INTERVIEW: Bas Boorsma Proposes A New Digital Deal - Part 1

December 05, 2017

As technology continues to advance, governments local and otherwise have sometimes struggled to keep up. Even many so-called Smart Cities, replete with leaders eager to test out new solutions, have missed the forest for the trees as far as digital progress is concerned. This isn't a knock on the public sector. To effectively govern, much less legislate, in an era of ever-expanding technological possibilities is a difficult task, requiring leaders to make far-reaching decisions based on innovations that continue to unfold every day. Our systems of governance weren't made with disruption in mind.

This is why Bas Boorsma thinks it's time for a change. A Smart City thought leader since 2003 and former Cisco digitization lead, Boorsma has laid out a framework for how communities can effectively leverage technology for the benefit of all citizens. This strategy is the basis of Boorsma's new book, "A New Digital Deal," which is out now. Boorsma has been on the Smart City circuit promoting his book this past season, and at this past year's Smart Cities Week, Smart & Resilient Cities had a chance to speak with him about his vision for the digital future.

Smart & Resilient Cities: So what is "A New Digital Deal?"

Bas Boorsma: "A New Digital Deal" is what I believe is necessary in order to get digitization right for our communities. Digitization is happening anyhow, left or right. To quote the CTO from the city of Amsterdam, “Airbnb has had a more profound impact on my community than any of the smart city endeavors that have come out of my municipal office.” The thing is that digitization is happening at a breathtaking speed, and that’s lovely, but there are many things that are producing questions. Are the citizens getting out of digitization what they want? Is the community getting out of it what it wants? Many smart city designs are great, but they have often been proposed as part of a larger technological view as to where smart cities might be going. Again, is that what our communities want? We’ve been like kids in a candy store for the last 25 years with the internet and the novelties that have come into our lives, and all that is great, but when did we come to this naïve assumption that every next step in digital change is going to be great? There is nothing carved in stone that says that reality is going to be there and it will always be positive. The central premise to my book is that, in order to harvest the promise of digitization and the organization paradigms it holds and the culture and value that it espouses, we’ll need to see a coming together of societal stakeholders and its different disciplines, knowhow, experience in order to get it right.

S&RC: And what is the alternative?

BB: There is another premise in the book, which is that if we fail to arrive at that new digital deal, we are just going to see digitization grow in all directions without any plan. We are going to see innovation without navigation. We are going to see disruption without a plan. We are going to see ultimately way more digital divides than we already see today and those digital divides today are an issue. We need to get it right if we want smart cities to be successful in a sense that they make an inclusive impact to our society, a fair opportunity for all the residents, all the citizens in that community, we have got to come up with a plan.

S&RC: I assume this book includes a plan?

BB: What I’ve done, first of all I’ve articulated what we understand digitization to be. Where does it come from? What are the core components? It is so important we define stuff because there are so many buzzwords out there. What is it that we mean by all this technology? If we understand the key ingredients of digitization and we understand where it comes from, we can better understand where it is going to. Secondly, I've asked about the shifts in economic fundamentals we are seeing.

Going from the industrial age to the information age, we've seen a lot of economic paradigms crushed. Understanding where smart cities have made mistakes in the past, what are the pitfalls, is a core part of the plan. What is the framework of building blocks that help us build smart city success? I’ve articulated a framework that consists of twenty building blocks. Many of the building blocks are extremely familiar to you, to many people in that room, to all the CTO’s that are active in this space. What I tried to do is not invent something entirely new, but to be comprehensive about it and put it in the right order.

S&RC: What comes first in these building blocks?

You don’t start out with technology, that’s one of the pitfalls. You start with the community. What is the community about, what are their challenges, what are their needs, what are their comparative differentiators? What is the vision of the community, what is the government structure, what are the resources available? Those are the first building blocks. Then technology comes in and you take a look at the art of connecting everything, regulations, cyber security, data analytics - all of these components. Then we get into the ecosystems that drive all of this. What does collaboration look like in a smart city space and why do public and private need each other so much?

