Knowledge Institute Podcasts
Practical Sustainability: Creating Smart and Resilient Cities with Gordon Feller
Gordon Feller, Board Member at Alliance for Innovation discusses solving civic problems with smart solutions. The discussion also covers what key problems cities are facing today.
Hosted by Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute.
“Biggest challenge facing cities is the mismatch between the public demand and expectation for quality of service.”
“Cities have the burden of meeting the expectation. And that revolution of rising expectations hasn't been matched by a revolution of rising quality of service delivery from the city governments.”
“What we need is a deeper kind of listening that is focused on understanding what are the values that people want to achieve when they buy that product.”
“Public policy and public investment hugely impacts everything.”
- Gordon Feller
- Biggest challenge facing cities is the mismatch between the public demand and expectation for quality of service. This is the kind of service that people get from their smartphone and from their other digital tools. The mismatch being that the government service providers, government agencies, the government workers can't deliver to the expectation that the citizens and taxpayers expect.
- Cities have the burden of meeting the expectation. And that revolution of rising expectations hasn't been matched by a revolution of rising quality of service delivery from the city governments. So, that stretches across all the various categories, whether it's housing, clean energy, affordable energy, accessible transportation and mobility. No matter which category you pick, this is at the under belly of the problem in a lot of these, if not all of them.
- One of the big takeaways is public policy and public investment hugely impacts everything. And not just our tax code that any businesses tend to fixate on. “I don't really want government in regulating my business or taxing my business, but if I have to, I'm going to work hard through lobbying and otherwise to minimize all of those roles.” So, expansive role of government is actually a stimulant for successful business.
- Education and investing in education for your workforce is just the beginning of the process. We have to see business as having interest in investing in the elevation of the knowledge and intelligence at large. Because smarter customers are naturally going to gravitate to the companies that have invested in that education. Because they'll be the smarter ones, delivering better service, better product. And you'll be amazed at how loyal people will be if they know that somebody invested in them, that's a lifelong relationship. And every company would kill to have a customer in a lifelong relationship with them.
- You need to think of potential long-term implications. Firms need to work together with UN agencies. Because in a couple of years things that these agencies are doing will have a direct impact on the standards in our industry. And those global standards are going to ultimately result in some winners being winners and some losers being losers. And you want to be on the side of the winner and that means helping to shape the discussion that leads to the choices about technical standards.
Jeff introduces himself and Gordon
It seems that your work centers on solving civic problems with smart solutions. What are some of the key problems facing cities today?
As you look at these gaps, what is the most important thing that is being overlooked right now, that either business leaders, government leaders can focus on and make some real progress?
What are some emerging or maybe not so emerging technologies that are impacting cities or maybe providing them tools around the world today?
What are three things that that business leaders can look at from their vantage point on how they can improve what's peripheral to their business, the same time increase the prosperity of their businesses themselves using some of these concepts you've discussed?
What resources do you recommend for others?
Jeff Kavanaugh: Welcome to the Knowledge Institute podcast, where we discuss topics, like sustainability, with experts, deconstruct their ideas, and share their insights. I'm Jeff Kavanaugh, head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute. Today, we're here with Gordon Feller, a technology and smart cities leader, recognized thought leader across a variety of sustainability areas, advisor to government agencies and bodies like the World Economic Forum. Gordon, thank you so much for joining us.
Gordon Feller: Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Gordon, you've got years of experience working in public and private sectors, spanning sustainability, smart technology, partnerships and tech ecosystems. While you make a lot of impacts across these areas, currently, it seems that your work centers on solving civic problems with smart solutions. What are some of the key problems facing cities today?
Gordon Feller: Biggest challenge facing cities, let's say, starting in North America, but also true in other parts of the world, is the mismatch between the public demand and expectation for quality of service, the kind of service that they get from their smartphone and from their other digital tools. The mismatch being that the government service providers, government agencies, the government workers can't deliver to the expectation that the citizens and taxpayers expect.
Gordon Feller: And so, you have this gap between what people who live in cities or visit cities want and need, and what the city governments themselves are able to provide. And that may mean quality of life. It may mean a natural environment that nurtures and that is environmentally sustainable. It may mean good quality job and prosperity from that job. Or it may mean the quality of education and healthcare.
