Startup Aims to Help Cities Separate Smart Hype from Solid Smart City Solutions

Serial entrepreneur and former Chicago Transit Commissioner Gabe Klein announces CityFi, a smart city consulting venture.

by / August 17, 2016
Gabe Klein, co-founder of CityFi, the new advisory startup for smart city innovation projects. David Kidd/e.Republic

In the rush many municipalities feel to become a "smart city" — one that collects immediate data on everything from traffic patterns to home water use, analyzes it, and uses that information to improve performance and outcomes — cities have struggled to separate what’s helpful from the hype.

And it's no wonder. Pay a visit to any of today's smart city conventions and you may become overwhelmed simply by paying a visit to the expo floor — a circus of urban solutions like solar panels, sensors, parking meters, cables, thermostats, gauges and gaskets.

Gabe Klein understands these cities' struggles better than most. A well-known civic innovator, Klein has worked in the transit, tech and smart city industries for years. He spent part of this time serving as Chicago's transportation commissioner and director of Washington D.C.'s  transportation department. And on Aug. 17, Klein, a bit of a serial entrepreneur, launched his latest venture: a digital consultancy called CityFi, whose goal is to help cities decipher the smart city fluff from real, results-driven solutions.

The startup, headquartered in Washington, D.C., includes a team of experts from across the country with varied skill sets and extensive expertise in IT, transportation, civic engagement, project management and federal services. In addition to Klein, who is co-leading the startup, CityFi’s consultants include:

  • former General Services Administration Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who also established the federal government’s influential digital consultancy 18F;
  • former Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva;
  • former Chicago Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott;
  • former Los Angeles Transportation Technology Strategist Ashley Z. Hand;
  • the Knight Foundation's Benjamin de la Peña, who serves as its director of community and national strategy; and
  • MIT's David Vega-Barachowitz, a visiting researcher at its Center for Advanced Urbanism.

The team's ambitions, Klein said, are to give cities, departments, developers and private-sector companies collaborating with governments real-world innovation insights and tactics. The ambiguity and evolving nature of what a smart city is changes so drastically that Klein said there's a strong demand in the market for those who can marry the politics and policies of urban cities with the agility and variation of latest technologies — some of which Klein learned during both his work in government and with his private-sector service at Zipcar, his early-to-market organic food truck company and current work with the venture capital firm Fontinalis Partners.

Klein spoke with Government Technology on Aug. 17, offering a glimpse into CityFi's current and upcoming projects. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Government Technology: How did the idea for CityFi come about and what's its overall mission?
CityFi Co-Founder Gabe Klein: Every since I left government a couple years ago, I've been doing a lot of work with government and also with the private sector, and so my mission has really been to try to bring the two sides together and work more collaboratively. I wrote my book Startup City about that. I also was a fellow at the Urban Land institute in 2014 and focused on that in terms of trying to get developers and cities to work more closely together to improve public space and transportation in the built environment.

So I came together with some awesome collaborators ... it's really a group of just wonderful people. So a lot of us were working on our own on various projects, but what tied us together is that we're all working on projects that deal with cities and work with private-sector companies that want to work more closely with cities. Some of us have also advised startups, and so we said, "Lets formalize this under one umbrella. Here, we not only can work together, but we can expand the breadth of our solutions for clients."

I don't know if I know anybody else who knows more about municipal finance — at least that I've met — than Lois Scott and Dan Tangherlini. I don't know if there is anybody that is as up to date on technology and transportation in cities than Ashley Hand — and to a slightly lesser extent myself. And also I don't know if there is another group of people that have implemented more in cities, whether it's bike sharing programs, bridges or smart city applications like in Kansas, Mo., or Chicago. One of the things we bring to the table is that most of us have worked in the public, private and philanthropic sectors, so we've actually implemented things, we've actually done the hard work.

GT: CityFi's team comes from a wide array of backgrounds. What are a couple of previous projects the team has done that standout?
Klein: First off, many of the things we've done we didn't even put on the website — it was just too much. But in terms of recent projects, I think Ashley's L.A. Transportation Strategy, even though most people haven't seen it yet, is really cutting edge. I got the opportunity as an adviser to read through the various iterations of it, and it's really forward-thinking, and yet it's also outcome-focused and centered on human beings. That's really important because often with technology, it's so easy to get wrapped up in the tech itself instead of the life we want to create for people, the quality of life, the sustainability factors and looking at that broad societal return on investments for initiatives. So I think her project is great.

Also, I just finished up the Gear Up 2020 agenda for the Mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry, with the Urban Land Institute. I worked on this for about five months, and looking back, it takes a lot of feedback from people in the nonprofit world, government, business owners and developers to form a strategy for what a mayor can do in her first term to make some pretty big directional changes in the city, and particularly around transportation equity and affordable housing — an issue she's really passionate about. Open  space, making the government work better for people was also a big part of this. So I'm definitely very proud of that project as well.

Then John Tolva has got a litany different initiatives he's worked on as well. I think his work on Kazakhstan Expo 2017 Master Plan was truly exceptional.

GT: With so many companies, strategies and solutions out there, how does CityFi ensure clients can filter what works from what doesn't?
Klein: I think for a lot of cities, particularly on the transportation side — but also in general — many of them didn't initially understand what a smart city was. And to be honest, in their defense, it's a bit of an amorphous term that is constantly evolving and changing. I think when the federal government did the White House Smart City Challenge it really helped because you had 70 cities, in essence, put together a business plan for a smart city implementation. They we're forced to think through what that would look like to work across silos in the government.

But having said that, I think [the definition] is going to continue to evolve, and what we bring to table is a people-centered approach and an outcome-centered approach, which we've already employed with a couple of clients. They were focused on the technology and we said, "Let's take a step back and let's focus on what is the purpose and need here." And what do we want this city to look and feel like, or this town or new development, then after we've established this, lets look at technology to see if it can take us where we want to go. But lets not look at technology as the end goal. That's sort of what happened with automobiles in the 1940s and '50s, and in many ways it was pretty destructive to our cities [with respect to mobility infrastructure]. And so we want to make sure that we help advise — whether its CEOs, mayors, or directors of agencies — from the start what lens to look at these projects through so they end up with better outcomes.

GT: When working on some of your various projects, what's the process like? What are the primary goals to keep results in focus?
Klein: Even before our launch today, we had been working on projects with various types of clients — developers, national real-estate companies, city departments, mayors — so the process differs a bit depending on who our client is and what they're trying to accomplish. This could be looking at go-to-market strategies for services or products being launched in the U.S. market, developers who are interested in getting into the transportation business — I mean, you name it. So it's a slightly different approach depending on what they want, but I would say initially of course there is a bit of a deep dive in figuring out what it is exactly they're trying to accomplish. In this, I think a lot of times people are coming to us with problems that are new, that have not been seen before, just because of the change that we're seeing cities and in technology. I think our experience working as investors or government officials, or as private-sector CEOs and executives helps us to bring a lot to table.

GT: How does a background in the private sector and startup world assist when offering advice to clients?
Klein: Well, first of all, having worked in a lot of startups or having advised a lot of startups, whether it was Zipcar, my own food truck company, or advising [the shuttle service] Bridj, or working with Fontinalis Partners, it's very helpful because to be honest, the world is changing so fast you need to keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on in the technology industry. And it's not just about technology, it's also about the change in business models themselves. What you're seeing often is an old idea, but you're adding new technology layered onto new business models that allow you to reduce friction and make something seem new again.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.