A quiet evolution is underway inside local government in San Antonio and other leading Texas cities. The movement, with the backing of mayors and city managers, is being driven by tech-savvy young professionals who believe citizens can be better served through the use of smart data and a newfound commitment to greater transparency and collaboration.

This cohort of talented leaders also believes that smart, proactive use of technology is essential to protecting government infrastructure and services that remain highly vulnerable. Winter Storm Uri showed local leaders the vulnerability of the city’s energy infrastructure. What if state-sanctioned hackers, rather than nature, targeted strategic assets here?

Those and other challenges were the subject of organized panel discussions Thursday and Friday at Port San Antonio, the hub of the city’s growing cybersecurity sector. The event was the fourth Texas SmartCities Summit, hosted at the shiny new $70 million Tech Port Center and Arena.

Much of the programming was focused less on threats and more on opportunities, specifically, how city governments and other local public bodies can emerge from their bureaucratic silos and use data and technology to better serve and connect with citizens.

The City of San Antonio’s Office of Innovation has been around since 2007, but its size and importance has grown in recent years. It is now led by Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard, a military veteran and Eastside native who returned home during San Antonio’s Decade of Downtown and joined the city team in 2018.

Two years earlier, San Antonio native Emily Royall returned home with an advanced degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to go with her undergraduate degrees from the University of Texas. After a stint as the Rivard Report’s data director, she took a position at the Office of Innovation at the same time Dillard was hired. Today she serves as the smart city administrator. Both exemplify the kind of “brain gain” the city has realized in recent years, and the kind of highly skilled young professionals drawn to local government service where they work to drive change and innovation.

Royall and her colleagues were tasked with organizing this year’s smart cities summit, recruiting peers from around the state to give the Tech Port Center and Arena exactly the kind of forward-thinking event that Port San Antonio CEO Jim Perschbach and his team hope to attract year-around.

The 2022 Smart Cities Summit was held at Port San Antonio's new Tech Port & Arena.
The 2022 Smart Cities Summit was held at Port San Antonio’s new Tech Port Center and Arena. Credit: Courtesy / Mitch Hagney

The next few years will determine how well these young professionals succeed as San Antonio emerges from the pandemic and works to address digital inequity and a host of other challenges.

The experts from San Antonio and the other major Texas cities who gathered here last week appeared in a number of livestreamed panel discussions that will be available for later viewing. Panelists addressed an array of challenges and opportunities, far more than I can cover in a single column. But I left convinced that technology will continue to present opportunities for government to better serve citizens.

The biggest challenge these change agents face might be in their own workplaces — the internal silos operating within the City of San Antonio, CPS Energy, SAWS, VIA Metropolitan Transit, the San Antonio Housing Authority and the San Antonio River Authority. Those local government entities have joined together to form the SmartSA Partnership to better collaborate and to identify efficiencies and new ways to engage citizens.

Bexar County was conspicuously absent from the summit and is not part of the partnership.

Change is hard, and last-century practices are still common throughout local government. Look how long it took VIA to allow riders to pay with something other than exact change. I was reminded of how slowly government responds two weeks ago when a notice from the city arrived in the mail at our Arsenal Street home. My wife Monika and I were advised to go to the city’s Parking Division office at 400 N. St. Mary’s St. to obtain new residential parking tags for our vehicles.

In the past we have made the trip to the city-owned downtown parking garage only to be told we could not pay the fee with a credit card or via a cash app. I’ve asked staff there why residents can’t use smartphones to pay for and download a new tag, a question that drew blank looks. How long will it take Dillard, Royall and their colleagues to comb through local government services to modernize systems and processes?

Those working in the Office of Innovation or its equivalent offices within other local government entities will likely meet resistance at just about every turn. Citizens deserve the protections technology can bring, as well as greater transparency and access to meaningful data. Local government leaders will have to visibly embrace such change in order for those with the skills, talent and drive to actually make change happen.

Avatar photo

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.