Prior to joining the City of San Leandro in 2014, Tony had a long career in IT management and consulting as a bachelor in Information Systems, MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, IT Manager at Actellion, and IT Consultant at ENT Networks.
What follows are some takeaways from the conversation. You can watch the complete interview here. In case you missed it, you might want to check out our recent interview with smart cities consultant, Daniel Obodovski to help dive even deeper into the topic of smart cities.
Blaine: What is your target date for when San Leandro will be a smart city?
Tony: The answer will probably disappoint you, but I don’t think there’s any switch that you just turn and then suddenly now you’re a smart city. I think it’s much more of an over-time building process. It’s kind of an evolution of cities, if you will. Once upon a time, cities put [up] stop signs and traffic signals and that just evolved to how they managed traffic. Soon, it will be adaptive; smart traffic signaling everywhere and it will just be a natural progression.
Blaine: I had a feeling that was going to be your answer. Riff a little more on what the term “smart city” means to you. When you use the term or when one of your colleagues talks about smart cities and smart city initiatives, what does that symbolize to you or what does it mean?
Tony: Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where the hype cycle has far surpassed the actual real world. Part of the problem with that is that people kind of burn out on the term. Now, when I talk to colleagues that are in public works or they’re in a police department or some other city function and say, “Here’s our smart city road map.”, they kind of roll their eyes like, “Here we go with the smart city stuff.” because it’s almost abstract. It’s up here, smart city abstract stuff they get thrown at.
There’s a ton of hype, tons of attention on it, but not a lot of outcomes. I try to cut through that. I think the term still has meaning. But, in order to cut through the hype, you’ve got to go down to what really matters for their jobs and the outcomes they’re trying to achieve.
“I’m an advocate of incremental innovation and improvements; making a small change, making lots and lots of small changes everywhere you can, every opportunity you can. Bring everyone in and listen to all these ideas and make all these small changes. My belief is that over time, that adds up to a breakthrough.”
– Tony Batalla
Blaine: This is sort of my favorite part of the conversation where I ask the guest if there is an area of conventional wisdom where you’d like to call bullshit on what people are thinking; you think most folks are thinking X and you actually think Y. Is there any area where you buck conventional wisdom in smart cities, technology, or any of those areas?
Tony: I think the one – and I’ve written about this and I certainly am an advocate for – is that incremental innovation is OK. Everyone chases breakthrough innovation and talks about these transformations and how everything is going to change and it’s going to be all these – What they are talking about is the promise of technology, but not necessarily the technology and the nuts and bolts themselves. They are talking about the promise of it.
I try not to get into that area because it goes back to this abstract layer where we’re now, you’re just Mr. future. You’re just Mr. Hype. That’s a dangerous place to be if you want to actually get things done. The bullshit I would call is this idea that the only innovation that matters is breakthrough innovation or that it’s not really innovation if it’s not somehow transformative.
I’m more of an advocate of incremental innovation and improvements; making a small change, making lots and lots of small changes everywhere you can, every opportunity you can. Bring everyone in and listen to all these ideas and make all these little small changes. My belief is that over time, that adds up to a breakthrough. Suddenly, we’re a pretty innovative, agile city. Well, it took years of all these little small improvements and everybody feeling like, “Hey man, I could tweak my process just a little bit and make it a little better and it worked and they listened to me.” Over time, you become an innovative organization. My belief is incremental innovation is just as important, if not more, for the outcomes than chasing after the breakthrough innovation.
Blaine: Any final thoughts on key takeaways or tips for a city leader that’s trying to drive the transformation of their city toward becoming a smart city?
Tony: My main things are to focus on outcomes. Look for partnerships across all sectors so other cities, counties, special districts, academics as well as the private sector. Try to learn from each other and collaborate. One of the things I haven’t touched on but I think is going to be so much more important in smart city planning is regional collaboration: working across jurisdictions to look at problems regionally.
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