S&RC: And what are these different questions and analyses building toward?

The final five building blocks are dedicated to value in terms of people and their skills. Inn terms of proof of value, many smart cities initiatives revolve around pilots or proof concepts. We need to be able to prove that whatever we are testing is actually going to provide value to the community and that proof value is the ethical part. Is the thing we are actually doing right, is it good? A source of inspiration for me was one of the White House papers that came out during the final months of the Obama administration. It was October of 2016 and it was an article on artificial intelligence and one recommendation said that any institution in the United States that focuses on artificial intelligence should integrate ethics as part of its curriculum. I thought that was just the best recommendation ever. This just doesn’t hold true for artificial intelligence, but it holds true for the entire realm of digitization efforts in the community space relative to our society. Ethics should be a central consideration in the things that we design and build.

S&RC: How do you ensure ethics enters into the process when we are talking about private industry and government, two areas not entirely known for their transparency?

BB: It’s a tall order, but I believe we can determine a number of rules in the game. First, I think many companies will be held by having Chief Ethics officers, especially technology companies. I think ethics should not be a person sitting in a social responsibility office but should be part of the regular business process. You have no idea what your work will build into say ten years from now. You have no plans and you don’t know what you are signing off on. You see the debates happen, in academic circles, in newspapers, in town hall meetings - you see concerned citizens asking, "What is happening to my privacy? What is happening to my data?" This is not taken into account sufficiently well in smart city efforts. Sometimes, it is because there are simply rules on how data is being used, but I think we need to get much more of those considerations into the projects and have them in there from day one, not after six months of designing.

S&RC: Do you think these citizens' concerns are warranted?

BB: Same holds true for cybersecurity. This is one of the building blocks and where we typically get this wrong. The reality is people start their smart city projects and then they think, "Oh yes, security," and they think it’s like a piece of software they are going to plop on top of whatever they’ve created. Instead, security should be in their inner thinking and planning and designs from day one. It should be integrated in their architectures; it should not be on top of the network but in the network and it should also be part of the earliest designs and pilots. Early designs, early pilots, early concepts have a nasty habit of surviving long after they have been introduced and once they are out there they are going to continue. In fact, the entire internet is a great example of this. If you were going to design the internet today, from a cyber security perspective, you wouldn’t be doing it the way it is designed today. It’s one of those things you really want to see at the beginning of what you do not at the end of what you do.

S&RC: Obviously starting at the beginning is good but the thing is, all cities or communities aren’t greenfields. They are brownfields, so how do we build from the mistakes that have already been made?

BB: The first thing is to not reinvent the wheel. I think there is such a residual knowledge to fifteen years of experimentation, with much of it having not gone so well, that any city today can plug into this vast wealth of knowledge if you are brave enough to step out of your office and come into that somehow. As for step two, I do feel we can be organized a little bit better. That was the rationale for writing the book that I have written. Quite simply, you see so much generalized PowerPoint presentations out there. To have some real literature out there that is validating a few things is really important. I also think that this would be a great time for something like a Smart City Academy to be created where the great many stakeholders can go to for three-day master classes, entire one-year courses, where people plug-in, come together and just get the entire experience. That’s possible today. I know there are people considering building something like this.

S&RC: I know the Smart Cities Council goes around and has workshops for that but you’re saying there should be more than that is what you’re saying?

BB: Exactly, it should be less event based and more structural with more content whenever people need it. I also think that Smart City is a very vague concept, but there are very clear pieces of discipline. If I think of my twenty building blocks, like leadership, what does leadership in the space of digitization look like? What are the skills of a great leader? How do you build a vision that is rooted in your community? That’s building block number two. I am going through the circle of my mind through all the building blocks and you can organize an entire master class for each and every topic. I would say that every smart city leader, project manager and engineer and design thinker should go and get themselves into that knowhow.

The second part of this interview will be published soon. 

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