Mobility Tech

Is the Smart City a Myth?

JT sits down with Lacuna Technologies to hear how cities can better implement technology while simultaneously pursuing social equity.

John Thomey
John Thomey
Apr 19, 2021
Is the Smart City a Myth?
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Since UrbanTech published our 1st edition last Summer, we’ve published over 74 editions of our free newsletter. Today for our 75th edition, we officially are launching UrbanTech Premium content: newsletters, podcasts — and eventually more — only available to premium subscribers to UrbanTech.

The conversation featured in today’s edition is from a podcast that I recorded last week with Lacuna Technologies, which focuses on building digital tools that allow cities to use data technologies better, while simultaneously promoting urban equity issues and preserving the privacy of local citizens.

I sat down with Lacuna’s CEO Hugh Martin and a new member of Lacuna’s Board of Directors, Rashida RichardsonRashida joined the Lacuna team last month and is a lawyer, researcher, and advocate specializing in race, emerging technologies, and the law.

Fun fact: Rashida was featured in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma documentary!!

Before joining the Lacuna team, Rashida was the Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute. Prior to AI NOW, Rashida worked as legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of New York (NYCLU). Basically, she’s a rock star and I learned a ton from chatting with her and Hugh.

Both of them are incredibly passionate about urban tech issues and are major advocates for helping to make our cities better places to live by harnessing innovation while fighting the stereotype of the “smart city.”

A huge thanks to Rashida and Hugh for taking the time to chat with me and helping me launch UrbanTech premium content.

Is the Smart City a Myth?

JT: Can you explain Lacuna and the work that you do?  I'm pretty familiar with it being based here in LA and the work y'all have done with LADOT, but I'd love to give the readers listeners just a quick overview of Lacuna Technologies and what you and the team are building?

Hugh Martin, Lacuna Technologies CEO: Terrific. I'm a serial entrepreneur up here in Silicon Valley. And the company before Lacuna that I had started was a “smart cities” company that was going to attempt to make street lights really smart and be able to help a city manage traffic and other pieces of their infrastructure. I rapidly learned that “Smart Cities” is kind of not a real business market. 

And especially that many tech guys in Silicon Valley thinking of great products is not necessarily what cities are interested in or even need. I sold my company to Verizon and luckily saw as Verizon came to understand some of the issues that cities, especially around transportation, have to deal with on a daily basis.

And what they care about most in my experience is equity. They also care about pollution. They care about safety and so on. And yet, somehow, there are not any real tools to help them with any of these issue areas. 

So, for instance, they've used stop signs and curbs and paint traffic signals for the last a hundred years to manage traffic flows. And in the last ten years, they've been inundated with scooters and navigation applications, and ride-hail companies. Drones are coming and autonomous vehicles are not that far away. 

And ultimately after my time with Verizon, I decided I wanted to build a company that can help build tools that cities can use to manage these news systems for the next a hundred years. Like they have for the last hundred years with street signs and curbs and that's what Lacuna’s mission is to do.

JT: Makes sense! That point comes up in a lot of my conversations for UrbanTech, particularly in the mobility space.

Rashida, maybe this is a good question for you since I know you recently joined the Lacuna team and are an expert on equity and tech issues. 

Can you maybe talk about some of the concerns from an equity perspective for when you're dealing with technologies or smart technologies? What are the types of questions you need to be asking to make sure you're creating value for communities in an equitable way?

Rashida Richardson, Lacuna Technologies Board Member: Wow, so first thanks so much for having us here. I think it's difficult to answer that question succinctly because there are many different things that are wrong. I think it all starts at the top with leadership, and I think that's one of the great reasons why Lacuna will be a leader in this space is by just thinking ahead about what it's doing.

Who is making the decisions? But I think with equity; it's often an afterthought when designing technologies it's, and I think part of the problem of why many technologies produce equitable outcomes is because one, the people in the room tend to be fairly homogenous. So if you're not thinking about the diversity of the world, then it's easy to make tools that don't work for everyone.

