INTERVIEW: Johnson Controls' Lisa Brown Wants To Help Your City (Part 1)

October 11, 2018

As public-private collaboration becomes increasingly popular in the U.S., Johnson Controls is positioning itself as an ideal partner. The storied technology conglomerate has long dealt in energy solutions, but now they're tying in connectivity, data and sustainability to provide comprehensive solutions for communities of all kinds. Heading up these initiatives is Lisa Brown, National Senior Director, Strategy, of Local Government & Municipal Infrastructure for Johnson Controls. In a phone conversation with Smart & Resilient Cities, Brown spoke about best practices for cities and companies looking to team up, common challenges for Smart City hopefuls, examples of Johnson Controls' Smart City efforts and a wealth of other topics. The first part of the interview is below, while the second half will be published in the near future.

Smart & Resilient Cities: Could you start just by letting me know a little bit about what your day-to-day looks like as head of Smart Cities at Johnson Controls?

Lisa Brown: I will just start by saying what municipalities need. Municipalities really need strategic partnerships with companies like us and others that can enable them to approach becoming a smart city and planning for a smart city. They need to become more efficient through improved use of energy, through the use of their security systems, the way they communicate, their water and really other critical infrastructure elements.

I believe that local governments are really looking for partners that can help them realize what their vision should be for smart cities and to develop that plan for incorporating smart infrastructure, but at the same time really making sure that they're promoting equality. They're always worried about curbing costs and then collaborating across all of their stakeholders. JCI has been well positioned to really help cities make smarter decisions and really focus on existing capital infrastructure and future investments.

When we approach a smart city solution, I certainly hope the majority of the time to be really all-inclusive, including all of city's lasting relationships and their long-range plans to be successful in enhancing their communities. Some city and local leaders want to just do pilot programs and small programs and have small learnings. Some others like to do holistic large undertaking and they want to do everything first. They want drones right away, before they even have Wi-Fi downtown. I think at Johnson Controls, we try to help them create plans and phases that are practical, so they don't try to accomplish everything all at once and can have reasonable expectations. Then, they can have small successes that will then end in the larger overall satisfaction and success for their citizens and constituents and businesses. I know that's a long "what we do for smart cities," pitch, but I feel like we're their real partner to help them down this path

S&RC: Do the partnerships you get into with cities ever coalesce into formal public-private partnerships?

LB: Yes, absolutely. I would say depending on the vision, what their overall goals are and their financing options, P3s are definitely a viable opportunity. If you asked me like two years ago, I would have said municipal leaders are more interested than they are committed. I've done a lot of work up in Canada and it's a well-oiled machine up there, the P3s. It's not as much down here simply because we've had municipal leases as an option. We've had lots of federal funding that's been in place for so many years.

Now, I would say that at least 50 percent of the time that we're out with customers or potential customers, the concept of a public-private partnership comes up in the first five minutes. I would say that's much more interest and readiness to commit than before. When we approach smart city opportunities, I think we do come in as partners. However, we tend to bring in kind of like a coalition of companies that will work together to deliver the overall need of the city. Often, it has a financing arm to it.

S&RC: When working with cities and bringing your coalition, how do you work with existing legacy systems when your goal is to upgrade and bring in new tech?

LB: One of the things when you're working with local governments is you have to be aware that budgets are always constrained. You certainly don't want to take an opportunity to go in and to put new technology or new infrastructure in place where they've just retrofitted it or put new technology in a few years ago. We definitely look at different systems and how to make sure that there's efficiencies, and that they're connected. One thing, in particular, we're doing is a lot of smart connected lighting initiatives. We have to look at what their disparate systems are in place and to make sure that whatever offer we come up with collectively includes the systems that are functioning at that point when we're in there. We certainly don't want to go in and rip out and start again. When you're working with local government leaders, they have to answer to their citizens and that's certainly not a soundbyte that they would want to have on the evening news.

S&RC: I'm glad you mentioned the lack of funding because it was also mentioned in your Smart Cities Indicator surveys. I was wondering how you deal with the municipal lack of funding that afflicts a lot of cities, especially in U.S.?

LB: We are all in this together, economically, socially, environmentally. We want to have livable and viable communities. Communities want to be able to pursue really cool comprehensive approaches to sustainability and to efficiency, but it has to be done in a practical manner. At the end of the day, they have tax limits, they have debt capacity and they have rules of the road that they need to adhere to. I used to work in K-12s and folks used bemoan the lack of funding and I'd say, but schools generally are the ones who hold on to it the longest because people see the value.

The normal citizen will see a value in schools and upgrades before they'll see a value in upgrading city hall, but they don't realize that those municipal dollars also go to parks and rec, to water quality and to water infrastructure. Those budgets are always extremely tight. When it comes to the actual trying to put together a vision and come up with a budget with a customer that is consistently budget constrained, that's where those alternative financing opportunities need to be built into the vision. You really need to look at what their priorities are, if there are any eroding infrastructure that's really impacting the citizen experience, if there are other things that are consistently subpar. They need to handle that in a phased approach.

