The Future of City Jobs

Prototyping Potpourri: Hardware materials that can monitor temperature, motion and proximity.

The Institute of the Future predicts that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet (IFTF 2017). Prototyping Lead, Connected Services Designer, Data Experience Manager, City Brand Manager, Autonomous Algorithm Evaluator — Will these be commonplace city jobs in the future? As cities evolve and become more and more integrated with design and emergent technologies, city jobs will need to reflect this shift.

At Stae, we partner with cities to prototype new ways of collecting real-time data. This can be as simple as hacking off-the-shelf hardware to test and learn from new data sources and ad-hoc connected services. Other times, we act as the stand-in R&D lab for cities that want to explore which “smart city” technologies they really need, which ones will make a real difference, and which solutions they can potentially build themselves rather than rely on third-party vendors.

Partnering with cities over the past couple of years made us realize that we are doing more than just prototyping technology — we are prototyping new city orgs. Besides giving cities tools and templates for gathering real-time data, we’re road-testing different kinds of jobs cities of the future may need as their organization evolves. We expect to see more design and technology roles—specifically focused on rapid prototyping, human-centered insights, and responsive services — gain prevalence over the coming years.


We interviewed Stae’s Community Engineer, Crystal Penalosa, who leads hardware prototyping for our city partners — a role that we anticipate will become a prominent city job in the future.

Crystal Penalosa, Community Engineer at Stae.

1. How would you explain your job to your grandmother?

Firstly, I would not use any technical terms at all. When you’re working in a new field, the best thing you can do to explain your work, whether speaking to your grandmother or a city official, is to speak about the impact of your work more than the work itself. For cities, the value that I’m creating is helping them understand their city in a way they haven’t before. It’s like a doctor working on the human body to understand and improve the senses like hearing and vision. I give cities insight into how they are performing in ways they couldn’t perceive before.

2. The big players — IBM, Cisco, Microsoft — have been pioneers in smart city tech and are working with a lot of big cities. Why does what you’re building matter? And how is it different?

Those big organizations have many priorities. Here at Stae our mission is simple — we want to empower cities to fully own and activate all their city data and integrate intelligence into their everyday work. The ability to be able to sit down with city workers, listen to their problems, then go back to the lab and work on ways that sensor technology can enhance their work can all happen within a short development cycle. Cities are like living organisms that change rapidly, and the ones we work with see tremendous benefit from working with a company focused on quick, lightweight solutions to their needs.

A Raspberry Pi set up to push real-time GPS data to Stae and a notecard for vehicle operators to let them in on how the Pi works and why.

That’s how we were able to successfully launch a smart snow plow system for Jersey City in six weeks. The ability to listen to a problem, test a solution, iterate quickly and ultimately arrive at something that truly works is the best way to approach city problems.

3. Tell us how you got interested working on cities?

It started with my fascination with electronics. Growing up, I would walk down the streets and be curious about how all of these different electronics were impacting our daily lives. The more I could decode that, the more tangible the world felt.

In general, I’m really curious about how things are built. I’m always asking how does this sensor collect data? Does it use motion or sound or light? Most people don’t think about it, but as an artist and an engineer I find it super interesting.

Backpack turned location-tracking hub for public transit rides.

As cities become increasingly intelligent, more people should be able to take advantage of what a connected city has to offer. Technology shouldn’t be a black box; it should be designed in a way where any resident can understand how it works. Any problem that I’m working on — whether it’s tracking snow plows or locating parking spots — will support democratizing the data and be documented in tutorials so anyone can replicate.

4. What kinds of jobs do you think cities will be hiring for over the next 20 to 50 years? Can you imagine your role being an integral part of a city department?

Yes, my role currently exists only in very specialized programs — maybe in a mayor’s office as part of a discrete pilot project or innovation grant. But just like cities are now hiring data scientists, we’ll definitely see more city jobs focused on data analysis, collection, and connected services. I think hardware will get there too; as more devices get placed in the city, it will be useful to have dedicated R&D labs to constantly iterate and improve city services.

And there are ways these new jobs will impact more traditional roles, like urban planners, who will benefit from leveraging data to better understand resident needs. There’s also a lot of potential for cities to partner with local universities to encourage working in city technology as a viable career option. People move to cities to have interesting jobs, but the city itself can also be a magnet for emergent, experimental forms of work.


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