Gordon Feller: Now, obviously, city governments can't provide all of that, but they are the environment where those things are being sought after and delivered by somebody. So, cities have the burden of meeting the expectation. And that revolution of rising expectations hasn't been matched by a revolution of rising quality of service delivery from the city governments. So, that stretches across all the various categories, whether it's housing, clean energy, affordable energy, accessible transportation and mobility. No matter which category you pick, this is at the under belly of the problem in a lot of these, if not all of them.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Given that our listeners are typically in the business world and looking to solve a problem, I like to put a practical lens on this. So, we call it practical sustainability or practical smart cities. As you look at these gaps, what is the most important thing that is being overlooked right now, that either business leaders, government leaders can focus on and make some real progress?
Gordon Feller: I think there are several of them that are being overlooked, but maybe the one that comes to mind immediately when you ask the question is that business has been learning to listen to the voices of not just their customers or their partners or their suppliers or their financiers, maybe shareholders who buy shares in the company. But they're not yet quite there in a way that gets technology to be a facilitator and not an end in itself. So, many companies, whether they're technology companies or not, are heavily fixated on the technology side of the equation. How digital can enable and support their relationship to the customer or the potential customer? And that's only really one tiny slice of listening.
Gordon Feller: And I think what's been missing has been a deeper listening by companies or even governments to the citizens and taxpayers and consumers and customers. The average Joe, like all of us who are out there in the great mass, who are buying these products and using the services. And, obviously, the biggest product that we've all built together are cities. And the services that we share, transportation services, clean air services, clean water services, healthcare services, these services that cities are organized to deliver to us, are being consumed.
Gordon Feller: But it's not enough just to know that we're willing to pay the bill, or that we're not, and we're walking somewhere else to get another provider. That's a very thin layer of listening. And what we need is a deeper kind of listening that is focused on understanding what are the values that people want to achieve when they buy that product. It may be values related to our healthy family or our prosperity, but it also may be larger societal, communal values. The things that we share with our neighbors, like a quiet neighborhood or a safe neighborhood or healthy environmentally stable neighborhood.
Gordon Feller: That's what I'm seeing is the missing ingredient right now is that companies and government agencies that are selling or delivering services or goods, think they're listening by essentially taking market signals. "Oh, they're buying less of this. We have to make a course correction." That's a very shallow kind of listening. And I think companies and governments need to do better at deeper listening. And that doesn't only mean how we use the technology or use the services or whether we buy it or don't buy it. As I say, there's some deeper listening that needs to happen.
Jeff Kavanaugh: What are some things that listeners can do? Let's start off with because you mentioned technology enablement a couple times early. What are some emerging or maybe not so emerging technologies that are impacting cities or maybe providing them tools around the world today?
Gordon Feller: Certainly the internet of things is a huge part of the story of technology evolution, where the end point like our parking meter or our parking space or the traffic light or the street light or the bus stop or bus shelter or any number of objects in the physical world can now talk to the network and transmit essentially a status report about their condition. I have a parking space and it is occupied.
Gordon Feller: I have a street light and it is working or it is on, or it is off or it needs maintenance or I have a garbage pail and it is full and needs to be cleaned and emptied. So all of those dumb objects that we took for granted that cities invested trillions of dollars in including our roadways, all of that can now be smarter because the cost of the sensor is really, really cheap. The cost of the transmission of the data, about its condition to the network. Wirelessly is now really, really cheap. Securing that data and the connection between the object and the network is now really, really cheap, but also secure if you do the right things and don't just use password 1, 2, 3, 4.
Gordon Feller: So there are lots of tools now that used to be around machine-to-machine has been around for a long time. It wasn't until recently that most of the communications on the global networks was machine-to-machine. It was a lot of it was human-to-machine or machine-to-human. So what's really gotten very nice about the current situation, nice in a way that makes possible all sorts of new things, is that the compute power has gone up while the cost has gone down. And the storage cost has gone down while the amount of storage you can get for that has gone up. So bottom line is all the arrows are pointing in the right direction for internet of things.
