to be. We're still learning. For instance, if you and I are out driving and we're able to react to all kinds of obstacles and things on the roads. There are no guarantees that an autonomous vehicle can do that properly yet. Has it caught up to the human brain? No one really knows. I think the technology just has to mature and it has to keep developing and be tested.
Chris: Then on the other side of things, I think you need a regulatory framework. You need some kind of law to come down from Congress regulating this. Right now, you've got a patchwork of laws from different states and they're trying their best. But a federal regulation just hasn't happened yet, and having that will make a really big difference.
[08:23] How Do I Declare Myself a Smart City?
Eric: You're speaking specifically to driving autonomy? Or, autonomous driving, I should say.
Eric: Okay. Got it. But from a city perspective, if I'm the mayor of a city, whatever, Charlotte, North Carolina. How do I declare myself a smart city? Or, what do I do to become a smarter city? How do you plan for that?
Chris: Eric, you're really asking me the tough ones today.
Eric: Is that really that tough? I just want to know.
Chris: It is. I mean, I would argue that you don't just get to throw up some free Wi-Fi and say, "Oh, we're a smart city now." That shouldn't be how this works.
Eric: I would argue that a lot of people might do that, and that may be the easiest thing to do.
Chris: Oh, yes. Absolutely, that is the easiest thing to do, and it's politically expedient to do that. The way I think about it is you should always try and get smarter. You should think like NASA, who went to the moon in 1969 and then said, "Okay, what can we do next?" You should always be looking to improve. I don't think anyone is truly going to be smart. If they get to the end of this and think, "Yeah, we're done. We're smart. We don't have to do anything else now," that's not acceptable.
Eric: Agreed. I'm thinking of trash can containers that notify you when they're reaching capacity so that some autonomous vehicle can come and empty it for you. I'm thinking of examples like that. Where city services could really benefit the consumers of those services, the constituents of the city, to make life better and easier.
A Smart City Where People Can Live Well
Chris: And that's how it should be. A smart city is one where people can live well and ideally afford to live there as well.
Rachael: I would like that. I would love if my trash could get picked up. Maybe I don't need it to come every week, or whatever it is. Like an on-demand, autonomous model. That would be incredibly convenient. And if you watch all these movies.
Eric: Or the park. Think about the park trash cans that are overflowing because maybe they're emptied once a day but there was an event or something. And it just makes it look dirty. You just don't get a good feeling because the city wasn't prepared. There are so many areas where I think if we use technology, we can automate things and make them a lot better.
Chris: Yes, definitely. Everything is ripe for innovation. And when you do the next thing, then you can do the next thing after that. I mean, do we get to a point where our trash bins have sensors? Where they can see, okay, this is for recycling, this piece is for general waste? The possibilities, I think, are endless.
Eric: I actually have a very good friend's son, who I'd almost call a nephew. He created a company. Young kid, he's right out of college, a year or two. They're working on that, they're sorting trash. And they're monetizing it based on the value of the recyclables.
Rachael: Interesting. So smart.
Eric: They're creating a technology machine, essentially, that can sort the trash into different components by value. There's a monetization component not just on the recycling but knowing what the consumers are consuming too, that they can sell back to organizations.
Things I Think of When I Think of a Smart City
Eric: He's so passionate. It's entirely interesting to me, and I think that works in a city. That doesn't work in Omaha in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. You've got to have that critical mass, that population density, to make that work. But those are the types of things I think of when I think of smart cities. Smart recycling. I don't know, I gave two trash examples.
Chris: Well, no. Honestly, that's more tangible than flying cars. I mean, they look cool.
Eric: Is it?
Chris: Having ways to manage your waste and your water and that kind of stuff is far more tangible for everyday residents than, "Oh, I can jump in a flying car."
Rachael: 100%. Absolutely.
Eric: Yes, but my commute to work is 13 miles if I had a flying car or a helicopter. It's 52 miles because I have to cross a river. And there are only two crossing points, so for me I don't have a trash recycling problem, I have a transportation problem. I'll go with transportation. What is the smartest city out there, in your opinion, from the work you've done?
Chris: I think they're in Asia. We're looking at Singapore, it’s usually up there, and Seoul in South Korea. I forget, there's an international ranking and I think Singapore has been consistently at the top for a while. London is doing well as well. The top-ranked US city is usually New York.
