San Antonio’s path toward becoming a smart city may run through downtown after all.

After City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee in April recommended placing so-called innovation zones – or proving grounds for new technologies, such as smart streetlights, driverless shuttles, and data-sharing partnerships – at Brooks and in the South Texas Medical Center, the City has added downtown back to its shortlist of innovation zone candidates.

The Central Business District was the sole area presented at the April 24 committee meeting but left off City staff’s and, ultimately, the committee’s recommendation for the City Council.

Each of the zones was presented with key challenges the innovations would address. At Brooks, the former U.S. Air Force base with 1,300 acres slated for live-work-play development on the city’s Southeast Side, public Wi-Fi, innovative drainage systems, logistics, and public transportation were listed among the opportunities. The Medical Center, meanwhile, would serve as a laboratory for new transportation projects aimed at combating traffic congestion, parking issues, and pedestrian accidents, among others.

Downtown has now been earmarked to test innovative lighting solutions and an internet-of-things approach to parking accessibility and enforcement, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer Jose De La Cruz said.

“At that time [of the committee meeting] we weren’t as far along in the conversation regarding [the Downtown Master Lighting Plan] or even parking, and so we wanted to focus on those two other zones,” De La Cruz said. “But since coming back those are two key issues, and you saw them in some of the other areas as well – it would make sense to see if that’s where it’s applicable.”

City staff will move forward with downtown in its plans for piloting innovative technology. A final adoption of the innovation zones will require a vote from the full council.

The innovation districts were chosen from the 13 regional centers identified in SA Tomorrow, the City’s comprehensive plan. That list was pared down to three regions – including downtown – in February.

If technology tested in innovation districts, such as smart streetlights, autonomous shuttle vehicles, and community-wide Wi-Fi, is deemed successful it could then be rolled out in other parts of the city or citywide.

Councilman John Courage (D9) applauded efforts toward becoming a smart city, a buzzword used by municipal government to describe applications of 21st-century technologies for improved efficiency.

However, Courage said he was disappointed that other areas of town with less developed technology infrastructure, such as the Woodlawn Lake area, were overlooked.

De La Cruz and Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins said fiber internet availability was a criterion they looked for while identifying innovation zones because it would allow the City to rapidly test new technologies and improve upon them.

Not everyone agreed with creating the experimental innovation zones in which taxpayer-funded capital projects could fail.

“I don’t have a problem with fielding innovation through private industry, but when the City takes on innovation and different processes it costs the taxpayer dollars,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said.

From June to September, the City will reach out to residents to gather input on what innovation it incorporates into the proving grounds. In October, the City will garner ideas from the private sector on how to move forward in procuring the technology in preparation for a public solicitation of bids in January.

“This is a way to move the smart city program forward for the benefit of the entire city and learn what type of emerging technologies we can benefit from,” De La Cruz said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.