With 15 years as the Speaker of the California State Assembly and 18 years as the Mayor of San Francisco behind him, Willie Brown, now 80, is focused on the future, and the role that technology will play in shaping our cities. An African American who graduated from a “colored” high school in Texas, he failed at his first college effort, causing his mother to send him to stay with an uncle in San Francisco, a card shark who used Willie as a lookout.
It was the beginning, as they say, of a beautiful friendship, not just with his colorful uncle, but also with the amazing city that he would ultimately help to shape in profound ways. From then to now, Mayor Brown has been fascinated by the dynamics of power and the art of salesmanship, two skills that enabled him to become a highly effective—and sometimes controversial—leader.
Still active in civic affairs, the politician turned media commentator now operates a nonprofit organization to encourage young people to enter public service. He recently came to Qualcomm’s San Diego campus where he was the subject of a fireside chat as part of a two-day conference sponsored by the Smart Cities Council, which focuses on promoting the creation of smart, sustainable cities. He joined us in the garden afterwards for a Q&A.
I imagine you have some strong feelings about the state of innovation in America today. Some point to government regulations that could be obstacles to innovation, and may disadvantage us compared to other countries.
Brown: There’s no question. When I became Mayor of San Francisco, I was not burdened with any of the rules and regulations surrounding local government. I came from state government, and we didn’t have all of that nonsense that happens at the local level, which interferes with quality decisions, and with the application of technologies that provide solutions to issues, or ideas about how to make something better.
At the local level, we’re oftentimes burdened with “maintaining yesterday,” rather than being interested in how to improve, and how to really make things work, even if it means abandoning “yesterday.” Innovation requires that. And sometimes there are structures that will not permit you to be that creative. You have to proceed in spite of those structures. And if it proves to be in violation of some rule or regulation—ask them to forgive you.
On Smart transit systems
Is there a particular type of smart cities technology you’re focused on?
Brown: I am particularly interested in transportation. [Brown is currently a member of the Cubic Transportation Systems Strategic Advisory Board.] And I’m interested in land use. Because most people do not fully appreciate how important the land use planning process is to how you move goods, services, and people. Just look at parking places! [laughing]
You can’t have a transportation plan if you can’t put the equipment anywhere once it gets there. And so we have been careful to make sure that in every aspect of our planning and land use, we include a healthy commitment to the concept of transportation. And we also recognize that since the technological changes are so dramatic in the world of transportation, we need to make sure that the infrastructure in the planning and land use process accommodates all these incredible new means for facilitating the movement of people.
Perhaps it’s a [parking] meter process where you really don’t have to use coins anymore, and you can literally use your smartphone to do the metering. You have to have that infrastructure in the land use planning process, in order to take advantage of those really marvelous things that come from the transportation world.
On “crazy” visionaries
Those types of technologies weren’t yet on the radar when you were the Mayor of San Francisco, were they?
Brown: Oh yes they were. They were the visions of these “crazy” people. These space cadets. And that always fascinated me. I was always looking. It was like how President Kennedy was about outer space. I always knew that there was a “better way” in which to do almost everything, but visionaries need to be a part of the discussion. So I tried my best to present that opportunity.
For an example, when the quake hit, and City Hall had to be restored, we built a smart building. We didn’t have all these incredible things we have today. But we had somebody in the disability community with the idea for a little handheld device, not a smartphone, but a triggering device for helping blind people navigate. You used it to walk around without a dog, without a cane. You simply pushed a button and it would lead you through the process. And that was before GPS. I was always fascinated with all these incredible gadgets. They called me a gadget freak. But it was a forerunner to what we now call the smartphone, and to all the things that we’re now able to do.
On the changing of the guard
Are there cities that you view as models in terms of their vision for the future?
Brown: There are probably about a half a dozen mayors around the country who are really trying. The guy who is head of the US Conference of Mayors, Kevin Johnson, out of Sacramento—he seems to not be burdened with “yesterday,” as a mayor. There is a mayor in Chicago, who was Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who really is trying to do marvelous things. The mayor of Boston, who just died, Tom Minino. The mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, a guy named Kasim Reed. There’s a mayor in a small city, Columbia, South Carolina, Stephen Benjamin, who is in that vein as well. Mayor Michael Hancock, out of Denver. They are all fascinated by the ideas that we left off; we being the old-time mayors like Wellington Webb in Denver, and Brown [referring to himself] in San Francisco, and Ron Kirk in Dallas. So yeah, there are mayors who are moving the agenda.
On funding smart cities
How do we overcome funding obstacles for these kinds of programs?
Brown: All you need is to make sure you’ve got the public with you. If you can get the public to buy into your leadership, you can do the financing, because they will trust you. It’s like if they were buying a car from you and you recommend add-ons, they will trust what you’ve recommended. Elected officials need to be the same way. They need to have people buy into trusting them. And then they themselves need to trust their advisors to do what needs to be done. And you can get financing. But you need to show up with some immediate wins; you’ve got to show some little incremental gains right away.
On driverless cars
Is there something you’re excited about in the world of electric cars and dynamic charging?
Brown: I’m into everything that the Tesla people are doing. I have a Tesla. And I’m hoping at some point that they will switch their attention, like Google has, from just producing an automobile that represents sustainability—an automobile that represents a contribution to removing greenhouse gases—to producing an automobile that can safely navigate. And that may very well mean taking the driver out of the equation. Because the driver, it seems to me, is the most irresponsible of all. And if we can somehow take what Google is trying to do, and give it to an implementer, like the guy who is running Tesla, we may be on to something.
I was in Shanghai about two years ago with Cubic Transportation Systems. And one of the things that we went over to see at that exposition was the number of driverless vehicles, and the number of people around the world trying to create driverless vehicles. And it was really fascinating. Two years later, that process has not moved very much at all. And it’s unfortunate, because I think that from the standpoint of saving the lives of people, that may be the key.
What’s the one thing you’d like people to know about smart cities?
Brown: People should know that a smart city must have, to be successful, the buy-in of the private sector’s investment capital. It cannot come from public dollars alone.