I was digging through what felt like a bottomless mountain of dirty clothes after having been on business travel for most of the month when I heard the trash truck turn onto our street. I dashed outside and wrestled our garbage cans to the curb just as the truck was approaching our driveway.

As the driver dropped our empty containers back onto the street, he waved at me and smiled. It was in that moment that it hit me: he was to the city what I was to our family: the person who helped take care of the invisible chores so that things ran a little better and life was a little nicer.

As I wrestled our trash can back up our driveway, I realized that despite so many major advances in technology, I still almost missed getting our trash out on time because I didn't know our driver was ahead of schedule.

When we think about innovation in cities, it's easier to notice the big, splashy, futuristic ideas like what it will be like when no one drives and everyone zooms around in automated pods - and as much as I dislike driving, I love exploring those exciting concepts.

But the truth is this - within almost every agency in a city, there are myriad ways that simple technology upgrades could help make those services more efficient or more useful.

During a recent visit to New York City, I had the opportunity listen to Dennis Mortenson, the founder of x.ai, an AI-based scheduling assistant startup. He had this advice for startups: The worse way to launch a startup is over a few hours with beer and pizza. Instead, whenever you are having an experience where you really hate the process, write it down. If you keep coming back to that and you still feel as passionately about how awful the experience is, that is a problem you should try to solve. 

This is also invaluable advice for cities. What processes create the most friction? What generates the most frequent complaints? What chore or process does your team dread the most? When cities tackle small areas of frequent friction or frustration, the wins can be immediate. 

I still remember the surge of pride I felt the first time I saw someone standing at a bus stop looking at their smart phone while waiting for their bus - and realized that they were likely viewing the real time tracking in the new mobile app our team had helped that city create. The reason that app was so successful was because the city opted to solve the biggest reason people called 311 - to find out where the bus was. It has saved the city millions in unspent tax dollars by creating a tool where riders could get the information on their own, and it has created a better experience for riders. It didn't reinvent the transit system - it simply improved one area of friction within the system. 

I'm always thrilled when the cities we work with are aware that focusing on a specific area of friction will result in useful technology innovation. In Asheville, North Carolina, we're helping city employees there develop an app to make it easier to get information to low income residents who have smart phones as their primary access to information.

And in Durham, North Carolina, city employees worked with our team to quickly deploy two virtual assistants to take the friction out of processes that were usually lengthy and frustrating. One Alexa skill makes it simple to look up permit status by permit number or location while another skill allows city employees to check into required meetings using a voice assistant rather than the longer, slower process on the web.

It begs the question - what is the one thing in your city that you find incredibly frustrating? Is it figuring out where you are supposed to vote or how to pay a fee? Maybe it's never knowing until it's too late that the street outside your business is scheduled for repaving. Whatever it is - what if a little improvement in tech could make that process a little better and a lot less aggravating? 

I don't know about you, but I'd be thrilled to see a lot of small "invisible" wins while we're waiting on that big, splashy technology win that will mean I can hop in a futuristic pod and zoom across town. 

Oh, and if any city wants to figure out an app or virtual assistant that lets me know when the trash truck is running early, I'm totally game to help them with that. 

Published on: May 30, 2018