Gordon Feller: And I'll take one very mundane example, parking. Unbeknownst to almost everybody, parking is a big piece of the non-tax revenue of cities and cities depend on it. And during the pandemic, of course their parking revenue is really plummeted. So they want to be sure that you, the driver, in a car can find the best parking spot, either best from the standpoint of price point or best from the standpoint of location where you're going. And that ability to deliver that, let's say with a vendor like clever city based in Germany, which is now making its technology available all over the world and has deployed in cities like here in Silicon Valley at Redwood City, which is capital of our most important county San Mateo County. The bottom line is that those types of companies, small young venture capital financed innovators embraced internet of things, embraced the wireless revolution, embraced the network and realize that normal people want to find the best parking spot.
Gordon Feller: And they don't really care whose network it's on. Is it 5G or 4G or 3G, as long as they can find that low cost quick to find opportunity and they don't have to search around. So, the technology is not just potentially dazzling and some of it is, some of it is also very mundane from the standpoint of the end user, which is, I need to find a parking spot, because I have a dental appointment. And if I can't find this parking spot within the next two blocks of where I need to go, I'm going to be late. End of story. And that's a pretty mundane demand. Cities are now partnering with companies like clever city to make that sort of solution readily available at very low, low cost points.
Gordon Feller: So I take that as a pretty good sign. Obviously, if we have less cars searching around the city, we have less carbon in the atmosphere, less knocks and socks coming out of the tailpipe. And it's not just cleaner air, but it's also less congestion because every time I'm searching for a parking spot, I'm taking up space on the street where congestion is happening. So lots of benefits, but the fundamental is sensor in the parking space or video analyzing the parking space or other ways of determining that, that parking space should be available to me when I need it.
Jeff Kavanaugh: What are three things that that business leaders can look at from their vantage point on how they can improve what's peripheral to their business, the same time increase the prosperity of their businesses themselves using some of these concepts you've discussed?
Gordon Feller: Yes, I think there's a lot of lessons from just the internet's birth and development. So when the internet was first conceived, it was obviously, and many people know the history of DARPA at the defense department, making an investment in a couple of small projects that would show what would be survivable in the case of a nuclear attack for communications that didn't have a central command, but was a highly distributed, intelligent network that had multiple nodes that if one or more of them were destroyed in a nuclear attack, the rest of the system could survive. And that ultimately led to the protocol that was at the rock center of the internet revolution TCP/IP, which is still widely used. And we still depend on a pretty simple protocol that's made possible a lot of the revolution that we've seen in the internet.
Gordon Feller: And so, one of the three lessons is small projects funded by government or the nonprofit sector can absolutely revolutionize your business and that not all of the most important things are being done by business, even though business is the business of America. As I think Woodrow Wilson once said, or one of those presidents at the turn of the last century, yes, the business of business is America, but government's role in stimulating innovation in testing innovative ideas, in scaling them, is enormous and that any disinvestment in government would be unwise for anybody who wanted business to prosper. So that's one of the big takeaways is public policy and public investment hugely impacts everything. And not just our tax code, many businesses tend to fixate on, I don't really want government in regulating my business or taxing my business, but if I have to, I'm going to work hard through lobbying and otherwise to minimize all of those roles.
Gordon Feller: So expansive role of government is actually a stimulant for successful business. Second, education and investing in education for your workforce is just the beginning of the process. Whether you're investing in education for the future workers who you want in your talent pipeline or the workers that are currently in your employee direct or indirect through contractors, that's just the beginning of the story. We have to see business as having invested interest in investing in the elevation of the knowledge and intelligence at large, because smarter customers are naturally going to gravitate to the companies that have invested in that education because they'll be the smarter ones, delivering better service, better product. And you'll be amazed at how loyal people will be if they know that somebody invested in them, that's a lifelong relationship. And every company would kill to have a customer in a lifelong relationship with them.
Gordon Feller: So I make the cases often as I can in boardrooms that although we're investing in education of current or future workers, it's just the start of the investment in learning conversation. And it has to go a lot deeper. And then the third lesson also from the internet history is that little things like what we often ignored in developing global protocols for cybersecurity over the last 20 years. A lot of cybersecurity protocols have been developed by small technical committees of the ISO, the International Standards Organization who I work very closely with and they're Geneva headquarters or their sister organization in Geneva, the International Telecommunications Union. I've been involved with these UN agencies, gosh, since 1978 or '77. So I'm kind of long in the tooth old timer working with UN agencies. And you might walk into a boardroom and say, "Hey, you guys should really be working with some of the UN agencies," and they'll look at me like UN and Geneva. What the hell does that have to do with us here in Texas? We're focused on whatever.