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S&RC: When you're working with these cities, what are some of the best practices that you've found that work most effectively and help create a more stable plan that has a greater chance of succeeding in the long run?

LB: I think in order to be successful, the municipalities need to focus on enhancing who the end-user is, enhancing that citizen experience. We tend to help them think through how to create safe and secure environments through the city. That also has to do with making sure that there there's equity across all the different communities from the core of the cities to maybe the outskirts and some of the under-served communities. Transportation options need to be flexible and on time.

When I speak with mayors and with county executives, they say, "You know, the last several decades, we've been putting all of our investment dollars into where the wealth has been going. You know wealth has been going to the suburbs. If there are now folks are coming to our urban cores, we need to make sure that we have our eye on transportation and making it safe and secure and making sure that there is connectivity." Folks just take for granted when you go into a city that Wi-Fi will be working and that you can connect to government services or public attractions. We tell folks to make sure they're putting some attention towards that level of connectivity. I think that there is a driving force to helping us understand what the needs are. Another best practice, I would say, is make sure you are looking at healthy water practices. 

Being practical, understanding what your overall goal is, and seeing who you're trying to attract and retain is something that we help folks think about. Then, we don't try to do everything at once, but make sure you have everybody's priority.

S&RC: And how do you see citizen engagement playing in to the equation?

LB: One of the things that cities ask us to do at the beginning of engagements is to work on stakeholder engagement while coming up with that overall smart city strategic plan. We've seen that the cities that are actually bringing in all those voices are the ones who are tending to have smoother paths towards being smarter and more connected. Bring in those stakeholders from the communities and bring in thought leaders from different parts of the communities that don't always have a voice and put them in the same room with the municipal leadership voices, as well as make sure that you're partnering with your utilities. Make sure that you're partnering with your higher education and your K-12 leaders because they're all part of that larger smart community that you're trying to build.

S&RC: I'm wondering how you connect the quality of life improvements with ROI. How do you get a return on some of these solutions?

LB: That's the big question, right? I think that "Smart Cities 101" was about creating technology investments, pushing those out and then government pushing that down to citizens. "Smart Cities 201" is more about having that citizen voice to be level with government voices, then figuring out what are they ultimately trying to do. I think its what each investment does and how they overall impact the city. And who is the city? It's the citizens, constituents and the business owners. If you're trying to get people to come live, work,and play in your city, you need to keep that in mind that it's always about what you're trying to accomplish and what the end-goal is.

Yes, there are cities and counties that are competing because folks are working more virtually these days. They can live in one spot. They can work in a city across the country. Every city leader that I speak to, or community or county leader, wants folks to come live there. They want their children to be in those schools. They want their family members to be spending money with those local merchants. If there is a way to make sure that you're always looking at the end-user in mind, I think those are the leaders who are making really smart, holistic decisions.

I think that not only mayors but multiple stakeholders are saying, "Wow, we have all this data. How do we monetize it? What does that even mean? Should I sell my streetlights off to the utilities? The telecommunications companies are coming in or saying they're going to partner with us. What does that ultimately mean?" I think that's almost like the "Smart Cities 301" piece. Now that you've created all these opportunities, now that you've invested in all these technologies, what does it all mean? What is data worth? Is the data on a street pole on main street valued as much as the data that's in a street pole in a different part of the city? That's something I think, folks are really digging in right now.

S&RC: How does Johnson Controls support city leaders?

LB: It's important to talk to the different stakeholders, the different department heads, the folks who run public works, the folks who run the airports, the leaders who run the correctional facilities, agencies, et cetera. It's pivotal to speak with the ultimate leader and to understand what their vision is and then help them communicate with their overall vision. We absolutely support them from working with them and understanding their strategies, helping them as I said in terms of securing grants and rebates, and understanding what the competition opportunities are.

We support the National League of Cities, which is the large mayor's organization and we're strategic partners there. We support the International City Manager Association, which is the ICMA. We support-- We are strategic partners there. We work with the National Association of Counties, NACO, and that's where all these county commissioners and executives work. We'll work with them through their organizations. 

S&RC: How do you measure KPIs for quality of life solutions implemented by cities?

LB: You know what, it doesn't have to be monetary. It can absolutely be enhancing the academic environment, that helps students get greater test scores, helps them either lift out of a family situation or cultural situation and ultimately helps them get to a better higher education. Hopefully, they then go back to that community and then raise other people up.

The value doesn't have to be dollars, but it has to be something that allows people to tie the benefit back to that initial investment and say, "You know what, we were absolutely right to do this. This is what it brought to the city. This is what it did to our community members." I think everybody is still trying to figure that out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Part 2 of the conversation can be found here.

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