During the fall of 2015 a small group representing local government, our public research university, and the private sector began to discuss how San Antonio could develop a focus on smart city approaches to local issues. Exploring innovative approaches is critical if we are to become a globally competitive community that offers everyone an opportunity to prosper. So, in conjunction with UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSRI), I asked a staffer to attend the Envision America Smart Cities boot camp in Charlotte, N.C. from Jan. 12-14, and report on what other communities ranging from Dallas to Tacoma to New York City are doing – especially lessons they have learned. Ten cities of varying sizes from across the United States, plus Charlotte itself, presented on their smart city projects and process.

Several common themes emerged from this very informative event. First, smart city approaches are not static. Rather than being defined by specific technological features, a smart city strategy continuously explores new uses of technology and improvements to existing systems to make municipal government more effective, sustainable, and responsive to citizens. Second, diverse organizations engage in activities that might bear the “smart city” label, including but not limited to local governments, academic institutions, economic development organizations, transit agencies, advocacy groups, and businesses.

With such a range of possible partners, activities, and products, it’s easy to fall under the spell of gadgets and gizmos and let vendors drive the push for smart cities. Instead, successful efforts recognize that community needs should be the driver for technology innovations and investments. For this reason, improving communication and use of resulting data is at the heart of smart technologies. These communication and data webs link up people, governments, businesses, and things – like trees or lamp posts.

For example, in San Diego, monitors with cameras that are mounted on downtown streetlights not only pinpoint available parking spots but also report air quality and other conditions. In Melbourne, Australia, wireless sensors that were meant to share updates on canopy health and save money on maintaining urban trees have been commandeered by residents to send thank-you notes to the elm on the corner, connecting people to their environment.

The Melbourne example underlines an important point: smart city applications are multifunctional. For many of us, sustainability has come to be associated with the environment, but the drivers for sustainable smart city initiatives are just as likely to be economic development, civic engagement, public health, equity, waste stream management, safety, traffic congestion, or other concerns.

This wealth of opportunities, cutting across industry and jurisdictional silos, means that partnerships are essential to successfully implementing smart cities strategies. In Charlotte and for many of the communities presenting at the boot camp, the preferred model was “public private partnership plus,” or P3+, which includes academia/research and philanthropic institutions in addition to the public and private sectors.

Smart cities approaches promise more efficient, effective and responsive governments, but there are several important caveats relating to inclusivity, structuring local partnerships, and building momentum.

While most of us appreciate the rapid pace of innovation that has led to job applications, medical records, and government information being available online at all hours, these changes aren’t good for everyone. If you don’t have access to internet service, if you don’t have a device. If you can’t read, these trends are troublesome. While we in local government often turn to digital communication to make government more transparent and accessible, we run the risk of further disenfranchising certain populations, such as very low-income families and the elderly. A recent Federal Reserve study, Closing the Digital Divide: A Framework for Meeting CRA Obligations, found a clear correlation between lower household incomes and lack of internet access at home.

Because we know that the digital divide can keep our residents from participating fully in a tech-based government or local economy, we have to be just as committed to inclusivity as we are to innovating and adopting smart city technologies. To achieve my vision of San Antonio as a globally competitive city that offers everyone the opportunity to prosper, we must develop a digital inclusion plan, adopt digital literacy strategies, and create a sustainable educational model across age and income groups.

Second, P3+ collaborations have to be structured so that all the partners can continue to meet their internal goals and fulfill their missions. Faculty members seeking tenure need to structure research in specific ways; local governments have accountability and transparency requirements when it comes to contracting and procurement.

For these reasons, those presenting at the Envision America event recommended that partnerships be formalized through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or other written agreement, and this can require strong leadership. Many smart city partnerships started out as working groups, councils, or compacts and then spun off 501(c)3 organizations when a champion emerged to guide and support this evolution. When creating the MOU or agreement, try to ensure that targets and goals are specific and measurable. Bearing in mind the centrality of data within the smart technology feedback loop, smart cities efforts are highly appropriate vehicles for helping move communities toward data-based policy making.

Finally, it’s quite common for there to be a lack of awareness or agreement about the meaning of smart city or what constitutes a smart city project, and that can hinder local initiatives. In San Antonio, the City’s Office of Innovation has put together an inventory of municipal efforts – a great starting point – and we are considering items totaling $13 million for our fiscal year 2017 budget, including investing in expanded community kiosks, a city parks Wi-Fi pilot program and apps to help users navigate our greenspaces, and solar benches. We’ve also applied for grant funds to help develop real-time traffic monitoring tools – and we’re positioning ourselves to use drones to monitor emergency situations.

In fact, San Antonio is well-positioned to expand our Smart City presence. There are varied and vigorous efforts that could be considered smart city initiatives, proposed or currently underway, by a wide range of potential partners in the public and private sector.  In addition to City projects, opportunities include my digital inclusion planning process, known as the Mayor’s Di2; the Office of Sustainability’s STAR process; creation of the San Antonio 2030 District to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings; the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership push to strengthen our local data ecosystem; collaborative research between CPS Energy and the TSRI; and cutting-edge cybersecurity leadership, including internet of things (IOT) applications, also at UTSA.

At this time we have not yet identified a structure to coordinate these efforts, provide information to prospective investors, or advocate for San Antonio as a smart city. I am continuing the conversation we started last year to explore potential vehicles for these activities – and for others, such as promoting the digital literacy that’s necessary for real inclusivity – and I look forward to hearing from partners who want to make the smart city vision a reality in our community. We can and should explore options like creating municipal innovation zones to serve as testbeds for new tech and integrating our young leaders, such as students at the downtown CAST Tech High School, into our digital inclusion efforts.

We can’t wait for the future to happen. Working together, working smarter, we will shape it ourselves.


Top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor introduces Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran at the Sheraton Guenther Hotel in Downtown San Antonio during a recent luncheon.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Ivy R. Taylor was appointed mayor of San Antonio in July 2014, then, elected to the position in June 2015. Mayor Taylor is focused on making San Antonio a globally competitive city where all residents...