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IoT and Innovation in Government

Episode 778 07.05.22

Ruthbea Yesner, vice president, government insights, education, and smart cities, IDC, joins Peggy to discuss government innovation and smart cities. She explains how the pandemic has led to an interesting moment in time for the public sector and shares examples of how the IoT (Internet of Things) can lead to opportunities for innovation in government.  

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To listen to the conversation from The Peggy Smedley Show, click here or go to to access the entire show.

Peggy Smedley: So, I’m delighted that you’re joining us today because this is a really interesting time to talk about higher education and smart cities. So, I thought it would be great if you tell us a little bit about this moment in time, because I think it’s interesting, especially when we look at the world in general, but just specifically state and local governments. What’s your view of what’s going on?

Ruthbea Yesner: Yeah, I think you’re right. This is an incredibly special and interesting moment in time for the public sector in general. Education, as you mentioned, state local government, and I think part of it is a really big reset after COVID and the pandemic. That itself was an incredibly challenging time, but I think now going forward, there was so much that governments learned, and we have to figure out, how to take those lessons learned, and really change, and transform, and go forward. You know, no one wants to go back to how things were. There were a lot of changing norms, right? Changing norms about how we want to get government services and how we never want to go back into an office and how we want to work from home. And so, the question is really, what do we do next? How do we take all this incredible change, and things we’ve learned and sort of reset what we think of is the future of cities, the future of state and local government, the future of education?

Smedley: It’s an interesting point that you make though, because there are a lot of lessons learned, but now we’re kind of struggling with the economics of things because, we’re kind of fighting with a recession or leading to what might be one, but financially we’re in that kind of, it’s a dichotomy right now because there are a lot of lessons learned and we say, well, we want to go back into the office somewhat. And we say, what do we want? There is that tug and pull kind of thing that we’re going withstand, and I guess the question might be, if we’ve learned these lessons, do we fall back to old bad habits? Or do we say no, we’ve learned something, and we now need to change our infrastructure. We need to change the way we need to use technology in an entirely different way, like higher education. How do we use AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) to train students differently? Are those lessons being applied then to ways cities might use them as well? Not just to higher education, is there a combination coming at us?   Because to me, it says there’s a lot of challenges. Not only are there lessons learned, but it’s opened up a whole Pandora’s box of challenges that are now with us.

Yesner: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. I think one of the other things we learned about state and local government was that there is actually a pent-up demand for innovation in trying new things. So, if you look at governments around the world, if you look at education, these are systems that haven’t changed in 400 years. I mean, we are teaching things in the classroom with the teacher at the front like we did, you know, back in Greek times with Socrates and government really is pretty much the same as well. So, I think one of the things we found was that government workers really wanted to try new things. They wanted to be able to be flexible, and work quickly and be responsive to the community. So, I think that’s a really good thing to your point is, I think there was a new understanding that actually cities can work fast, governments can work fast, we can do things, we can move to delivery, and we can move to outside eating, and we can move to digital council meetings and video-based services. And so that’s, I think really exciting, but to your point, I think there’s a couple serious issues around technology infrastructure is one, but also as you mentioned, the money and sort of the inequality we have within our societies, right? So, one of the other things we learned from this is that there’s serious income inequality in many countries and significantly in the U.S. So that really means that governments have to think very carefully about how they shift to providing services, to make sure that everyone can access them, right? And that’s a really, big concern. So, no one wants to go back to where we were, but we really have to think about all these complex issues as we go forward.

Smedley: But now it’s even, I hate to say this, but if we think about diversity, equity, inclusion, we think about all of these inequalities you just described when we think about what’s happened from the pandemic and now going forward, and we think about our financial situation, we have a greater divide occurring and we hate to look at that. We want to apply technology, but not everybody can look at that. Not everybody can use it. So, at the same time we look at this and we say, well, we want to give it to everyone around the world. Again, we’re creating all of these different kinds of things that happen. We talk about EVs in cities, well, who’s going to be able to afford a Tesla? I mean, there’s a lot of different things going on. So, I think we’ve got challenges we have to face today, but I think when we look at, and I look at that same thing of cities, we’re saying cities are trying to transform themselves, but I think most of us hold onto our cars for a very long time, 10, 12 years. So, there’s a lot of things that even though cities want to change, and we’re saying how many people are going to be using city transportation, as you look at these things and say, when we see smart cities, there’s a lot of challenges they’re going to have to think about. And you made a very good point about those digital council meetings. I mean, we saw, there’s angry parents coming to council meetings, they never imagined. So, there’s a lot of things happening right now. You must be able to advise them to think and imagine things differently and look to their employees for advice, maybe they were too rigid within those walls before.

Yesner: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re really right. And I guess I should qualify something that I’m saying, because I get really excited about change and transformation in government and it makes it seem like, oh my goodness, we’re going to go out and change the world in two days. No, actually what we’re talking about is very slow, steady, incremental progress, right? Nothing is going to happen overnight. Your point about EVs, nobody’s going to go out and suddenly buy an electric vehicle immediately. We’re not looking at a transformation that happens in one year, and even if it did how would they get the energy? How would they plug them in? So, I think we’re really talking about a transformation that happens over time. We have a vision we’re moving toward that vision, and it happens in steps and stages, and that’s sort of what we talk about with state and local governments is how you develop a vision and how you very purposefully with your community, with your employees, march toward that vision.