Also, particularly in the smart cities space. If you don't have city officials who are on an equal playing field with disruptive companies, then how can you enforce laws to make sure that new technologies are benefiting everyone equally? Generally, I think it's part of a larger problem that in this country, that we haven't done a great job with equity issues.

We don't necessarily legislate equitably. We don't necessarily build technologies, equitably either, but I think we're at a pivotal moment where that sort of practice of seeing equity along with other civil rights and civil liberties concerns like privacy.

Being part of the design process, being part of how you're thinking about your products and the impact in the world upfront and not necessarily an afterthought when reacting to criticism.

JT: I love that. And this is maybe a question for either of you, but why, and I have some thoughts, but why do you think mobility is where we see so much of urban tech sector evolving? Is it just because Uber came first? Is real estate tech harder to innovate?

For example, I want to be optimistic about housing, and maybe the 2020s is where we will see a bunch of new residential startups boom but from a policy perspective, so much American housing policy is a mess. From redlining, to restrictive zoning, to politicians not doing enough, it just seems like we are at this impasse for housing innovation at the moment.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for mobility tech or transportation tech. Do you have any thoughts on why that is, or is it just transportation departments are more friendly with the idea of data and tech tools than maybe other parts of cities?

RR: Hugh, I'll take the equity part of that question. And maybe you can talk about the tech and design aspect of why there's more action happening in this space. I think the reason why mobility is an entry point into the equity conversation is that it's, you're essentially talking about infrastructure, which is not separate from the housing.

And so many of the discriminatory policies that you mentioned, like redlining, blockbusting, and even the personal and private choices that individuals and communities make cannot be separated from how space exists in cities and how you move around in that space. 

Does mobility is one means?

Trying to both understand and ideally redress those concerns in that we can expand in the space that we have. It's not as if like volcano's going to erupt and create more space for us to expand into. So mobility becomes an entry point in how do you discuss how to make space assessable and include in including everyone that exists in that space?

JT: I love that thought. That's so smart and I think you’re hitting a massive trend that we are seeing in this new urban mobility space that we’ve seen erupt since Uber really took off.

HM: Yeah. And just to add as to why mobility is where the innovators in all of the new mobility services that have come available in the last 10 years that are actually built all this if you think about it—first navigation or then ride-hail.

These are terrific opportunities to increase the quality of life for citizens built on top of data platforms, and in ride-hail, the operator knows where all of the demand is. Customers know where the drivers are. They know where, and what the congestion levels look like, and they know optimal routing, and they make all of that happen through data that's how they're running their business.

And so I think as cities start to grapple with, how do we, instead of letting these companies effectively self-regulate themselves, how does the city start to be able to regulate all of these new transportation forms? Getting access to the relevant, not all, but the relevant parts of what's going on in those networks can help the cities do the real work that it needs to do around regulation.

JT: And what city officials or offices are you typically working with? Is it planning offices? Is it like chief technology officers for cities? I know the structure of cities probably means it varies but I guess who are your customers?

HM: That's a really good question. And it's illustrative of the change that's happening. So there's been a lot of work in the mobility space around planning tools for many years. Unfortunately urban planning is a static activity that is typically done on historical information to lead to longer-term design decisions.

Whereas what we're talking about and trying to create is moving into a real-time realm where the city can actually change curb availability based on congestion or modify routing for emergency vehicles. That's all real-time information. 

So actually we don't spend a lot of time with planning departments. It's usually in the departments of transportation, typically the general manager people who really have the power and the ability and the interest to drive seminal change in how the departments operate.

JT: That's super interesting. On the transportation side is it typically like an RFP process or how does someone find out about lacuna? Do they get a free trial for 30 days? How does that process actually work? Gov procurement is typically the bane of startups' existence.

HM: Just to back up a little bit. Something core to our values is that we strongly believe whatever the solutions are, whatever these tools are, they need to be enduring. They need to last for decades. They need to be able to be modified and enhanced as new mobility modes or use cases come into being.

And no one city really can be locked into any one vendor. 

