The City of San Antonio is set to lean on private companies and academic institutions to develop a new research and development program. City staff introduced the idea, which it is calling the R&D League, on Tuesday during the City Council’s monthly Innovation and Technology Committee meeting.

The Southwest Research Institute, USAA, and the University of Texas at San Antonio will join forces with the City on the initiative.

Research and development is a common term used in the private sector for product development and is often used to describe the phased improvement of an item or service.

The league will work together to provide technological tools to the City and investigate new ideas to help City staff make data-driven decisions, said Kate Kinnison, the City’s new research and development administrator.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who chairs the Innovation and Technology Committee, said the City has needed a program like this for a while, and he is glad to see it finally happening.

“If you really think about every multi-billion-dollar, vertically-integrated organization on the planet they have an R&D department,” Pelaez said. “I think we’re late to the game, but I’m excited we’ve shown up to the party.”

The program has been in the works for the past six months and will help fuel innovation, Kinnison said.

Researching R&D departments in other cities, the City’s Office of Innovation developed the program, came up with four main objectives, and identified the program’s first six projects.

A collaboration with SwRI, the first project would attach sensors to solid waste vehicles to better assess where street repairs are needed. 

“Our solid waste vehicles cover 95 percent of the city weekly and 25,000 miles per day,” Kinnison said. “There’s an opportunity to retrofit them with sensors that collect data that can then be collected, mapped, and inform the way we operate.”

In another collaboration with SwRI, the City would use cameras to identify when a traffic anomaly is occurring at an intersection.

UTSA professors would in the third R&D League project develop a data-informed approach to draw boundaries for neighborhood empowerment zones, a designation created by the state to increase and preserve affordable housing.

The fourth will be an in-house portal that will allow employees to send in their own innovative ideas. The idea came from USAA, which has had a similar program for the past decade – resulting in over 1,100 patents.

“We’re going to build off their lessons learned,” Kinnison said. “We’re going to … test it with 50 employees this spring, 300 in the fall, and then our goals would be to scale it out to all our employees and eventually all our residents to submit ideas in an online platform.”

A fifth project, known as City Hall To Go, would help bring City services to different areas of the community to overcome transportation barriers.

Assembling the R&D League constitutes the final project, Kinnison said.

“We’re working together and I think there’s a lot of value in that in designing how this could work long-term for our city,” she said.

Of the six projects, three have some funding, including $208,000 from SwRI for automating street repair identification. SwRI will also contribute funding to study highway traffic anomalies. Funding sources for the other projects are still being sought, Kinnison said. 

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he wants to see more information about the costs, especially relating to funds that will come from the City. 

“We need to be fully transparent on these programs, on each one of them, and if we go back through those projects I don’t see a call-out box for its cost,” Perry said. “Each one of these [is] going to cost money.”

USAA, UTSA, and SwRI have signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with the City on the R&D League, and City staff will bring the measure before Council on Feb. 12 at a B Session meeting.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...