Eric: And what gets them to the top of the ranking?
Rachael: Wi-Fi in the subways, I have to tell you, are the best thing ever in New York. I can surf the web on the train, it's amazing.
They Call Themselves a Smart City
Eric: That's really basic. We're not talking flying cars.
Rachael: But it's life-changing when you're stuck on the 6 train going from the Bronx downtown, going local. Man, you want that Wi-Fi.
Chris: That makes a difference.
Eric: Maybe we go back to that example, where you said the mayor sets up some Wi-Fi points and they call themselves a smart city. You can see what gets Rachael excited.
Rachael: I don't care about trash.
Eric: It's the little things.
Rachael: Yes. I just want the Wi-Fi.
Chris: I live in Washington and they recently made it so that you don't lose phone signals in tunnels while you're on the subway or on the metro. Honestly, the best thing ever. And just a little thing like that makes such a difference.
Eric: I agree.
Rachael: It really does. It's funny, but how do you prioritize? I guess it's a great point, Eric. In a city, and every city being its own world, how do you prioritize what to make smart first? Do you go for those quick, easy wins like Wi-Fi in the subway? Or do you try to tackle the big, broad things where the trash would be a really big one to try to figure out.
Chris: If you have an answer for that, I'd love to hear it. I don't know. Because the other thing that you run into as a city leader is that the one thing that you have to make smart first of all is your kids. Like, public schools have to be the priority, and it's road maintenance and public works. You have so many pressures on a city budget all at once. It can be so difficult to prioritize anything, frankly.
[15:10] How Do We Prioritize?
Eric: You know, when I was prepping for this podcast I was thinking back over COVID. I watched the entire six seasons of The Wire and it's all about Baltimore. I hadn't watched it before.
Chris: I love The Wire.
Eric: But it's all about Baltimore. I mean, talk about a tough budgetary environment for the city. The way they're horse trading politically on schools versus crime and everything else. It does help to get you into the mindset if you've got that framework there, of, how do we prioritize? Wi-Fi is cheap and easy, it's doable today. Do you take that moon shot, if you will, looking for automated trash dispenser cleanup? That you may be waiting on technology, you may have regulatory, who knows? Privacy. I mean, I don't know.
Eric: Do you do that in your time as a mayor or a city council? Or do you shoot for something that just makes you smile from ear to ear, unfortunately, our listeners can't see it, Wi-Fi on the subway? Chris, you got Wi-Fi in the metro tunnels. Really the same thing, I enjoy it too. I haven't been on the metro in 18 months. But in D.C. there's nothing worse than not being able to communicate when you're on a metro.
Chris: Yes. Or I listen to Spotify on my headphones. And if my song gets interrupted because I have no connection, I'm furious.
Eric: Right. And when we work from home, we expect this constant connectedness. What if you're on a Zoom, even if you're just listening in on the way to work? It may prevent you from going to work, spending money in the city, if you live out in the suburbs.
Easy Tangible Pieces
Eric: Those are services that I think you've got to start prioritizing. Some of the easy, tangible pieces early on and have aspirational goals down the road. But that would just be my thought.
Chris: Yes. And then how do you do that when you have to run for reelection?
Rachael: Exactly. What is it, every two years?
Eric: Good point.
Rachael: What's the tenure these days?
Chris: It can be anything. I mean, two to three years, four years. It's so difficult.
Rachael: It's not enough time to get anything done.
Eric: Right, yes. The educational system is in a shambles. Crime is up, and you're planning on autonomous trash and recycling capability. It's not a politically winning position.
Rachael: It's not super sexy, but I'll be though once it got up and rolling, people would be thrilled. It's one of those.
Rachael: How do you do that, though? Yes.
Eric: What makes Seoul or Singapore top of the list? What services are they doing? Maybe we can learn from them.
Chris: A lot of stuff has been digitized; I think. You don't necessarily have to go to City Hall to pay your water bill with a paper cheque.
Rachael: That's wonderful.
Chris: And it's things like that that have really made a difference. They've invested in transit. They are taking climate change seriously and have really tried to bring down their emissions. And they're trying to get people out of their cars as well.
Rachael: I love that, yes.
Eric: So, we're really not talking about autonomous driving. We are not talking lasers, flying cars or anything else. We're talking tangible capabilities, putting city services online as opposed to making you come down to City Hall.