So cities led by LA came up with this idea. Both developing the software, but then wrapping an open-source foundation around it, a nonprofit so that it can be enhanced and, sees not be locked in. We were an early member of the open mobility foundation or OMF, which does this where LA contributed a lot of that original code.

And we're a strong driver of many of the initiatives that they have. The first thing I would say is that what we really are focused on and have been focused on for a while is making sure that cities all over the world understand that they can do this and that there are tools available and that they can do it through this new open-source foundation.

Once they're interested in that, then we typically would engage in the process of taking these open-source products and customizing them, and make them work for a particular city. And that can be an RFP process, but sometimes it starts as a consulting contract that then moves into an operating contract. It just depends on the situation and partner that we are working with.

JT: That makes a lot of sense. To me it feels like anything on the data side with the government needs to be open source and there always needs to be a push for more gov tech transparency given the scale of these tools.

So I'm curious, and maybe this is not a super-smart question, but given your background, I want to ask these dumb questions.

How do actually make a city “smarter”? Do we actually need cities to be smarter? What does it even mean to be a smart city? To me, it just seems like a term used for good marketing and doesn’t ascribe to any specific goals or values.

HM: Oh, I have to pass this to Rashida!

RR: So I think to me, a smart city, you need smart and responsible leadership. That even the term smart cities are based on the concept that insights gained from sensors and technology will therefore allow cities to be smarter and optimize.

For the right goals. But if you don't really have a gauge on what your community means, then what are you optimizing for? What are you making more efficient?

 And if you don't necessarily have leadership that understands how to leverage certain technological infrastructure or even the outputs of technology, then that's how we end up in this cycle of most smart cities' efforts being terrible or producing problematic outcomes is because you don't necessarily have good leadership being given the right tools to make smart decisions or even leadership that feels responsible for their constituents to try and use new technologies.

HM: Yeah. I was just going to say, as I said, my last company was a smart cities startup. And what I can tell you is this idea that you've got some blanket technology like sensors, or even a software platform on top of it, and it is going to solve all of the city's ills is just a complete myth.

And it's only when you really dig in and look at the individual—departments or functions within a city. And then the use cases that they're dealing with, you can start to really understand what processes and tools they have today and what they could use in the future. And there is no one answer solution that fits all.

It's definitely dependent on a lot of the time which department you're talking to. 

RR: Oh, wait, can I add one more thing? Because I feel like the issue here is you need to understand what problems can even be solved with technology, and the conversation often doesn't start there. It's usually, “hey, we have a silver bullet solution for some very complex social problem,” and it doesn't pan out without doing the work first.

What problems can more data help us solve and what problems are beyond that or issues of politics and are more societal questions? And I feel like that question is never answered upfront. And then also some of the like goals or what you're optimizing for, it gets conflated. So that is then what results in these sort of mismatched outcomes?

JT: Yeah, no, that's so smart, and I feel like I'm part of it that plays into it is how you pitch investors and particularly venture capital investors. You have to promise the moon. And sometimes when you're building technology and infrastructure in the physical world, it seems like startups miss a lot of the in-between and that's where I see a lot of when things go wrong, it's about really, it's just moving too fast and breaking things without being super cognizant of what you're breaking or disrupting.

And when you're—disrupting physical assets in the real world or transportation patterns of how people get to work or live, there's a lot of big consequences. 

So I'm curious, what's on the horizon for lacuna. What should UT readers have their eyes on? Is there anything that they should be watching or stay up to date on?

HM: Yeah. I think going back to our premise, which is we're in the business of working with and helping cities, a lot of our trajectory and the things that we care about are going to be related to.

What cities are worried about or care about? And so for instance, one of the things that's super clear is coming out of COVID, there is a huge revenue shortfall for cities, and then longer-term, there's going to be a pretty dramatic shift in revenue sources for transportation in general, as mobility electrification continues to take hold.

So. getting access to new sources of revenue for departments of transportation is something that cities really care about. And, that is not a problem, an issue that is specific, for instance, to scooters, which is where most people think of.

