A monopolistic education system and traditional service model may prevent cities from bridging their workforce talent gap, but solutions to this problem already exist, according to a technologist panel.
From policy and strategy issues to the never-ending search for funding, municipalities face a long list of hurdles as they push themselves to transform into smart cities.
But panelists in a recent live webcast agreed that one key obstacle in the path to becoming “smart” is a similar roadblock faced by cities around the world: As baby boomers retire, they take their expertise and institutional knowledge out the doors of city hall with them.
It’s the race to find, attract and train the talented staffers needed to run smart cities and serve their residents, participants in the Talent for Cities: Creating a Path to a Smart City Workforce panel agreed, generally proclaiming it a difficult, but not impossible, quest.
The larger question, Gordon Feller, co-founder of The Meeting of the Minds nonprofit, told the panel on Wednesday, Feb. 1, is “what it’s going to take for cities to become smarter, more sustainable and to have the talent they require to make it possible to get there?”
Panelist Tim Draper, founder of venture capital firm Draper Associates, predicted a dramatically changed future for smart cities — one that is already glimpsed on the horizon with autonomous vehicles, smart buildings, policing by drone and sewer systems that double in water replenishment.
“The training programs are really only playing catch-up,” Draper said, criticizing the nation’s public education system as an anachronistic monopoly that doesn’t provide future public servants with the training necessary to work in the technology and public sectors.
“If we start thinking about new ways to educate people, we can break that monopoly,” Draper said, suggesting online and academy schools and school vouchers as among the possible solutions. Free-market education could be a further-reaching answer that would improve training for the future workforce, he added.
Asked how to define talent in the 21st century, panel host Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, vice president and chief knowledge officer at Cisco Services, a panel sponsor, called that a very big question, “because at the end of the day, all of our jobs are changing radically.”
Technological changes have rocked the private and public sectors alike, panelists agreed. But, Beliveau-Dunn said, there are educational solutions for “just about everything out there today,” and the tech sector isn’t trying to put universities and educators out of business.
“Certainly, organizations like ours, the way we look at it is if we’re creating an industry, we’d better be part of creating the ecosystem for the industry as well. That ecosystem, a big part of that, is the talent pool. You don’t have an ecosystem if you don’t have a talent pool,” Beliveau-Dunn said.
“We are the ones at the end of the day who are driving the future … so we have to take responsibility to inform and drive solutions,” she added. Cisco is a member of the IoT Talent Consortium, whose mission is to join the initiative to drive the IoT workforce transition.
Municipal infrastructure may not by intrinsically organic, at least in composition, but panelist Scott Mauvais, director of civic innovation at Microsoft, also referred to cities as complex ecosystems.
Two drivers will affect their transformation, Mauvais said — rising expectations for change, and dispersion of technical talent throughout cities as younger residents grow up with technology skills and may not need to lean on a traditional municipal IT department for answers.
This, Mauvais said during the webcast and again in an interview, has prompted cities to create new positions such as the chief digital services officer, to rethink how they direct their services.
“I love things that disrupt things, that force people to think in a new way. What does that look like in 10 years?” Mauvais told Government Technology. “And I think on the talent side, I think a lot of people want to work in cities. They’re mission-driven, they want to help people. They see cities as where you can really see an impact of your work.”
Like others in the technology sector, Mauvais said Microsoft has worked to help cities fill the talent void, building partnerships through initiatives like Code for America, the City Innovate innovation conference and the MassChallenge tech accelerator event.
And like Beliveau-Dunn, he said an actionable step for cities may be to identify existing solutions elsewhere, and try piloting ones that are a good fit.
Panelist James Weinberg, CEO of FUSE Corps, said one way for cities to grapple with the talent gap may be “mindshift.”
“It’s just a question of rethinking the way you’re looking at your work to be results-oriented and user-centric,” said Weinberg, whose corporation’s fellowship program trains FUSE fellows for a year-long imbedding in cities across the nation, and has noticed a similar desire from business to help municipalities grapple with systematic problems.
“They’re looking to shift their careers toward careers of impact," Weinberg said of fellows who typically have 15 to 20 years of private-sector experience. "This is a transitional opportunity for them to try working in local government,” he told Government Technology in an interview. “When they see the potential to work on a major issue like homelessness … then they jump at the opportunity.”
Currently, 28 FUSE fellows are working in 11 government partnerships from Los Angeles County to Pittsburgh to New Orleans.
Some cities are more effective than others at rising to meet challenges, but in many cases the answers they need may already be available, Weinberg said, echoing the earlier webcast discussion.
“The truth is, we have a large base of solutions. President Clinton said most of the challenges of the 21st century have already been solved in one way or another somewhere in the world,” he said, identifying a trend of cities taking unconventional steps to do things differently, improve service and ensure their futures.
“But I think this is a broader movement of cities embracing more novel approaches, questioning the status quo, looking for [places] where it is reasonable and prudent to challenge bureaucracies that may have been in place for decades,” Weinberg said.