Michael Lake is the President and CEO of Leading Cities, headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts with operations in countries around the world. As President and CEO, Michael develops and establishes relationships with municipal governments, companies and universities internationally, creating a global network of partner cities dedicated to implementing Smart City solutions that improve the quality of life in cities.
Leading Cities is a Boston-based global non-profit organization founded by Dublin, Boston, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Lyon, Hamburg, Lisbon, Zapopan, Vancouver and Haifa. It was built on the philosophy that cities, which for the first time represent the majority of the world’s population, are central to overcoming our greatest challenges: climate change, human equity and technological development. Originally established in 2008 at Northeastern University, it later became an independent organization that expanded beyond research to promote sustainability and government resilience.
Leading Cities partners with government leaders, startups, investors and academics to keep cities evolving and working toward their potential, taking on challenges such as climate change, social justice, automation technology, cybersecurity, data analytics, accessibility and global health.
With its global network of world-class cities and towns, Leading Cities has developed tools and programs to share best practices, solutions and lessons learned among city leaders. By understanding the barriers to innovation in cities, Leading Cities connects innovators and solution providers with governments by reducing the risk and cost of innovation.
Leading Cities has developed a 6-pillar smart ecosystem with activities to support the advancement of Smart City solutions through collaboration.
Since then, Leading Cities has evolved to provide a broader range of services for governments, startups and corporations. To connect its global networks, LaunchPad 11 was launched as the first metaverse ecosystem for Smart & Resilient City innovators by bringing together entrepreneurs, investors and decision makers. Its flagship program, QBE AcceliCITY Resilience Challenge, is considered one of the top 5 Govtech accelerators in the world.
The world’s first virtual incubator for smart and resilient urban solutions. LaunchPad 11 is a virtual community of corporations, industry leaders and solution providers coming together with the single mission of addressing challenges facing communities on a global scale. The goal of LaunchPad 11 is to support entrepreneurs who bring innovative solutions and new technologies that address sustainability and resilience issues within cities, meeting the goals of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11), as well as SDGs 7, 8, 9 and 13.
LaunchPad 11 drives resilience and sustainability in all cities, both large and small, by fostering the development and success of Smart and Resilient City startups through mentorship, government contracting curricula and providing access to new markets through its network of cities nationally and internationally.
Leading Cities builds bridges between academia and action, between business and government, and between urban problems and their solutions. Michael’s career in public service ranges from serving three U.S. presidents as a special assistant for White House operations and presidential advancement to serving the former prime minister of Ireland as a policy research analyst.
The transcript of the interview, which can be read below, contains minor changes from the video content in order to make it easier to read.
The initiative to design a Smart City started in the United States at the hands of technologists from IBM and CISCO. But despite the fact that emerging technology is driving a major change in recent years around the world, the truth is that cities are not so smart, sustainable and inclusive.
1. Do you agree with this approach?
– I do think that Smart Cities really need to be more inclusive and more focused on sustainability. I think it was IBM who coined the phrase initially, probably close to 20 years ago now, of Smart Cities. The term might be just a couple decades old but the concept behind what Smart Cities is, is as old as cities themselves. The example I always use is the Romans building aqueducts to bring fresh water into cities. That was a Smart City solution of its time.
I think the real message of Smart Cities is about city evolution, evolving to the needs and opportunities of the time. Technological advancements are happening at the greatest rate in human history, so it’s not surprising that technology is a driving force in the smart city evolution.
However, from my perspective, Smart City solutions do not have to involve technology, there’s plenty of great solutions out there that involve no technology at all and they’re very innovative. As an example, we’ve worked with an entrepreneur who has developed a grass seed that is a particular mixture that basically allows it to grow between four- and six-foot roots instead of an inch and a half roots. Why is that important? Well, the world faces a water crisis, where only one percent of the water on the planet is actually drinkable, and we use some of that water to keep our lawns green. This particular grass uses as much as 75 percent less water and, even more important, it sequesters eight times more carbon than traditional grass, so whereas in many places grass can be seen as a problem, this seed is part of the solution, and it involves absolutely no technology whatsoever for the user.
I think it would behove everybody, city leaders, industry stakeholders, etc. to really think about Smart Cities as ‘city evolution’ and how we can innovate in our cities, regardless of how technologically advanced the solution may or may not be.
2. Why do you think technology has not achieved greater and better inclusion of people in society?
– In my opinion, part of that is because so much of it has focused on the technological side, and not every average resident in a city has knowledge and is proficient with the technology of these solutions. I think it becomes an inappropriate but unintended divide between the people in a community. From my point of view, there’s less engagement and less understanding. In some cases, there’s less adoption and usage by the very people that these solutions are meant to support and help.