So I think one, there, there will be an increased focus on ways that cities can come up for win-win scenarios, with users of the commercial users of the public right. One course, to create new revenue opportunities. I think that another thing that will be is that a rapid expansion beyond scooters to all different modes of mobility as

I think more broadly cities will start to think more galactically about the systems and people moving around. 

And I think we're working on both of those trends. One of the things I just mentioned is that a really interesting derivative use case of everything that we're talking about is our airports because airports are really a small city themselves.

They have tremendous control over what goes on in the property. And they typically have a CEO and not a city council, so they can make decisions pretty quickly and autonomously. They have certainly had tremendous mobility problems. So that's another area that we're very excited about. 

JT: To that point, it seems like transportation infrastructure and mobility, luckily in the last few months, seem to have reinvigorated importance in Washington. There are numerous bills in Congress. Cities seem to have a better relationship with Congress and The White House and are working together, something I don’t think you could say about city-fed relationships during the Trump administration in my opinion.

Is there anything on the trend you would call out to readers for better understanding how local governments are trying to work with the Biden Administration and the federal government more broadly to achieve their mobility goals?

HM: Sure. So just a couple of observations from the beginning. We focus really closely on mayors because mayors are one step away from the actual citizens and decision makers in Washington. And so, the federal government had not been a focus of ours so far. But ironically, we now have a mayor who is running the department of transportation!

And it's a super awesome opportunity for the entire industry because mayors really understand how these issues work because they’ve dealt with them at the local level. They can bring that experience to Washington.

One of our very close advisers is South Carolina Mayor Steven Benjamin, who actually served as the President of the United States Conference of Mayors. So similarly with Pete Buttigieg leading transportation, I think it's going to be a tremendous opportunity for the local level to work with Washington.

The other thing I would just mention is that there's been a lot of talk about public-private partnerships and how commercial companies can help cities or government in general, as we emerge from COVID — and I think this is a huge area of opportunity for companies like Lacuna.

JT:  So I don't want to take up too much more of your time. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me and share your insight with UrbanTech subscribers.

I'd love to chat with you again soon, but thank you again for taking the time. 

HM: Absolutely, thanks so much for having us on the show.

RR: Thanks for having us. 

Since UrbanTech published our 1st edition last Summer, we’ve published over 74 editions of our free newsletter. Today for our 75th edition, we officially are launching UrbanTech Premium content: newsletters, podcasts — and eventually more — only available to premium subscribers to UrbanTech.

The conversation featured in today’s edition is from a podcast that I recorded last week with Lacuna Technologies, which focuses on building digital tools that allow cities to use data technologies better, while simultaneously promoting urban equity issues and preserving the privacy of local citizens.

I sat down with Lacuna’s CEO Hugh Martin and a new member of Lacuna’s Board of Directors, Rashida RichardsonRashida joined the Lacuna team last month and is a lawyer, researcher, and advocate specializing in race, emerging technologies, and the law.

Fun fact: Rashida was featured in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma documentary!!

Before joining the Lacuna team, Rashida was the Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute. Prior to AI NOW, Rashida worked as legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of New York (NYCLU). Basically, she’s a rock star and I learned a ton from chatting with her and Hugh.

Both of them are incredibly passionate about urban tech issues and are major advocates for helping to make our cities better places to live by harnessing innovation while fighting the stereotype of the “smart city.”

A huge thanks to Rashida and Hugh for taking the time to chat with me and helping me launch UrbanTech premium content.

Is the Smart City a Myth?

JT: Can you explain Lacuna and the work that you do?  I'm pretty familiar with it being based here in LA and the work y'all have done with LADOT, but I'd love to give the readers listeners just a quick overview of Lacuna Technologies and what you and the team are building?

Hugh Martin, Lacuna Technologies CEO: Terrific. I'm a serial entrepreneur up here in Silicon Valley. And the company before Lacuna that I had started was a “smart cities” company that was going to attempt to make street lights really smart and be able to help a city manage traffic and other pieces of their infrastructure. I rapidly learned that “Smart Cities” is kind of not a real business market. 

And especially that many tech guys in Silicon Valley thinking of great products is not necessarily what cities are interested in or even need. I sold my company to Verizon and luckily saw as Verizon came to understand some of the issues that cities, especially around transportation, have to deal with on a daily basis.