Cybersecurity in the Context of Advanced Services
Chris: Yes, absolutely. I think Dubai is a really interesting example of this as well. They want to go completely paperless by 2023. The idea being that you don't have to bring a wad of paperwork that thick if you want to file for a permit, say, to do an event or something like that. Things like that just improve people's lives.
Eric: We're a cybersecurity podcast. I'm going to switch this over and Rachael's got a ton of questions for us. How do these city councils, mayors, organizations, you name it, think about cybersecurity in the context of these advanced services? Or, maybe they're not that advanced. But services that bring it online, in your experience.
Chris: In my experience, frankly they don't think about it enough. I think a lot of cybersecurity is quite an intangible thing. If you have a pothole outside the street, you can see it and you know what you have to do. A lot of cities have run into issues. I think Atlanta did this, I remember hearing the mayor speak about this. She said essentially, "We didn't expect that it would happen to us so we didn't invest enough."
Eric: You're talking about the ransomware attack of 2019, on the city of Atlanta?
Chris: Yes, 2018.
Eric: Okay. I was off by a year.
Chris: You don't expect that it's going to happen to you, so there are other things to invest in than your cybersecurity infrastructure. And that's the problem that we're facing, that's why you're seeing ransomware attacks going up and up in city governments.
Cities Do Pay
Rachael: Cities are paying it, which I think is really interesting. I mean, for their decision calculus, it's a lot less painful for them to pay on the hope that yes, if they will get the key to unencrypt and all those things are actually going to work. But by and large, cities do pay. Is it because these attackers are making the ransom payment something that's accessible for cities as well? I mean, it sounds like these guys are pretty smart when they're planning that too.
Chris: Yes. Hackers have gotten smarter and smarter. But what's interesting is that it's not that every city has paid. The US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution a little while ago saying, essentially, don't pay the ransom. Don't do it. Do literally anything else. I think about a city like Knoxville, which got hacked last year. They didn't pay a ransom. But then Florence, Alabama also got hacked. And they paid about $300,000 in a bid to stop their data being published on the Internet. So, there isn't real uniformity. New Orleans had a big hack, and they didn't pay. It's just every city on their own, really, trying to figure this out.
Eric: And it feels like if none of them paid, the ransomware attackers would go elsewhere.
Chris: Yes, absolutely.
Eric: Because again, they can't monetize the initiative, so they'll go find money elsewhere. But if only one or two of them pay, or maybe I should say as soon as the first one or two pay, you see that crack in the armor. And you might as well go after all of them because it's relatively cheap.
A Blip on the Radar
Rachael: Well, sure. In Texas, a couple of years ago, there was this cluster of cities, tiny towns too. I think it was 10, and they all paid. It was like a blip on the radar of, "Oh, yeah. Here you go, here's our money because we just want to get back in business." And I suspect a lot of them don't have the backups or don't have all of that additional support infrastructure to not pay.
Chris: A lot of cities haven't invested as much as they should in their IT departments and that kind of thing. Or, they might have an IT technician who helps fix computers and that kind of stuff. And they might have a fairly basic cyber protection plan, but that's not going to be enough. As these hackers get more and more sophisticated, that's going to get breached immediately.
Eric: It almost seems like somebody should bring out a templated type of service for cities. I don't know, maybe small, medium, large. And maybe I'm only thinking domestically, here in the States. But where AWS or somebody runs, here's how you pay your water bill. Here's how we manage water. I don't think that's probably possible due to the proliferation of legacy systems and billing systems and everything, but they're all on their own.
Chris: The argument I've heard is that if every city government transitioned to using a .gov domain, they would automatically, because that's federal. So, they would have the protections of the federal government behind them. I'm not sure how feasible that is, but that's just one, small way to try and centralize this a little bit.
[23:10]Tough Problems a Smart City Has to Deal With
Eric: I don't think a .gov domain gives you protection from the federal, it means the federal government has to help you. And even if it did, they certainly wouldn't have the capability.
Eric: These are really tough problems. They don't have the budgets for the staff. They're a pretty wide open, easy target. And when they get hit, when they get targeted, they don't have a lot of options because they don't have the staff, the budgets, the capability.
Chris: Yes. And this is a relatively recent phenomenon, this hacking stuff. There's not much of a precedent, really. It's not like we have 20 years of experience to go back on. It's a relatively recent thing.