Smedley: So that’s something they have to think about. Because I think we’re all in this challenge together, I think everyone thinks about digital transformation, sustainability, ESG goals. They don’t know how to do it. We’re all talking about climate change and it’s so encompassing, and it’s so overwhelming that everyone goes, I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking about, I want to have this green, this blue world, that we’re all talking about, but I don’t know what it means. So now everybody gets overwhelmed. So those stages you talk about, we are talking about, we have to meet scope goals, and we want to hit 2030 goals and it just becomes overwhelming, and then everybody’s angry. We have a society that’s so angry at each other, right? And so, how do you then go back and say, let’s take a deep breath. How do you get the people you’re talking to that say, this is where you’re getting it, I don’t want to say wrong, but how do you say this is how you take that step and get it right?

Yesner: Yeah. I think there’s a specific skillset that’s needed here, that’s almost community organizing. So, as you pointed out, we have diverse populations, different backgrounds, different languages, different income, different technology experience and literacy, we have all these massive pressing goals that are overwhelming, like you mentioned. So how do we deal with feeling overwhelmed? I think the first thing is, you just start, it’s like when you want to clean a bedroom. You look at it, you’re totally overwhelmed, but then you decide you’re just going to clean off your desk. And once you start, you’ve started, right? The other thing is I really do think that you have to have a big goal. So, I think all these COP26 and 2030 climate targets and things like that are incredibly important, because in order to take small steps and just start somewhere, you have to know why you’re doing it.

And so part of that goal development, I really think also needs special skills where you involve the community and you kind of hash it out and yeah, there’s going to be arguments and people are going to disagree, and especially in democratic countries like ours, you’re going to come to a happy medium or a somewhat happy medium, and that’s the only option, right? Bring in the community, have listening sessions, get feedback, work with community leaders, do the difficult work, whether they’re mad and they yell, but ultimately, you’re going to get a vision from that, and you’re going to see some commonalities come forward, and then from that, you can start to do your sort of staged approach. And the first thing to do after that is just start. Do something.

Smedley: We have to make that journey. We talk about the journey all the time, and we have to apply digital transformation, we have to apply technology because we’re running out of the next generation, who’s going to be able to lead some of this transformation we’re talking about. How do we apply the right technology to make that happen? Is there technology that’s going to help us get to mitigate some of these challenges we’re talking about? Is that going to be the answer or, again, we’re going to involve people because, it’s not going to be, technology’s going to replace us, all the robots are going to rule the world. We have to have a combination of the right, smart people, and individuals, and sometimes it doesn’t have to be the most educated person in the world who’s going to come up with the solutions. It’s going to be just like you said, a diverse group of people, coupled with technology.

Yesner: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think technology, carefully and ethically used, has a tremendous opportunity there, right? We have the ability, for example, you mentioned sustainability. We have the tremendous ability with the IoT (Internet of Things) and sensors to understand the environment, to track water leakage, to track water quality, to look at our energy resources, to look at environmental operations and collect data, to use bidirectional EV charging and have resiliency that way. So, I think the Internet of Things and the way we can really connect and track and understand resources and what’s happening in the environment, I think is fundamental and truly transformational. We just have to be able to do it, and as I said, it’s kind of march slowly but surely to implementing some of these systems.

Smedley: Do you think right now, is there one vision, I always like to ask my guests, is there a vision they’d like to have for this? Because I think some of us, we’ve lost our way a little bit in understanding that we have to look at this. We have to look at our cities as being a part of our everyday lives. It’s not that we’re just in our homes, but our cities are communities. We have to revitalize them. We can’t forget them because we’ve been caught up in our homes for the last two years, bunkered in, we need our cities. We need them to be reimagined in a way that are a part of everything we do. Is there something you’d like to see us do differently or, what we learned as we started this conversation is the lessons we’ve learned to put back and do something all of us, as citizens.

Yesner: Yeah. You know, I think there’s two things that I would say to that. One is we have to stop thinking of cities as very country specific or region specific and very unique. So, the fact of the matter is, we are unique in small ways, but same in the big ways. So, that would be the vision that, that I would take forward. Right? You may have a difference in geography. Maybe you have wildfires, or you hear water, or you live where there’s mountains or earthquakes, but the commonality is everyone’s managing public safety emergencies. Everyone’s worried about being safe, right? You may have different jobs like tourism or manufacturing. That’s a small difference. The big issue is everybody wants to create jobs. Everyone wants a good paying job. So, I think we need to start with a vision that says cities around the world are very similar. People are very similar. We’re different in small ways. We’re same in the big ways. And we can really learn from each other. We could look at towns all over and cities all over it, and really, really learn interesting and unique ways of responding to all these challenges.

Smedley: So, we have to share ideas, not try to hold them inside. We’ve got expansive ideas and information that we should all be sharing, is what you’re saying. City from city to what they learned, lessons learned on a positive way and mistakes they’ve made, and that’s how cities grow. That’s an awesome way to end this conversation. Ruthbea Yesner, vice president of government insights, education, smart cities at IDC, this has been a wonderful conversation. Where can our listeners go to get more information on what you’re doing at IDC?

Yesner: You can go to and see all of our amazing research.

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