And what they care about most in my experience is equity. They also care about pollution. They care about safety and so on. And yet, somehow, there are not any real tools to help them with any of these issue areas. 

So, for instance, they've used stop signs and curbs and paint traffic signals for the last a hundred years to manage traffic flows. And in the last ten years, they've been inundated with scooters and navigation applications, and ride-hail companies. Drones are coming and autonomous vehicles are not that far away. 

And ultimately after my time with Verizon, I decided I wanted to build a company that can help build tools that cities can use to manage these news systems for the next a hundred years. Like they have for the last hundred years with street signs and curbs and that's what Lacuna’s mission is to do.

JT: Makes sense! That point comes up in a lot of my conversations for UrbanTech, particularly in the mobility space.

Rashida, maybe this is a good question for you since I know you recently joined the Lacuna team and are an expert on equity and tech issues. 

Can you maybe talk about some of the concerns from an equity perspective for when you're dealing with technologies or smart technologies? What are the types of questions you need to be asking to make sure you're creating value for communities in an equitable way?

Rashida Richardson, Lacuna Technologies Board Member: Wow, so first thanks so much for having us here. I think it's difficult to answer that question succinctly because there are many different things that are wrong. I think it all starts at the top with leadership, and I think that's one of the great reasons why Lacuna will be a leader in this space is by just thinking ahead about what it's doing.

Who is making the decisions? But I think with equity; it's often an afterthought when designing technologies it's, and I think part of the problem of why many technologies produce equitable outcomes is because one, the people in the room tend to be fairly homogenous. So if you're not thinking about the diversity of the world, then it's easy to make tools that don't work for everyone.

Also, particularly in the smart cities space. If you don't have city officials who are on an equal playing field with disruptive companies, then how can you enforce laws to make sure that new technologies are benefiting everyone equally? Generally, I think it's part of a larger problem that in this country, that we haven't done a great job with equity issues.

We don't necessarily legislate equitably. We don't necessarily build technologies, equitably either, but I think we're at a pivotal moment where that sort of practice of seeing equity along with other civil rights and civil liberties concerns like privacy.

Being part of the design process, being part of how you're thinking about your products and the impact in the world upfront and not necessarily an afterthought when reacting to criticism.

JT: I love that. And this is maybe a question for either of you, but why, and I have some thoughts, but why do you think mobility is where we see so much of urban tech sector evolving? Is it just because Uber came first? Is real estate tech harder to innovate?

For example, I want to be optimistic about housing, and maybe the 2020s is where we will see a bunch of new residential startups boom but from a policy perspective, so much American housing policy is a mess. From redlining, to restrictive zoning, to politicians not doing enough, it just seems like we are at this impasse for housing innovation at the moment.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for mobility tech or transportation tech. Do you have any thoughts on why that is, or is it just transportation departments are more friendly with the idea of data and tech tools than maybe other parts of cities?

RR: Hugh, I'll take the equity part of that question. And maybe you can talk about the tech and design aspect of why there's more action happening in this space. I think the reason why mobility is an entry point into the equity conversation is that it's, you're essentially talking about infrastructure, which is not separate from the housing.

And so many of the discriminatory policies that you mentioned, like redlining, blockbusting, and even the personal and private choices that individuals and communities make cannot be separated from how space exists in cities and how you move around in that space. 

Does mobility is one means?

Trying to both understand and ideally redress those concerns in that we can expand in the space that we have. It's not as if like volcano's going to erupt and create more space for us to expand into. So mobility becomes an entry point in how do you discuss how to make space assessable and include in including everyone that exists in that space?

JT: I love that thought. That's so smart and I think you’re hitting a massive trend that we are seeing in this new urban mobility space that we’ve seen erupt since Uber really took off.

HM: Yeah. And just to add as to why mobility is where the innovators in all of the new mobility services that have come available in the last 10 years that are actually built all this if you think about it—first navigation or then ride-hail.