Eric: I would think that the role for the federal government would be in addressing the macro problem, which is people from outside of the United States. In this case, if we take a US-centric example for a second, predominantly outside, are attacking American cities. And we're not going to tolerate that. We're not going to be okay with this. And here is our national stance on this. So Russia, Rwanda, wherever, you are responsible or you will have to deal with the US government.
Eric: And I'm not saying that should mean air strikes. Maybe it means financial support. I don't know. But my experience with the United States national government is they would have more luck with that than trying to help and police every, single agency or every, single city. How many cities have been hacked at this point with just ransomware? We know, what is it? Lake City, Florida, Atlanta, Baltimore. I mean, you can just rattle off the list.
Rachael: Right, a lot.
Eric: They're easy targets. Someone has got to do something.
Chris: Yes. There's no easy answer, unfortunately.
Rachael: There was an article too about what we always talk about, critical infrastructure. That's always the big rock in cities, and the vulnerabilities. And I guess if we were to stack rank how to protect these, or are there any cities you've come across that maybe are seemingly doing it right? Or on the right path to take critical infrastructure really seriously and put a lot of calories towards trying to solve that problem? Have you come across that?
Chris: Yes. I have to give New Orleans a lot of credit, to be honest. They had a big cyber attack at the back end of 2019.
Eric: Yes. You wrote a great article on that.
Chris: Oh, thank you for reading. It's nice to meet actual readers every once in a while. I appreciate that.
Eric: It was on the lessons learned, basically, from the leadership.
Chris: Yes, absolutely.
Eric: It was a great article.
Chris: And I mean, what were they doing? They had been preparing for this early. They'd been investing in the protections that they needed. They were running fire drills. And so when they got hacked, they knew what to do. And they also have good state backup. They had the National Guard come in immediately from Louisiana, they had the state police, they had a fusion center. And they knew they'd run backups regularly.
Chris: Yes, they still had to upgrade some of their infrastructure because some of it was just old. But there’s definitely something to be said for putting in that work beforehand, especially when you're in a high-profile city like New Orleans, and getting it done.
A Smart City Model for All Cities
Eric: What percentage do that to that level?
Chris: Out of 200,000 cities, I would probably argue not many. There's just not the resources.
Eric: Five? 2,000? Could you take a guess?
Chris: I'm reluctant to take a guess when I just don't know but my argument would be not many.
Eric: That would be my guess too. They just don't have the time, the resources, prioritization and everything else. Very few would do that.
Eric: But in this case, they did that. They were well prepared. I mean, that should be part of a model for cities across the globe.
Chris: Yes, it really should be. That should be an example to others. They still had to pay out some money in insurance costs. I think they blew through that insurance policy that they'd had. But it could have been so much worse.
Rachael: Yes. It's so smart. And poor New Orleans, they've already been through so much.
Chris: Yes. It was a bit of a one-two punch. They had a cyber attack and then their economy was decimated by coronavirus.
Eric: Yes. Big tourism industry. That's a challenge. It's not good to know it's a global problem, but it's good to know that smart cities are global. People are working on this. I know we've done some work with Egypt, like Cairo. Countries across the world recognize that these services are required and are demanded by their constituents. But they've got to secure them too. Security is very important. Because you want to be able to pay your water bill online.
Private Information the Cities Are Consuming
Eric: But you don't necessarily want your water bill to be known and all your information that you've submitted as part of paying your water bill online. You never want it to be put out there on the Internet for everybody.
Chris: Ideally, no. As someone who's had his cellphone number put on the Internet, I'd avoid that.
Eric: Cell Phone numbers, credit card information, your home address. There's a lot of private information that cities are consuming. They control what they don't want out there.
Chris: Yes, absolutely.
Rachael: But to that point, I wonder when we talk about looking at how other countries treat privacy. If we were to take some shortcuts there, would that help us make further advancements in some of these smart city areas?
Eric: What do you mean by shortcut?
Rachael: I mean because we are so worried about protecting privacy, and I wonder for cameras, for example. Everyone kind of gets a little nervous when you start talking about facial recognition and cameras. But there's always that flip side of well, it could be really helpful. Let's say you're a senior citizen with dementia and you wander off. And that camera's able to say, "Hey, well we just saw Grandpa Joe three blocks down the street." And so we're able to track him and bring him back home safely.