Gordon Feller: And it doesn't seem to us have any relevance to be thinking about what we or an association of our companies in our sector could be doing. And I'm making the case that three years from now, four years from now, maybe sooner, some of what they're doing is going to have a direct impact on the standards in our industry. And those global standards are going to ultimately result in some winners being winners and some losers being losers. And you want to be on the side of the winner and that means helping to shape the discussion that leads to the choices about technical standards, which are very boring. I mean, I can't tell you how boring it is sometimes, but you have to be imaginative and think about what are the potential long-term implications.
Gordon Feller: Think about USB, how important is USB standardization to the ability of me to plug in anywhere with any device at any time to get connected and to download data and to save data and to recharge my battery. If we didn't have USB, which came from the international electro technical commissions work with ISO, a lot of what we depend on day to day, minute to minute wouldn't be possible. So those are some of the big lessons that I take away from the history of the internet that could be useful for business leaders today to think about when they ask what priorities they have for their 2022 budgets or beyond.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Very enjoyable, very insightful, appreciate the way you willed them together. And also appreciating your time I'd like to wrap things up here. What resources do you recommend for others?
Gordon Feller: I think there are a few that I recommend. I mentioned meeting of the minds, which is easy to find on the web. Meetingoftheminds.org. Lots of great webinars every month, lots of great articles and blogs posted to practically every week. Lots of great convenings that have had a big impact and the debate of all of these topics over the last 20 plus years. There's a small nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay Area that has a huge footprint and impact. I'd certainly recommend that to everybody. Second, if you're looking at what innovation is happening in government, I would perhaps suggest an example. I would just looking at a company called Zeelo.co, on the web. Very interesting company, using interesting digital technology to essentially fill gaps in the transportation and commuting. And these are bus fleets, but they're different than the bus fleets that we all know.
Gordon Feller: This is not rocket science. It's not like going to Mars or the moon, but it's pretty interesting to see one example of relatively simple, easy to use technologies with a public private partnership component to where people get to work more efficiently and safely and more greener and cleaner than they would otherwise without somebody like Zeelo. I pick that as a resource, not necessarily because all of the listeners are going to use that, but there's a classic example. And then one other that I would suggest is on LinkedIn. I try not just with my own articles, which are very regular, that I publish in magazines, but others, I highlight that in my feed. And so it's easy to find me Gordon Feller on LinkedIn and on Twitter. And I try to use both of those social media channels to keep people like your audience informed about who's doing interesting work. And I try to write the articles to put the spotlight on some of these experiments that I think are replicable and scalable and transferable beyond just a few cities.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Great. And everyone, you can find details on everything. Gordon mentioned on our show and ways to contact him via our site, which is infosys.com/iki in our podcast section. Gordon, thank you so much for your time and a highly interesting discussion.
Gordon Feller: Thanks Jeff. Thanks to your team. Look forward to more.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Everyone you've been listening to the Knowledge Institute where we talk with experts on business trends, deconstruct main ideas and share their insights. Thanks to our producers, Dylan Cosper, Catherine Burdette, Christine Calhoun. Until next time, keep learning and keep sharing.
About Gordon Feller
Board Member at Alliance for Innovation
Gordon Feller has worked for more than four decades at the intersection of societal change and technology innovation. His aim has always been to accelerate the emergence of tools and systems that strengthen our communities and enhance their sustainability.
From 2010 to 2017, he served as Director of Urban Innovation at Cisco Systems HQ. He founded Meeting of the Minds in the 1990s, stitching together a global leadership network which is enabling urban transformation. Gordon was appointed by the Obama/Biden White House to serve on the US Federal Comm. established by The US Congress. He currently serves as a Global Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Change and Security Program in Washington, D.C. Gordon sits on numerous corporate and non-profit boards.
Gordon’s first published article appeared in a journal published by the World Policy Institute (NYC) in 1979. Since then he’s published 450+ magazine articles.
- Meeting Of The Minds
- Zeelo - The smart bus platform for commuting and school runs
- "About the Infosys Knowledge Institute" Infosys Knowledge Institute
Mentioned in the podcast