3. What is a Smart City? What do you think cities should do to find smart solutions?
– I think working with organizations like Leading Cities is one way to do that. Even more fundamental to city operations is the general public procurement or RFP process that cities are required to go through, and being innovative around that. An important reason why those systems were created it’s to avoid corruption in government and to protect taxpayer dollars. That same goal can be achieved while also changing the system.
I say focus on startups, because if you’re talking about innovative solutions, in many cases you really need to be talking to entrepreneurs and startups. To put it in simple terms, I believe that cities moving towards a more challenge-based procurement system would have a huge shift in cities abilities to attract more solution providers to consider doing work with that city.
An example of why it’s so difficult for startups to engage in the public procurement process as it currently exists is the fact that, on average, that process can take 18 to 24 months. For a startup, where you’re trying to figure out how you’re making payroll for next week, you just don’t have the kind of funding to endure the process of waiting two years before you hear if a potential client says yes or no.
So, number one: shorten that process; and number two: adopt the challenge-based procurement concept. It’s less about cities trying to pre-define the innovative solution they’re looking for, and more about focusing on what the city knows best, which is the challenge they’re facing. I think cities could very much benefit from this shift, where they add to this equation what they know best, which is the challenges in their community, so that innovators can do what they know best and create innovative solutions to those challenges.
4. What methodologies has Leading Cities developed to identify, define and prioritize Smart Cities solutions?
– Our signature program is called the AcceliCITY program and it has become one of the largest or the top Gov Tech focused accelerators in the world. Initially, we actually created the program not so much with the startups in mind but with cities in mind. When Leading Cities as an organization opened up our community from a very focused group of 10 cities, what we’ve started to hear from the new cities, is that there’s two challenges: one is that they felt that they were not building an awareness around what solutions even existed; and the second challenge was that they felt when a solution was identified, there was a lack of confidence that they could select the best solution for their community, because they had no expertise in that kind of innovative solution. Those became two major barriers for many cities, and particularly the decision maker who was responsible for finding the solution and held accountable if it didn’t go well.
When we heard this over and over again, we really started to think about how could we solve these two challenges, and that was the Genesis of the AcceliCITY program. We globally source solutions in any range of city related challenges. We leverage our network of Smart City industry experts to evaluate those solutions, and then put them through a fairly rigorous three-month curriculum, focusing more on the nuances of doing business with government and covering topics like navigating public procurement, how to access cities, speaking the language of cities, business models that apply to the b2g space, and ultimately, we bring in judges, for instance from the World Economic Forum the United Nations, major organizations that have lent their expertise in choosing the solutions that are best suited for cities or could make the greatest impact or one most innovative.
It’s through the AcceliCITY program that we are able to identify those solutions, help those entrepreneurs better define themselves and help cities to prioritize which solutions would be the best fit for them, knowing that these solutions have been globally sourced, and have been expert vetted, so it lifts both the awareness as well as the confidence.
Leading Cities has a virtual accelerator that seeks entrepreneurs globally, whose companies use Smart City solutions to address risk, equity and sustainability in our urban environments. For which they are offered training and tutoring in search of financing.
5. Can you tell us about your evaluation of this business launch project to accelerate action on cities?
– Leading Cities has been around for almost 15 years so we’re one of those early pioneers in this industry. For that entire time I have waited for, somewhere in the world, for the Silicon Valley of Smart Cities to emerge and it still does not exist. I’ve wondered for many years as to why that was, and maybe it’s because in any one city you only have one client. What is important is that when you get a clustering effect like you see in Silicon Valley or in Wall Street or in Financial Services in London, it really advances that industry, and I’m not just talking about companies growing and making money and what not, I’m talking about the whole industry itself maturing faster, which the entire ecosystem benefits from.
This was some of the early research of Leading Cities around innovation districts and the impact that they can have. Of course, no startup graduates any accelerator program as the next Google or Facebook, when they graduate from our program there is still a long journey that they need to continue on, and one of the problems for me was that the program would end but the support Leading Cities could provide could continue, so we needed a mechanism to make that possible. We didn’t have this cluster, Leading Cities didn’t have a mechanism to continue to support our alumni, and all this culminated together with the pandemic and the shift to remote work, and I think the open-mindedness that the general public had in terms of engaging with colleagues and clients virtually rather than in person.