Eric: Right. Or Grandpa Joe is attacked and we have it on video now. So, we can go and actually find and deal with the attacker.
Rachael: Exactly. But obviously, recognizing with every technology there are problems. Like for Spectrum, my ax to grind today, I scheduled my payment for last month, two weeks in advance.
Eric: Hold on, what is Spectrum?
[30:16] Hiccups in the System
Rachael: The cable company where I get my HBO.
Eric: Okay, got it.
Rachael: How I get my triple play HBO, all the things. I scheduled my payment like I always do every single month, and two weeks in advance. And they didn't process it. For the first time since I've had my service with them for four years, they didn't process it. So then I had to pay a late fee when they sent me a confirmation email. We know that obviously there are hiccups in the system and it's never perfect, but up until that point, how convenient for me. I just scheduled it, I didn't have to think about it, it was done.
Rachael: Those are the kind of things I think about. Do we need to maybe relax a little bit on some of the privacy things so that we could get there? And who's to say these cameras and facial recognition couldn't help with autonomous vehicles? Bringing it full circle to the beginning of our conversation here, adding additional sensors and telemetry or all those things? I mean, I just wonder about those things. Do you have to give to get?
Eric: Chris Teale, I'm handing that off to you. You're the expert here. This is not my area of expertise.
Chris: Stop it. I mean yes, it's a tricky one, isn't it? Because what I think about with the cameras and the sensors and facial recognition technology and all that kind of thing, it sounds good in principle. The privacy concerns I have is people of color are being discriminated against by this stuff. And we have to be so careful about things like that.
A Torrent of Criticism Over a Smart City Streetlights
Chris: San Diego, I'm reminded of. They just did a big, smart streetlights program where they had cameras in all their streetlights. It was going to be this wonderful thing to help monitor traffic and events and all this other stuff. That's been more or less canned because of a torrent of criticism. There's been legislation introduced. People are worried about being overly monitored and being targeted and being racially profiled by this stuff. So, like with autonomous vehicles, I don't think the technology is quite there yet for us to really rely on it for much.
Rachael: But I guess the flip side is governance. It always comes back to regulation and governance. I think it has to be a part too.
Eric: Well, I think it's tolerance of the local constituents. I mean, just take in the United States. We don't even have to go to the global picture. The tolerance in New York City may be different than Knoxville, Tennessee, for two cities we've talked about already. You go to Omaha, Nebraska, you go to San Diego, it may be different for what they'll allow, what they're okay with.
Eric: I do believe, not being an expert here, but there's a trade-off, risk versus reward. It goes back to a basic life principle. If you can save me 20 minutes on my commute every day, the fact that you're reading my license plate, I don't know that I care. Now, if you're racially profiling me and I'm getting a lot more speeding tickets or the like, whatever it may be, well, I probably do care.
Risk Versus Reward
Eric: There's that risk versus reward. Once again, it goes back to societal concepts, I believe. And then, are you protecting the system? I mean, you can collect a lot of information. But if that information is readily accessible, either through bad actors or just sloppiness, that's a different discussion. How are you protecting that information?
Rachael: Sure. That's always a good question.
Eric: It's a whole new world for us. It's similar to electrification of cities, or think about it's a big change in the way we do things. But I want crime protection. Just me personally, I'm fine with cameras everywhere. I'm not running around and stabbing people or robbing stores or whatever. So I'm perfectly fine with cameras everywhere.
Chris: That's good to know, Eric. I appreciate that.
Eric: Yes, isn't it? It's good. I live right outside D.C. too. I'm even okay with speeding cameras, red light cameras. Hopefully, there's a societal benefit to it that helps us more than just monetization of additional taxpayer dollars. Slow me down so less pedestrians get killed, or traffic flows better. That, to me, makes sense, if it works.
Rachael: If it works, yes. That's always a big question. Hacking groups posing as consultants to cities, I'm fascinated by this. Because it had come up in a meeting we had this week on something else. We're like, "Should people just start hiring these hackers to help us protect our infrastructure in cities?" This is really interesting. They're actually approaching cities to help as consultants.
Chris: Kind of, yes. I was walked through this a while ago by a former FBI specialist. Essentially, what you have is let's say I hack your city and I'll lock up all your data.