These are terrific opportunities to increase the quality of life for citizens built on top of data platforms, and in ride-hail, the operator knows where all of the demand is. Customers know where the drivers are. They know where, and what the congestion levels look like, and they know optimal routing, and they make all of that happen through data that's how they're running their business.

And so I think as cities start to grapple with, how do we, instead of letting these companies effectively self-regulate themselves, how does the city start to be able to regulate all of these new transportation forms? Getting access to the relevant, not all, but the relevant parts of what's going on in those networks can help the cities do the real work that it needs to do around regulation.

JT: And what city officials or offices are you typically working with? Is it planning offices? Is it like chief technology officers for cities? I know the structure of cities probably means it varies but I guess who are your customers?

HM: That's a really good question. And it's illustrative of the change that's happening. So there's been a lot of work in the mobility space around planning tools for many years. Unfortunately urban planning is a static activity that is typically done on historical information to lead to longer-term design decisions.

Whereas what we're talking about and trying to create is moving into a real-time realm where the city can actually change curb availability based on congestion or modify routing for emergency vehicles. That's all real-time information. 

So actually we don't spend a lot of time with planning departments. It's usually in the departments of transportation, typically the general manager people who really have the power and the ability and the interest to drive seminal change in how the departments operate.

JT: That's super interesting. On the transportation side is it typically like an RFP process or how does someone find out about lacuna? Do they get a free trial for 30 days? How does that process actually work? Gov procurement is typically the bane of startups' existence.

HM: Just to back up a little bit. Something core to our values is that we strongly believe whatever the solutions are, whatever these tools are, they need to be enduring. They need to last for decades. They need to be able to be modified and enhanced as new mobility modes or use cases come into being.

And no one city really can be locked into any one vendor. 

So cities led by LA came up with this idea. Both developing the software, but then wrapping an open-source foundation around it, a nonprofit so that it can be enhanced and, sees not be locked in. We were an early member of the open mobility foundation or OMF, which does this where LA contributed a lot of that original code.

And we're a strong driver of many of the initiatives that they have. The first thing I would say is that what we really are focused on and have been focused on for a while is making sure that cities all over the world understand that they can do this and that there are tools available and that they can do it through this new open-source foundation.

Once they're interested in that, then we typically would engage in the process of taking these open-source products and customizing them, and make them work for a particular city. And that can be an RFP process, but sometimes it starts as a consulting contract that then moves into an operating contract. It just depends on the situation and partner that we are working with.

JT: That makes a lot of sense. To me it feels like anything on the data side with the government needs to be open source and there always needs to be a push for more gov tech transparency given the scale of these tools.

So I'm curious, and maybe this is not a super-smart question, but given your background, I want to ask these dumb questions.

How do actually make a city “smarter”? Do we actually need cities to be smarter? What does it even mean to be a smart city? To me, it just seems like a term used for good marketing and doesn’t ascribe to any specific goals or values.

HM: Oh, I have to pass this to Rashida!

RR: So I think to me, a smart city, you need smart and responsible leadership. That even the term smart cities are based on the concept that insights gained from sensors and technology will therefore allow cities to be smarter and optimize.

For the right goals. But if you don't really have a gauge on what your community means, then what are you optimizing for? What are you making more efficient?

 And if you don't necessarily have leadership that understands how to leverage certain technological infrastructure or even the outputs of technology, then that's how we end up in this cycle of most smart cities' efforts being terrible or producing problematic outcomes is because you don't necessarily have good leadership being given the right tools to make smart decisions or even leadership that feels responsible for their constituents to try and use new technologies.

HM: Yeah. I was just going to say, as I said, my last company was a smart cities startup. And what I can tell you is this idea that you've got some blanket technology like sensors, or even a software platform on top of it, and it is going to solve all of the city's ills is just a complete myth.

And it's only when you really dig in and look at the individual—departments or functions within a city. And then the use cases that they're dealing with, you can start to really understand what processes and tools they have today and what they could use in the future. And there is no one answer solution that fits all.

It's definitely dependent on a lot of the time which department you're talking to. 