It was in that moment that I realized that the solution to all of these challenges was the creation of a virtual version of Silicon Valley, and that’s what LaunchPad 11 actually is: a virtual ecosystem. It doesn’t require any additional equipment for people, just an internet connection, a computer and camera. It operates like a Zoom call but you have an avatar that you can move around the space, and as you approach another their video becomes more clear and their audio louder, and when you walk far enough away it disappears, so it simulates that real life engagement. It also allows people to come in and out of conversations as they like, to move a conversation into a private meeting room, or to set up a meeting in a conference room.
Our hope over the long term is that we will have, not just startups, but also experts, cities and investors, bringing them all together just as you see in a Silicon Valley type community. Leading Cities brings value to this, and we organize events like our City Solutions Forum where we invite a city to come in and share some of the solutions they might be looking for, the priorities that they’ve committed to in their community, and then we facilitate one-on-one speed networking with solutions and with those cities, from which many projects have been explored as a result.
It’s not just about the value that we add or the access to The Mentor Network, in the end the greatest value that we see is the interaction between the community members themselves, it’s the random encounter that you might have that could lead to a new idea, a new venture, your next investor or the solution you’ve been looking for for your city. Those are the types of things that happen organically and advance the entire industry as a whole.
6. How many companies have participated in the last year?
– In our most recent AcceliCITY cohort we started with 554 startups from 70 countries. We have two divisions of our AcceliCITY, one for the Eastern Hemisphere, one for the Western Hemisphere, to be more accommodating for time zone differences. In the Eastern hemisphere we had 40 semi-finalists, in the Western Hemisphere we had 50 semi-finalists. Then, in our final round we have a boot camp with the finalists, and we select the top ten for that.
The Institutional Multilevel Governance authorities are aware of the challenge that cybernetics present, especially regarding the large number of cyber attacks they are enduring, which means that they have to protect us through a proactive approach to cyber resilience.
7. What is Leanding Cities doing in this direction?
– As we talked about earlier, technology is a major piece of Smart Cities, but it’s not the only piece. As we digitize our cities, there is a cost to it and one of the costs is that it does make a city more susceptible to cyber-attacks. In the USA alone, 70% of cyber-attacks have focused on state and local governments. Part of the reason for that is because they are weaker than others in terms of their cyber resilience and cyber security. What has Leading Cities done? We’ve been working very closely with the World Economic Forum, who’s managing the G20s Global Smart City Alliance, to develop cyber resiliency policies for cities around the world.
The truth is, we were originally planning our first policy to be around cyber resilience, but when we started talking to cities and, in particular to the individuals who were responsible for the cyber security of a community, what we learned is that we needed to take a step back, because the first policy we created was a cyber accountability model. It wasn’t enough for cities to hire somebody to be responsible for the cyber security of the city if you were not also integrating them into the governance structure of the city appropriately, so that they had the authority to actually secure their system. If you have the responsibility, you also need to have the tools and the authority to be able to deliver and that was actually a major challenge for a lot of cities, and particularly the individuals responsible, so that was the first policy we developed.
The second policy was the cyber resilience policy, focusing on five stages of cyber resilience, building off the NIST Framework. It starts with just identifying what is the critical digital infrastructure that a city needs to always protect. For instance, in many cities it’s the emergency management system, police and fire departments, paramedics… you never want that to go offline, and even in the instance where an attack has occurred and has been successful you want to be certain that you’re protecting that priority digital critical infrastructure. After that first step, it moves on to protecting that infrastructure and detecting threats against it. Incidences will occur, we see it in the private sector, we see it in the public sector. The next thing is, assuming an incident does occur, how do you respond to that? How do you sustain operations during that response period as you’re rebuilding? And ultimately, how do you recover? Like I said, we’ve worked with the G20 Global Smart City Alliance, that’s been led by the World Economic Forum. I chaired this on behalf of Leading Cities but we worked with experts in cities from around the world, and now we’ve developed these policies they are available for any city as a template, the expectation is that each city will adapt it to its own needs and adopt it locally.
Energy / Climate change
The world is in a difficult energy situation. There is an increasing demand for energy, and countries find it difficult to completely renounce fossil fuels so as not to further aggravate the socio-economic situation of companies and citizens.
8. How do you think we should deal with this situation of energy and climate crisis?
– There is no greater challenge than this climate crisis to all of humanity. We have seen it addressed by government leaders, particularly on the national level, but I’m pleased to say that cities have really stepped up in recent years to take a seat at the table. Whether you’re talking about the Paris agreements or recent commitments out of COP 26 and 27, and the various promises that cities and governments have made around the world in terms of carbon reduction goals, the goals have been set, we know the challenge. What is still very unclear to most cities and more particular city leaders, is how do you achieve that goal.
