“If technology doesn’t work, politics doesn’t work”

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Between climate change, pandemic and new work styles, cities have had to adapt to the changes they have generated and will generate in the future. There are entire conferences devoted to it, like the Smart City Expo World Congress which already expects to receive 24,000 visitors this year. Little joke, because the figures of the recent Mobile World Congress stand at 60,000 people.

In order to manage all these new needs, each city is organized in a different way. And in the case of New York that translates into a CTOa Chief Technical Officer. We have been able to speak with John Farmer, the person who has started this position and is in charge of applying technological advances to the most famous metropolis in the world.

A business position in the public government of a city

We begin the interview with a question that comes to mind as soon as we see Farmer’s official position: CTO, or Chief Technological Officer. It is usually a position reserved for the chief technical officer of a company, but it is not something that we see in the government of a city. Farmer clarifies that it is a position that the mayor of New York created in 2014 seeking to prepare the city for the future:

“In the 21st century, if technology does not work, politics does not work. That is why we believe that technology positions should not only be in large companies, but also in public administrations to influence the entire population. You need to have a level of understanding of the role that technologies have today and what they will have in the future so that governments can do their job well and obtain benefits”

Something that Farmer insists on (and uses as an official motto as we can see in the Web) is in that do not agree with the termfuture-proofor “future proof“. For him that implies being afraid of the future when it is something inevitable that is going to come whatever we do. Therefore, before saying future-proof, he prefers to say “prepared for the future” or ‘future-ready‘. And being “prepared” for the future doesn’t mean that the future has to be a bad thing either:

“I am realistically optimistic. I recognize that there are significant challenges and risks, but we also have access to incredibly powerful tools. I take it as a question to society about how we are going to use those tools: to concentrate benefits and powers in a small section of people and companies, to authoritarian nations, or will we use them to spread the benefits around the world to increase the quality of life for everyone and give more opportunities to more people?

John Farmer

John Farmer (centre), participating in one of the presentations at the past Smart City World Expo Congress.

The day to day of the New York CTO consists of manage a team of 25 people that make up the office of that position, in addition to working side by side with the mayor and his direct reports. They cover a wide range of issues, from climate change to ways to optimize transport in the metropolis.

Farmer defends the importance of his position by saying that it is local governments (not regional or state governments) that have the most direct impact on people. And that impact, today, is governed by technology: “We have to meet the needs of people, and for that you need those people to be connected. We have to be able to include everyone in our initiatives and constantly think about how we use connected sensors, AI or machine learning to improve the experience of people and the delivery of our services”.

Climate, traffic and needs of New Yorkers as pillars

Manhattan

The role of cities has had a before and after with the pandemic, but for John Farmer that has not changed the priorities for the future. And “top of the list” there is the threat of climate change.

“A few months ago the city suffered two record storms. Very rare floods that caused many millions of dollars in losses and even loss of human lives. With this we cannot continue working as we have been doing in the past. We have to change and learn to react faster.”

Something that has appeared several times in movies and series is a Manhattan flooded by the rise in the level of the oceans, but Farmer considers that before that, another more immediate danger must be faced: “We have had days in which the city’s previous rainfall records have tripled. It has rained a lot and we will have to be prepared for extreme weather.”

An example of applying technology to adapt to this climate change that Farmer is proud of is the floodnet programconsisting of a series of sensors that have been applied in four New York neighborhoods to detect not only if there is a flood, but also the water level in real time to save an hour of reaction time for the emergency services.

Another key point is that this data flow “saves time on calls and formal requests between agencies”, which speeds up relief efforts. Other solutions that Farmer comments on can range from solar panels to carbon-capturing building paint: “There are several strategies that we will have to combine.”

The CTO role has no remit on transportation and mobility improvements, but Farmer is sparing with suggestions to avoid gridlock in one of the world’s densest cities. He defends the congestion tax of Manhattan, the profits of which go directly to funding cleaner methods of transportation.

On electrification, things get more difficult. In Farmer’s own words:

In neighborhoods like Staten Island with single-family homes it is not a problem to electrify parking spaces, but it will be a challenge to be able to cover the charging demands of electric cars in Manhattan. Where do you put the infrastructure? You can put plugs in places where many people park like hospitals, but it doesn’t solve the problem on a sufficient scale. We will have to look at car parks, garages… and be careful not to harm the aesthetics of the district, since we are talking about an area in which many series and movies are filmed”

To this, Farmer also adds a consequence of the pandemic: telecommuting. He mentions that there are many houses that are devoting personal space to offices, and the question remains whether that telecommuting will stay forever or if we will return to what we had in 2019. Farmer’s personal bet is that we will see a mixture of those two extremes, with some companies partially betting on having part of their workforce working from home.

This will have a direct impact on the demand for office space in the city, as well as physical stores. The retail spaceas they call it there, can be used for something else “in the same way that abandoned industrial wastelands are used for other purposes.”

Farmer cannot decide what he considers the best project he has done for the city of New York, although he highlights the efforts to bring broadband to as many inhabitants as possible. He insists that this is what brings jobs and education, and considers it a crucial step to combat climate change. He gives us an example with drones beyond their options as cameras:

“Drones can perform very important functions for firefighters in dangerous situations, or carry blood transfusions and reach hospitals that need them much sooner. Now the barrier is in the regulations: where do we land those drones? How do they have to fly around town? How do you order those transfusions? These are things you have to do quickly and in times of stress. You have to get regulators to take advantage of every penny from taxpayers to be able to take advantage of these technologies with security, transparency and privacy “

I end the meeting with John Farmer by asking him how he sees New York in five years. His answer goes through the migratory flow of people to the big citiesrecalling that our generation will live through a time when large cities are home to 75% of the world’s population: “There will be challenges in housing, public transport, traffic… perhaps even the work model itself is going to have to change and go from going to a central financial district to something else.

When I ask him for longer-term expectations and for him to describe New York in 2072, he considers that it is too long to dare to predict anything knowing that technology advances very quickly. “And it’s not about using technology for technology, it’s about using technology so we can create something new and make our lives better.”

Image | Robert Nickson

Between climate change, pandemic and new work styles, cities have had to adapt to the changes they have generated and…

Between climate change, pandemic and new work styles, cities have had to adapt to the changes they have generated and…

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