RR: Oh, wait, can I add one more thing? Because I feel like the issue here is you need to understand what problems can even be solved with technology, and the conversation often doesn't start there. It's usually, “hey, we have a silver bullet solution for some very complex social problem,” and it doesn't pan out without doing the work first.

What problems can more data help us solve and what problems are beyond that or issues of politics and are more societal questions? And I feel like that question is never answered upfront. And then also some of the like goals or what you're optimizing for, it gets conflated. So that is then what results in these sort of mismatched outcomes?

JT: Yeah, no, that's so smart, and I feel like I'm part of it that plays into it is how you pitch investors and particularly venture capital investors. You have to promise the moon. And sometimes when you're building technology and infrastructure in the physical world, it seems like startups miss a lot of the in-between and that's where I see a lot of when things go wrong, it's about really, it's just moving too fast and breaking things without being super cognizant of what you're breaking or disrupting.

And when you're—disrupting physical assets in the real world or transportation patterns of how people get to work or live, there's a lot of big consequences. 

So I'm curious, what's on the horizon for lacuna. What should UT readers have their eyes on? Is there anything that they should be watching or stay up to date on?

HM: Yeah. I think going back to our premise, which is we're in the business of working with and helping cities, a lot of our trajectory and the things that we care about are going to be related to.

What cities are worried about or care about? And so for instance, one of the things that's super clear is coming out of COVID, there is a huge revenue shortfall for cities, and then longer-term, there's going to be a pretty dramatic shift in revenue sources for transportation in general, as mobility electrification continues to take hold.

So. getting access to new sources of revenue for departments of transportation is something that cities really care about. And, that is not a problem, an issue that is specific, for instance, to scooters, which is where most people think of.

So I think one, there, there will be an increased focus on ways that cities can come up for win-win scenarios, with users of the commercial users of the public right. One course, to create new revenue opportunities. I think that another thing that will be is that a rapid expansion beyond scooters to all different modes of mobility as

I think more broadly cities will start to think more galactically about the systems and people moving around. 

And I think we're working on both of those trends. One of the things I just mentioned is that a really interesting derivative use case of everything that we're talking about is our airports because airports are really a small city themselves.

They have tremendous control over what goes on in the property. And they typically have a CEO and not a city council, so they can make decisions pretty quickly and autonomously. They have certainly had tremendous mobility problems. So that's another area that we're very excited about. 

JT: To that point, it seems like transportation infrastructure and mobility, luckily in the last few months, seem to have reinvigorated importance in Washington. There are numerous bills in Congress. Cities seem to have a better relationship with Congress and The White House and are working together, something I don’t think you could say about city-fed relationships during the Trump administration in my opinion.

Is there anything on the trend you would call out to readers for better understanding how local governments are trying to work with the Biden Administration and the federal government more broadly to achieve their mobility goals?

HM: Sure. So just a couple of observations from the beginning. We focus really closely on mayors because mayors are one step away from the actual citizens and decision makers in Washington. And so, the federal government had not been a focus of ours so far. But ironically, we now have a mayor who is running the department of transportation!

And it's a super awesome opportunity for the entire industry because mayors really understand how these issues work because they’ve dealt with them at the local level. They can bring that experience to Washington.

One of our very close advisers is South Carolina Mayor Steven Benjamin, who actually served as the President of the United States Conference of Mayors. So similarly with Pete Buttigieg leading transportation, I think it's going to be a tremendous opportunity for the local level to work with Washington.

The other thing I would just mention is that there's been a lot of talk about public-private partnerships and how commercial companies can help cities or government in general, as we emerge from COVID — and I think this is a huge area of opportunity for companies like Lacuna.

JT:  So I don't want to take up too much more of your time. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me and share your insight with UrbanTech subscribers.

I'd love to chat with you again soon, but thank you again for taking the time. 

HM: Absolutely, thanks so much for having us on the show.

RR: Thanks for having us. 

Is the Smart City a Myth?

John Thomey

John Thomey is a founder of Urban Tech, a newsletter and podcast. He’s a graduate student at the University of Southern California, studying Public Policy and Urban Planning.

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