Depending on which city you’re talking about, the number one and number two greatest emitters of carbon emissions are transportation (vehicles) and buildings. The reality is that cities don’t control the majority of either of those things in their community. It’s not easy for cities to be able to just flip a lever and change this. Just in terms of vehicles, it’s easy to say you’re going to switch to electric vehicles, but the reality is there’s an entire infrastructure that needs to be developed, and in urban centres it’s not just about the equivalent of a gas station, a charging station it’s also about where you have density in terms of housing. Not every person has a garage and solar panels. If they live in an apartment complex, how do they charge their vehicle? These questions must be answered, and cities can definitely play a role in helping to develop that infrastructure. National governments obviously can do the same but, in the end, I think there are other opportunities that are much less complex.
I mentioned at the onset about the grass seed that sequesters eight times more carbon than any other grass. I asked the founder of that company, if all the land that the U.S government owns that currently has grass was replaced with this innovative seed, what would be the carbon offset equivalent. He got back to me and said “Mike, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to find the total acreage of grass that the U.S government owns and manages, but I was able to find the total acreage of that which is irrigated, where there are sprinkler systems”. Well, on just the irrigated grass in the United States alone owned by the U.S government, if all of it were replaced with this innovative grass seed, according to his calculation, the carbon offset would be the equivalent of removing every single vehicle from the road in the United States of America.
We want to move away from fossil fuels, absolutely, but that is a transition that is going to take time. The reason I’m talking about grass seed as an alternative is because of the urgency of now. We don’t have time to rebuild an entire transportation infrastructure, while carbon emissions are continuing to be emitted at alarming rates. We need more immediate solutions, as well as those longer term solutions, but 2030 is approaching quickly and if we do not achieve these carbon reduction goals on time, the world is going to face a crisis beyond anything we have ever faced and it is likely going to be insurmountable in the fact that we are losing the window of opportunity to reverse the impacts that we’ve already had, and to ease the planet of this struggle in terms of climate change.
The Circular Economy represents a new model of economic and social development. It identifies a series of processes in our economy in relation to the production, consumption and recycling of the products we use, in order to respect and repair natural resources.
9. What do you think about the Circular Economy, as a new paradigm for the functioning of our economy and society?
– Early humans had a circular economy so it’s not an impossibility to have this. I’m not suggesting we move back and start living in caves, but the point is that this is achievable. We talked about our AcceliCITY program. This year’s Grand Prize winner is a company called Automedi, and what they have created is exactly this around plastic recycling. You may have seen that only between five and nine percent of plastic is actually recycled. Not only is this a big problem in terms of it being the opposite of a circular economy, but the fact that some project that we will soon have more plastic in our oceans than fish. This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Every bit of plastic that’s ever been created is basically still here on this planet because it takes a thousand years or more before it degrades.
What Automedi has done is they have taken modern technologies and used a 20-foot shipping container, so a half size shipping container. If you were to deploy this in a school, you could put that shipping container in the parking lot, so students bring in their plastic for recycling. Recycling the plastic containers for their lunches and things like that. All of that plastic goes to this container that has within it a local plastic recycling plant on a miniature scale. The output of that is actually a plastic filament that you can then plug into a 3D printer. This printer serves more like a vending machine, so it’s already pre-loaded with all kinds of schematics for all kinds of products that anybody can go to and adquire, becoming a resource for the community and a learning process for those students, a real appreciation of the power of recycling.
There are so many ways that the concept of a circular economy can be applied, and cities are in a great position to support the development of those circular economies.
It can be said that collective intelligence is a manifestation of innovation that arises from the collaboration of different people on a topic or issue, combining intellectual and technical efforts in order to achieve positive results for society.
10.Do you trust the figure of collective intelligence as a tool for achieving consensus agreements and global approaches?
– At the risk of sounding like this is a political answer or dodging the question, I think the answer is both yes and no. I think what you just described as a definition of collective intelligence could absolutely work. I think the reality is slightly different. A collective intelligence doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and there are other factors, other variables that come into this equation. A collective intelligence will tell you we need to move away from fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry will have a different thing to say, and you have opposing forces.
I don’t want to just pick on fossil fuels, this is around any topic like health, even the economy itself. I guess the point here is, I do think we should put more value on collective intelligence, and perhaps less value on self-interest.
Leading Cities has been hard at work unlocking true value in the digital economy. For this, it has opted for the figure of co-creation as a model in order to find economic, sociological and ecological opportunities created by technologies and innovations in the digital environment in cities.
11.Can you describe this collaboration model that you have developed in the complex ecosystem of cities?