Going for the Double Whammy
Chris: Well, then I might go back to you and I might say, "Look, Rachael. I'm going to charge you X and I'll help you protect your systems." They're almost going for the double whammy. I think it's shameless, personally. But it's just a very interesting window into the minds of these hackers who have clearly spotted a business opportunity.
Rachael: Big business, yes.
Chris: Huge business. So yes, not only can they get a payment to unlock, but then, what? Do they think they're going to be put on retainer? I don't know.
Rachael: I'm in the wrong business, then.
Eric: If you're running a city, if you're on the city council or you're the mayor, how do you address that?
Chris: I really don't know. What do you prioritize at this point? And we've talked a lot about priorities today. Do you just pay the ransom? Just pay the man and say, "All right, let's just get it out the way. Get all that data back, so Fred Bloggs down the street knows that his credit card information isn't going to end up on the dark web." Do you do that? Or do you stand firm, and do you trust that you have backups in place and a way to get around this?
Chris: Do you just be totally defiant and say, "Do what you want. We'll be fine"? Or do you do what New Orleans did, which was the smart thing. And say, "We might get hacked, so let's invest now while the going is relatively good. That way, when we do have issues we've got all of this infrastructure in place to help us out.
An Insurance Policy in Place
Chris: We're not going to have to pay an enormous amount of ransom. We've got an insurance policy in place, and frankly we've engaged already with the state. And with our colleagues in the state government to help us out even more." I know which one I'd go for, but I'm not a politician and we can gloss over that whole thing.
Eric: You've brought something to mind. I've spent some time over my career with a cyber national guard. We have a lot of cyber personnel who get trained by the government. And then they go and do whatever, commercial business. They leave the government, effectively. Or they're never trained by the government, but they're very capable at what they do. And there's been a lot of dialogue about somehow enlisting them.
Eric: Probably a bad term, because it doesn't necessarily mean we'll enlist them in the guard. But enlisting their capabilities and services to help out the country. I'm wondering if a city council could do something similar with constituents? A lot of cities have companies in them with a lot of cybersecurity people. I wonder if there's a way they could ask for community service hours?
Eric: Or "Hey, all of you employees in the city," not of the city necessarily, "If you could donate just a small portion of your time every month to helping make our city more capable, more protected, better, enabling services." Something simple, like your Spectrum bill or water bill, Rachael. "Hey, let's digitize this. Let's get it online, let's get it online securely." You've got the background. You're a developer over at, where are you now? Austin or Houston?
Rachael: Today, I'm in Houston.
[38:42] Making the Smart City Services Better
Eric: Right. You're a developer at British Petroleum. Would you donate 10 hours of your time once a month to help get the water bill online? And securely do it, so we can make the city services better?
Rachael: Sure. Makes my life better. Everybody wins.
Eric: I don't know. Maybe you run a free concert once a year for all the volunteers, or you do something. I wonder if there is a way to take advantage of services out there that we're not using? Or capabilities, I should say.
Chris: Yes. I think that's a great idea. That's the first idea I've really heard. Yes, why not use the expertise?
Eric: From Rachael and I, you're lucky you got one.
Chris: I'm just so flattered and honored to be here for that moment.
Eric: Usually they come from Rachael also.
Chris: But I mean, I'm thinking I live in Arlington, Virginia, where we have the Pentagon. We have DARPA, we have all of these cyber firms as well.
Chris: Yes, and talent. Why couldn't they help out, almost like a lawyer helping out on a pro bono case?
Eric: I don't know. There's a legal component, NDAs or something that seems like liability issues.
Eric: But we can blow through that stuff.
Chris: Yes, we can. If we can find the will, we can get it done.
Eric: That's my thought. And we can do it securely, which makes everything better. Well, we'll see if it ever happens. If anybody listens to the podcast and some mayor somewhere says, "Hey, I just did this."
The Opportunities a Smart City Brings
Rachael: I would love that. If there's any mayor listening, yes. Please let us know. We would love to hear from you, all day long. I know we're kind of coming up on time. As we wrap up our conversation thinking about this crazy cyber world, but all the opportunities that smart cities bring us. Chris Teale, do you have optimism for the cyber path ahead? Are cities going to make these advancements and get secure? But also help make a better life of digitized services and automation for their constituents?
