Santa Monica Next sat down to talk with Rick Cole, who took the reins as Santa Monica’s city manager on June 29 after leaving his post at L.A. City Hall as deputy mayor in charge of budget and innovation. The Pasadena native and 30-year veteran of local and regional politics spoke with us about his goals at his new position in Santa Monica. This is part two of a three-part interview. Read Part I: “A City on the Beach” and Part III: “An Exemplary Model” here.
Santa Monica Next: We are at an event right now that exemplifies the sort of innovation that comes out of dynamic urban environments, Hack the Drought, which is bringing people together to find solutions to a major problem. You’ve been a major proponent of Open Data and using technology to better the work of government. Do you see yourself bringing that to Santa Monica?
Rick Cole: That was one of the strong appeals of Santa Monica to me. I’m not what anyone would call a technophile and I’m certainly not a digital native, but technology is driving the planet today and unless we embrace its positive possibilities, we’ll be overwhelmed by its negative externalities.
The vitality of Silicon Beach needs to be harnessed to a higher civic purpose and city government and civic life need to embrace the potential of both data — to better understand our real challenges versus anecdotal — and the power of virtual communication to amplify the opportunity for face-to-face democracy.
Santa Monica has the human and the financial resources to show a much more benign potential for technology than the darker scenarios that we are, I think, all petrified of and have brought us both Edward Snowden and a recoiling by people against invasions of their sense of privacy.
Technology is an incredibly powerful tool and either we’ll use it for incredibly positive things or it will become our master. I’d much prefer the former.
SMN: Do you think we really get a choice of either/or?
RC: No, it’s not either/or. I’m saying, technology is really transforming our lives so we have to grapple with it. There have always been Luddites and, in a Romantic sense, it’s easy to identify with simpler times. But, without losing our souls, we need to engage with these new tools precisely in order to guide them to more positive outcomes because they are going to drive outcomes and we can’t simply resist them. We need to shape them.
SMN: For example, this Hack the Drought event today is designed around the idea of using technology to help address the drought, arguably one of the biggest problems we are facing.
RC: It’s been the central frustration of my 30 years in the public sector that some of the smartest people in the world employ sophisticated tools, whether it’s technology, communication or organizational, cultural intention, to create incredibly powerful companies and institutions. And, the public sector has been so slow to innovate and so resistant to change and so wedded to 150-year-old models.
Almost everything single thing the city of Santa Monica does — its fire department, its police department, its library, its water service, its bus company — was the product of radical innovation and political struggle. None of them simply fell out of the sky. People saw a tremendous need to help people get around the city, to keep them safe from fire and flood, to protect them from predators. All of the [services] we take for granted came from people who were passionate reformers and who were willing to create something entirely different than what existed before. They had the courage and the tenacity and the imagination to shape these remarkable institutions we now take for granted.
Take the library. Thirty years ago, a library was judged on how many books circulated in a month or a year. That didn’t tell you everything a library did because often times, kids would come in and get help for their school or even discover something that might have turned into a lifelong love or career just by connecting with a librarian, but the number of books circulated was a great analog that distilled how much activity was taking place inside the four walls of the building.
Today, that’s not a very helpful statistic, which raises the question, what should we be measuring? And, what is a library? And, what is its purpose? Is it to warehouse books? Or is it what Benjamin Franklin conceived of when libraries did not exist and someone had to invent them?
Benjamin Franklin assembled America’s first library and it lent more than books. In fact, it lent out scientific instruments like test tubes and microscopes and telescopes because, like books, those were tools that were out of reach of ordinary working people. By pooling resources, the library opened the door to learning and advancement and personal growth and community civic capital that was impossible [for] individuals [to be] able to afford… on their own.
In the 21st century, libraries, just like fire departments and bus companies, have to reinvent themselves for grappling with the emerging opportunities and challenges of the city today. We can’t be wedded to models that are out of date.
The proof of that is to look at the L.A. Times, which, when I was growing up, was the most powerful institution in Southern California, by far more important than Los Angeles City Hall. Today, it continues to shrink. It plays an important role, but people of my generation are the last that will fish a newspaper out of their driveway. The generations to come are simply going to get their news and their worldview from other media.
The public sector also needs to be on the cutting edge, lest we fall behind and the world overtakes us far sooner than we ever imagined. Read more…