Los Angeles Pros Preach Smart Governance to Achieve Smart Cities

Rick Cole

At VerdeXchange 2018, an expert panel unpacked how government and the private sector are each approaching technology and data advancements to enhance city management and citizen wellbeing. The discussion included a global perspective on successful smart strategies from Brian Swett, Cities Leader at Arup, as well as lessons on smart governance from Los Angeles public leaders: Amanda Daflos, director of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team seeded by Bloomberg; Miguel Santana, President and CEO of the LA County Fair Association; Ron Galperin, in his second term as Los Angeles City Controller; and Michael Kelly, executive director of the LA Coalition for the Economy and Jobs. Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole moderated. VX News presents an excerpt of the panel. 

Rick Cole: What do we need to do to create governments that can deliver smart cities? How do we first make smart government?

Brian Swett: Arup reviewed 21 smart city strategies from around the world and came up with five key recommendations. 

The first is embedding your smart city strategy in existing strategies. Most second-iteration smart city strategies that have been effective around the world are components of other visions for a city. In New York, for example, the OneNYC plan has a smart city component; it is no longer a separate strategy looking across the spectrums. To drive decision-making and change, a smart city strategy needs to be embedded in the governance entity.

Second i s taking a collaborative approach to designing the strategy. Collaborate with your citizens on the question of “why technology?” Smart is not the why—it’s the what. We need to define the why early on to get effective implementation of smart city strategies.

Third: Establish strong leadership and developing skills and capacity. We are still under capacity in terms of executive leadership in the city environment to deliver on smart cities. We’re starting to see that transition, and it’s absolutely critical.

Fourth: Tap into core city funding. This can’t be looked at as an add-on or a “nice to have.” It is a core function in terms of how we improve our services writ large. The efficiencies, and the operating and capital savings, that smart cities bring to government should be invested back into delivering those strategies.

Last: A P3 approach is likely to be the most effective option for implementing true strategic change. Some cities have developed smart city strategies where a third party runs the implementation. The ownership and investment of the private sector is absolutely critical.

Ron Galperin: Smart cities are not just about digital technology. They’re about smart choices, smart investments, smart partnerships, and smart leadership.

When I came into office, I was very fortunate in that a new generation of leadership was coming in citywide, particularly the mayor and Mike Feuer. I set out to create an open data site relating to the financial data of the city. We were awarded a gold certification for our use of data in the city by Bloomberg.

But the city of Los Angeles, like any large organization, is like a supertanker: You can’t turn it too quickly, or it might fall on its side. How do you balance the need to move forward quickly with the nature of a bureaucracy? The fact is that, while government should be much more business-like, it is not actually a business. We have other responsibilities to our constituents.

Miguel Santana: One of the hardest questions for government to answer is: “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Once there’s clarity on this fundamental question, you can work backward to find the best way of getting there—and what it’s going to cost.

I’m now president of Fairplex, the home of the LA County Fair as well as 500 other events. When it was established in 1922, agriculture was the biggest industry in LA County. The problem we’re trying to solve now is how to recreate a campus that Angelenos have a connection to, and make it relevant to the needs of today. We jumpstarted that, in partnership with Cal Poly Pomona, by applying for the Amazon headquarters. We proposed that we were the original Amazon—connecting merchants with their clients back in 1922, before there was a virtual marketplace. We’re now one of nine sites being considered in LA County.

Amanda Daflos: Our team is asked to look at some of LA’s biggest cross-cutting issues. We research them deeply and spend time with users—including city workers and residents that government systems touch.

Government can get really wrapped around itself. We sometimes as a city forget to actually talk to the people who are doing the things we ask them to do in order to participate in living here in Los Angeles. The Innovation Team has the opportunity to do that, and then to develop solutions from what we learn. I think of our work as applied innovation: We do research, we develop the smartest way to do it, and then we try to get it done.

In late 2016, we launched the city’s LA Business Portal. It’s an online tool that businesses can use to register online with the state, the county, and the city. That’s applied innovation, because it takes what we learned from all the interviews we’ve done with residents, and our research in other places, and delivered it here.

In any project we do, we typically go through some form of procurement—whether it’s for a partner on a portal or to help us build a house. We’re doing creative things in that domain. We have an RFP out right now asking vendors: Certainly, bring us your best ideas on how you accomplish our needs—but also, tell us what you’re going to do for us for free. What else will you do to make the city better?

We all live here, and to get to smart cities, we all have to bring more to the table. The goal is to help our vendors participate in our processes that benefit them as people who live here and help us get smarter. If we don’t have the things we need in city government, then we need someone to help us and our staff get there.

Michael Kelly: Any time you’re able to build a long-term, sustaining, innovative public-private partnership, that is going to improve the quality of life for the majority of people in this region.

A lot of people sell government short as a solution to problems. Government plays a much bigger role than people realize in fostering economic growth, job creation, and improving quality of life. But as an institution, government is far behind the times. It lacks the infrastructure, the talent, and the platforms to get things done that need to get done. 

Brian Swett: In response to the announcement of the smart city at Waterfront Toronto, the questions in the press were about privacy, values, and the role of governance. Are we abdicating responsibility if we go too far into the private sector realm? Those questions are with us today, and I don’t think we’ve come up with a rulebook or a path. We are developing it as the technology is pushing us to.

One opportunity for the city to keep the private sector at the proverbial gate is to not limit our implementation to incremental change around the edges. Folks get excited about Amazon and Sidewalk Labs because they are thinking about delivering services fundamentally differently, while we in cities have been thinking more incrementally about change. The step that will get us to fundamental change is identifying revenue streams that can fund large-scale implementation.


“Smart cities are not just about digital technology. They’re about smart choices, smart investments, smart partnerships, and smart leadership.” — Los Angeles Controller Ron Galperin