Chris: Wow. You know, I hope so. I hope that cities look at what's happened in some of their peers and they think, "You know what? We need to do this, we need to invest because we can't have that happen to us." I hope that they realize that it can. Am I optimistic that will happen in these days of COVID budgets and difficulties and all of that? Maybe. It's difficult. I'd love to be proved wrong and I'd love to see cities realize this is vital. Some will, some won't. That's just how it goes.
Eric: What would be a shame is if they decide not to bring services online that are technically feasible today because of that risk. "Well, no. We've seen 45 cities hacked in the last two years with ransomware. We're not going to bring on this life-changing service because we could get hacked and there's a liability issue there." That, to me, would be very disappointing. When they start making decisions not to do things because they can't do it securely, and the liability exceeds the benefit. I hope we're not there.
A Smart City Competition
Chris: Yes. I hope we're not there either. Fingers crossed.
Rachael: Agreed. Here's my other question. Looking at the federal government, I know the Department of Transportation has that Smart Cities competition. Columbus, Ohio, won the inaugural competition in 2016, if I'm not mistaken. But is there a role for the federal government here to help fund or help roll these out?
Rachael: Should they partner with some of these key cities, like New Orleans or some of these other huge tourist hubs? To help them move forward and get best practices to help other cities move forward. Because that's where a lot of things always are challenged, like we talked about. There's no playbook to follow on how to do this thing, and where to start, and where to focus.
Chris: The big thing the federal government can do is train, is provide those playbooks and those best practices. I know there's now a ransomware taskforce out of the White House. I’d love to see them do something like that for cities, and maybe that will be folded into it. I think that's the big thing. Whether the federal government can help out and having departments like Homeland Security really lead the way on that stuff. That is probably the most tangible thing that you could do.
Eric: Well, I think cities could get together. I mean, if you just take your article on New Orleans, you could almost create a playbook from that, Chris. "Hey, this is kind of how New Orleans did it." To me, that's the beginning of a playbook. And I think cities could get together and conserve resources by doing that. I'm not a city government expert by any stretch.
Why Dream Up the Playbook?
Eric: I have no idea how they get together, how often they get together at the state level, or national level for the majors. But if you have a New York or a San Francisco who really puts some time and money, and they have it into something like this. That playbook could very easily be taken to, I don't know, Jacksonville, Florida. Somebody who may not have as much money.
Eric: They could look and say, "Okay, here's how we fit in that playbook." But you're far down the path at that point. I couldn't imagine you're the IT shop at Jacksonville, Florida. Where do you start? I guess you start with where you are, but why dream up the playbook if you already have one?
Chris: Yes. And, you have city-level trade associations, essentially. You have the National League of Cities, the US Conference of Mayors. They host regular meetings all the time. And then you have the National Association of Counties, and it goes on and on. So, you hope that these discussions are being had, especially at the big meetings. They have two a year at the National League of Cities. This stuff has to be discussed because that's the whole point of these organizations. They bring together leaders from across the country to talk about the big issues.
Rachael: I know. I'm excited.
Eric: Great opportunity.
Rachael: I think there's a lot of opportunity here.
Eric: Great opportunity, lots of problems to address, though. But I think there's nowhere to go but up. Awesome.
Where to Find Chris
Eric: Chris, can we find you on SmartCitiesDive.com? Best place?
Chris: You certainly can. I'm on Twitter, Chris_Teale. I promise, I tweet about things other than soccer. And yes, SmartCitiesDive.com. Sign up for the daily newsletter, and enjoy the website.
Rachael: Love it.
Eric: Yes, if you want to learn more, go there. There's some great information out there. And a lot more to come in this, because we all live in or around cities, so it impacts all of us.
Chris: Absolutely. We're living this smart city revolution every day.
Rachael: I love it. And so with that, thank you, Chris Teale, for joining us today. This has been a fantastic conversation. We could probably keep talking about this for days ahead. There's just so much to cover. But yes, thanks for joining us. Until next time, guys. Take care.
Eric: And subscribe. Let us know what you like and dislike. Thanks, everyone. Have a great day.
About Our Guest
Chris Teale is a reporter at Smart Cities Dive. He came to Industry Dive in February 2018 after spells in general assignment reporting in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia. Chris graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2013, and moved to the Washington, D.C. area shortly after.
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