Ryan Kurtzman is an urban planner and community builder. He currently serves as the Smart Cities Program Manager for the City of Long Beach. Before that, Ryan served as Policy Fellow at the Office of Los Angeles, coordinating Great Streets Initiative streetscape improvement projects and advocating for equitable access to open space and parks programs. He has always been interested in cities and how they can enforce policy and meet their community’s and residents’ goals, specifically in issues around transportation, environments, development, and housing.
Major Challenges affecting the Smart City space
A fundamental aspect being emphasized is defining why a city is interested in smart city technology. Typically, the smart city as a concept or as a field of study has been one that’s been driven by the private sector as they are providing advancements in technology using Artificial Intelligence, autonomous vehicles, or machine learning. There’s been investment in the private sector to get cities to understand the technology and to use it in a way that makes sense for their business needs. However, cities must ask themselves how this technology is serving their communities and their constituents and what role it has. One of the challenges that I’ve faced is how do we reconcile the vision of smart cities from the private sector versus the one that originates more within a local community. And how do we use technology to bridge that gap such that it doesn’t leave people out or contribute to a lack of digital access that we’ve seen in the past. A balance between community and private sector partners is necessary.
Do not rely universally on technology as the cure or a “one size fits all,” concept but consider it a tool
The other challenge is with COVID 19 and everything that’s going on in the world; cities face a lot of uncertainty from a financial perspective. In the past, we’ve been given a longer leash to explore new technology and understand how it can help us; now, there’s even more of an emphasis on what cost savings this technology provides, and that’s a new challenge. Thus, funding will be an issue going forward, and alignment with city priorities will be another issue.
Trends Shaping the Industry
There is a lot of innovation around mobility, energy efficiency, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and drones. There’s also been a lot of technology coming out around digital services and how cities can provide better experiences for their constituents through Chatbots or natural language recognition or even kiosks. My job is to keep everyone aware of these new technologies and to identify opportunities to apply emerging technology to existing challenges and opportunities that have been identified by our city leaders and our community members too. In Long Beach specifically, our Smart City vision is rooted in the principle of equity and ensuring that as when we do use new technology, we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t widen the digital divide that already exists in our city. We have some communities here in Long Beach that have disproportionately low access to the internet, PCs, tablets, or even the training and resources to use them. So if there is no action by cities to mediate between the private sector and communities, we’ll continue to see that divide. It’s essential that as we do use new technology and think about how to use it, we’re doing it in a way that is advancing equity and promoting accessibility above all else.
A Strategy that is Steering your Business Growth
This is an ever-evolving field. It’s critical for a smart city program to succeed that we have buy-in institutionally at our organization that we’re conveying the value of what intelligent city solutions bring to the city. And there are benefits across the board and in terms of cost savings provided by smart technologies. For instance, with a Chatbot, you might reduce the need for staff on a call center. There are also benefits for economic development purposes; public and private partnerships can promote local job growth and attract businesses and tourism to Long Beach. Our goal is to create a holistic smart ecosystem in Long Beach that consists of individuals and groups from the community, the City, and the private sector. The startup community and different players are important to developing a more sustainable smart strategy and program at the City of Long Beach.
Another aspect that’s come up recently in a lot of discussions is the idea of privacy. A large concern that city officials have is that smart city technologies might infringe upon our residents’ and constituents’ privacy rights. In California, we have a bill called the California Consumer Privacy Act or CCPA that doesn’t apply to government agencies yet. Still, it does require that technology companies and other private sector companies provide an explicit list of rights to users when they’re collecting data on them. So even though the City of Long Beach isn’t required to comply with the act, we are keeping the CCPA guidelines in the front of our minds as we are considering privacy as an aspect of smart cities. At the same time, we’re also working now on developing data privacy guidelines. It won’t be an official policy, but these will be key principles to guide our smart city technology projects and in negotiations with technology.
I see where we are now as a pivotal juncture in how cities conceptualize what it means to be a smart city. Until now, we’ve been in a period of strong, consistent economic growth. Cities have started to think about their role in using emerging technologies. For instance, around autonomous vehicles and the city’s role in mediating between scooter companies, Uber, and Lyft and other companies provide mobility data. The City has taken a meaningful and robust role in collecting data and providing full services using technology rather than relying on the private sector or other actors for that information.
But with some of the realities that we’re facing now, i.e., with COVID 19, the game has changed. There should be more of a focus moving forward on principles of equity and resiliency. Also, cities such as Long Beach must invest more in capacity internally to use and analyze data to solve problems or make decisions. At Long Beach, we have had an innovation team for almost five years, and we’re building up our capacity to make informed decisions. Increasingly we’re going to see an emphasis on the city’s ability to make informed decisions using data. It’s going to come into play because we’re going to be forced to make tough decisions about our services considering projected shortfalls in terms of budget and funding. Also, since we have so many people working from home nowadays both at the City of Long Beach and universally, that has huge implications for everything. It might change the face of transportation and mobility and how we’re getting around. It’ll also change the game for digital services, and we have a great opportunity now to start thinking about ways where we can shift away from having people come into City Hall for a permit or bill payment. How can we accomplish those same things digitally through online interfaces and with other innovations that might be on the horizon?