AUSTIN — A “smart city” has more than just state-of-the-art solutions to the challenges of growth. It’s about local governments working with business, academia, and civic organizations to share new technologies and best development practices. A requirement of smart cities is that its leadership maintains an open-minded approach to experimentation.

Those were the conclusions of dozens of city leaders, including San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, attending the Smart Cities Innovation Summit in Austin this week. The three-day conference, which began Monday at the Austin Convention Center, hosted officials from more than 200 cities worldwide.

Mayor Taylor was part of a keynote panel Monday morning alongside Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the mayors of three other cities, including Veldhoven, Netherlands.

The mayors first acknowledged that a prevailing desire toward collaboration must be at the forefront for leaders who want their city to be more innovative, sustainable, and effective.

“It’s critical that a city council see its citizens as central, and for the mayor and council be on board, as well as civic and business leaders,” Taylor said. “We have to ensure what we’re doing, as a city, is relevant (to residents) because being a smart city means improving their quality of life.”

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor (far right) joins a panel with four other mayors and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith (far left) at the Smart Cities Innovation Summit in Austin on Monday, June 13, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor (far right) joins a panel with four other mayors and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith (far left) at the Smart Cities Innovation Summit in Austin on Monday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Taylor talked about ConnectHome, the partnership between the San Antonio Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Urban Development as an example of innovative public-private collaborations. The initiative provides high-speed broadband internet access, equipment, and training to public housing residents.

(Read More: SAHA Residents Graduate With Tech Skills, Laptops)

Taylor added the arrival of Google Fiber and AT&T Gigapower will expand local internet access capacity, further helping residents toward their personal and professional goals.

Taylor’s policy chief Leilah Powell, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Chief Technology Officer Hugh Miller, and a few other staffers also attended the summit which hosts an expo showcasing innovative tools and strategies that several cities across the nation.

Hugh Miller told the Rivard Report after the panel that every project the City of San Antonio introduces, officials want to keep the end user – citizens – in mind.

“From a management perspective, we always look at whether we are enhancing services, making life better for citizens or saving taxpayers money,” Miller said.

Empowering citizens, said Veldhoven Mayor Jack Mikkers, is the main objective.

“We need to share the technology with the people,” he said. “Don’t address them as the patient, address them as the co-creator.”

Taylor said a good example of how sharing information empowers residents is the success of the San Antonio Water System’s water conservation program. Thought not entirely based on technologic advances, the program has connected residents to efficient systems and information that can help them save water and, therefore, money.

Mayor Ivy Taylor sits in an Innova EV Dash which is used in a carshare program at Ohio State University. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Mayor Ivy Taylor sits in an Innova EV Dash which is used in a carshare program at Ohio State University and four other universities. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

“We’ve been able to grow so much as a community relying on one source of water through educating our citizens on the use of water and actually changing consumer behavior,” she said. “Now, the puzzle before us is to take lessons from an example like that and utilize it in some of the burgeoning techniques and programs we have, like OpenGov, where we’re providing data online for citizens.”

San Antonio City Council approved a contract in March with OpenGov, a Silicon Valley-based firm that will provide a user-friendly platform for resident to access detailed city government information, particularly financial reports.

(Read More: Council Increasing Transparency with OpenGov)

“What can citizens expect once they have that information?” Taylor asked rhetorically. She explained how the BuildSA project, currently in development, will streamline the process of obtaining building permits, especially for infill development in the urban core.

Another smart city initiative San Antonio has adopted is the deployment of municipal court kiosks at several local grocery stores. Residents can settle some traffic tickets and other simple citations via court hearings offered through high-quality video conferences between them and a live court judge.

Through a partnership with Code for America, the City has made HomeBase available, which is an online platform that makes it easier for homeowners to obtain permits for major home improvements.

The city’s Office of Innovation is responsible for overseeing formation and implementation of these and future smart city initiatives.

“There’s still a lot of us to learn and build on,” Taylor said.

When building any community, she said, it’s important that the data collected for planning purposes be readily available for the public to engage with.

Taylor cited San Antonio’s long-range comprehensive master plan SA Tomorrow as an example of how a city can build the foundation for development by allowing the data to inform policy, citizens, and the business community.

“That helps to set the stage for the exchange information simply by the fact that we’ve gathered so many entities and institutions at the table so there’s a certain amount of buy-in into the plan,” she said.

The concept behind smart cities is about more than technology, it’s about ideas, Alder said. It’s about the entire approach a city takes toward encouraging innovative solutions.

“It’s not just about the shiny new idea, it’s about the approach,” he said.

Mary Salas, mayor of Chula Vista, CA, said a city can leverage its resources, regardless of its size or history.

“Look at your community and see what assets it has and what’s happening at the time,” Salas said. She pointed to how her coastal town is divided into three main geographic areas for development zoning purposes.

Chula Vista also has 13 master planned communities – or “villages,” as Salas called them – and each of them has a mass transit element linked with the overall citywide transit system.

Partnering with businesses and local institutions of higher learning emerged as a crucial point for the local leaders at the summit. Salas noted how her city laid off several employees after the economic downturn in the last decade.

“We really had to reinvent ourselves as a city,” she said.

Chula Vista turned to the private sector for input on how to make its government more efficient which resulted in combined City departments and enhanced communications among them.

The result was a less siloed system, Salas said, where collaboration and integration grew between city functions and programs.

Austin has incorporated technology into the everyday lives of employees and citizens with utility smart metering and implementing an app that allows users to pay for parking through their smart phone. San Antonio’s CPS Energy started rolling out smart meters in 2014, a program that has seen wide success despite some opposition to the switch early on. Pango, a free parking locator app that launched in 2014, connects San Antonio drivers to parking spots around downtown.

These and similar smart city initiatives, Adler said, are made possible by collaborations among leaders in the public and private sectors as well as academia.

Gary McCarthy, mayor of Schenectady, New York, said he and three neighboring towns, are working together to standardize data collection and terminology in municipal codes commonly used among each other.

This is how collaboration and partnerships are useful toward becoming a smart city, he said. “Acting individually, we’re not going to have the same impact as we would collectively.”

Taylor attended only a few hours of the summit on Monday, then returned to San Antonio for other City business, including a meeting with local LGBTQIA community leaders in the wake of the Orlando mass shooting over the weekend.

However, following the mayors’ panel, Taylor briefly told the Rivard Report she feels the City of San Antonio can glean lessons from the summit. One such lesson is exploring ways to leverage the research capabilities held by local universities and colleges.

Top image: The Smart Cities Innovation Summit convenes more than 200 city leaders from around the world on Monday.  Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.