– This is a collaboration model that I really do believe in. We’ve seen it to have very effective and tangible results. With Leading Cities specifically, we’ve actually applied it, not just with cities, but also with startups. This is actually one of the underlying principles of LaunchPad 11, to create that virtual space where co-creation can be experienced and that model can be employed to generate better results, whether for a solution, how that solution can be deployed or how it gets selected.
Within cities specifically, one of the goals that we have always had was the breaking down of silos, whether that is between the public, private and academic sectors, between government and its citizens, or between departments within the city. We as human beings, as we build structure, we also build these divisions, these silos, and the more we tend to operate in them, the less effective solutions can be.
Collaboration is key, but for this model to be truly effective there is one ingredient that is probably more important than any other, and perhaps more important than all others combined, and that is trust. You need to start from a place of trust, and I think building trust is something we as a global society really need to be thinking and doing something about. We have seen around the world a breakdown between citizens and government in terms of trust. These institutions are critical for all of us, whether it’s the daily services that many members of our community rely on, whether it’s education or emergency services or regarding these big challenges like climate change and equity issues. We need our institutions to be developing the right frameworks, the right solutions to tackle these challenges, and they can’t do it if we don’t trust in them enough to do it, even if they develop the best solution. If the people don’t believe in the institution, the institution doesn’t have the wherewithal to be able to deploy that solution effectively.
For us, the co-creation model really centres around trust but it also centres around proximity. What I mean by that is that you need people to be connected, to be able to share, to be able to collaborate. This is why this is so fundamental to LaunchPad 11, a virtual community where people can build relationships, which builds trust, where they can build on their own ideas by bringing in the collective intelligence of others in that community, where they can build on their own networks by leveraging the networks of their peers.
One example revolves around waste water. Through our AcceliCITY program and the members of LaunchPad 11, we have a solution that at the exit of the affluent stream from a wastewater treatment facility, they have devices that collect microplastics that weren’t captured in the filtration system. Last year’s winner of the AcceliCITY program was a company called Pharem Biotech. They take out microorganic pollutants, like pharmaceuticals that get processed by our body or end up in the waters; most filtration systems around the world do not filter that out, so it’s becoming more and more concentrated in our waterways. We have another solution that treats the sludge that’s produced after the wastewater treatment facility has processed that water, reducing it to a liquid that is no longer hazardous and can actually be used for things like fertilizer. Now those are three very different solutions but, they all have one thing in common, they all need to be talking to the same person at a wastewater treatment facility, to be able to collaborate and share the contact in their own network, and even consider packaging their three separate solutions into one more holistic solution. These are the types of opportunities that collaboration, co-creation, trust and, ultimately, connectivity can bring to the entire marketplace, the entire world, as a solution for all of us to benefit from.
For several years, Leading Cities has fueled efforts that advanced this shared cause through the generation of new social, business and ideological ecosystems that understand that disruptive technologies represent both opportunity and potential risk.
12.Can you tell us about some of the analysis tools that you have developed for the implementation of urban solutions?
– One of the tools that we created in partnership with Bright Cities is the Leading Cities rating. One of the things that I felt was missing when I first started Leading Cities was a ranking of cities to know which cities were “smart” and which were not, and we were engaged in a number of research projects at that time so we didn’t have the capacity to create a ranking. The idea was that when we finished one of the existing projects, the next project would be this ranking. By time we got there, a couple of rankings were published so we never did it.
The truth is, I now have come to dislike these rankings and, this is not a disparaging comment on the organizations that create them, but it’s the concept of the ranking itself. The reason I say that is because, and this comes back to co-creation and collaboration, by creating a ranking system, we create a false sense of competition among cities, we create a zero-sum game where in order for one city to move up the ranking, another city has to move down. In my opinion, it was counter to everything that Leading Cities believes in, that cities need to be collaborative, that they need to not just share best practices. That is important, but, as I often tell our city partners, a solution in one place is not guaranteed to work in all places; however, it’s very probable that if something failed in one place it will fail in others.
It’s not just about the best practices, it also has to be about the lessons learned, and in order for cities to share they have to trust each other. What we decided to create is a tool, or what we call the Leading Cities rating, which is modelled after other rating systems like the municipal bond rating, where you have classifications, you don’t have rankings so you can achieve an A+ but, in an ideal world so will every other city. It incentivizes cities to reach out to others who are performing better than they are and ask for help and it doesn’t penalize the city that is rated higher from helping because they’re not going to lose their A+ status if somebody else also achieves A+ status. To me, that’s one tool that can really have a profound impact and shift the way we think and rank cities, and it does facilitate more of that co-creation collaborative model that we believe in so deeply.