Pedestrians walk near a Bexar Connect smart kiosk alongside the Paul Elizondo Tower.
Pedestrians walk near a Bexar Connect smart kiosk alongside the Paul Elizondo Tower. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

If all goes according to plan, the City of San Antonio will by year’s end name downtown, the South Texas Medical Center, or Brooks as its new innovation zone, a pilot area to test so-called smart city initiatives in San Antonio.

“Smart city” is a buzzword on the rise in urban planning – a marketing catchphrase that is perhaps used more than it is understood. Defining the term has in the past eluded City leaders such as Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins, who recalled being asked to explain the concept during a City Council meeting early in his now 10-month tenure.

“I’m not exactly sure how to answer it, but I know it has to do with data and technology,” Hopkins said, recalling his response to one council member.

“That person got excited,” he said Wednesday during a presentation on San Antonio’s smart-city initiative. “‘Finally, somebody’s talking about technology!’ As technology people we get excited when we talk about technology. What I have learned since is that I was wrong. Smart city is not just about data and technology; it’s about designing the experience you want your residents to have in the future in order to build their quality of life.”

Upgrades to technology shouldn’t simply be done because cities have the capability to do them, but because they contribute to a better standard of living, Hopkins said. It’s a user-centered design common in the technology sector, and the City aims to revolve its smart city campaign around serving local residents.

“It’s not about data and technology, which is important, but it’s about people and connections,” he said. “Data and technology become the thing you use to move these things forward.”

City of San Antonio Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins
City of San Antonio Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins gives his input during a San Antonio Innovation and Technology commission meeting in February 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SmartSA is the City’s plan for moving the needle on technology-centered projects that improve residents’ lives. Launched in 2016, the initiative began with nine projects in the City’s fiscal year 2017 budget. The City then convened various local-government executives for a visioning process last year.

That process bore out six key challenges to tackle through SmartSA: mobility, access to services, tools for resident feedback, at-risk youth, trade and tech education programs, and internet access for all.

A governance structure was established with a SmartSA executive committee overseeing four working groups focusing on mobility, access to services, environment and utilities, and infrastructure and data. The committee also receives and solicits input from the public.

Smart city’s genesis as a buzzword can perhaps be attributed to the Obama administration’s $160 million investment in 2015 to leverage grants, research, and federal spending to solve cities’ 21st-century challenges.

In its comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow, the City identified 13 regional centers, or profiles of various parts of the city, based on their strengths and potential land use. City officials in February revealed that three of those regional centers – Brooks, the South Texas Medical Center, and downtown – are being eyed as innovation zones.

The chosen area will become a laboratory for smart-city initiatives. Modern infrastructure and devices such as smart streetlights, autonomous vehicles, and high-speed internet connectivity could be brought to the innovation zones, Hopkins said.

The City is already looking to construct 25 interactive kiosks with touchscreen wayfinding capabilities at the San Antonio International Airport, at public parks, near Mission Concepción and Mission San José, and various locations downtown.

“If we can elevate certain areas of town, everyone else is better off for it,” said Jose De La Cruz, the City’s chief innovation officer.

Contacted Friday, representatives for Brooks, a mixed-use development in the former Air Force base in southeast San Antonio, and the Medical Center Alliance, which helps oversee infrastructure investment in the South Texas Medical Center, said it is too early to tell what smart-city initiatives could mean for their respective parts of town.

Bill Balthrope, who chairs the alliance, said although there have been discussions with the City regarding SmartSA, plans are in “very preliminary” stages.

“We are working with the City to identify things we may have a need for in the Medical Center that may tie into [data- and technology-related projects],” Balthrope said.

Maria Nelson, manager of urban planning for Centro San Antonio, a public-private nonprofit that advocates for and maintains downtown, said Centro and its downtown stakeholders are enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming the city’s innovation zone.

“It is early, but I think we are excited because it is an opportunity to dig deeper on how we can continue to make this neighborhood better,” Nelson said, adding that addressing parking, installing public Wi-Fi, and communicating street and sidewalk closures are among the challenges with the greatest potential for innovation.

Nelson said Centro will have a follow-up meeting with City officials in the coming weeks to further discuss potential SmartSA measures.

Centro spokesman Eddie Romero said President Taylor Eighmy’s vision for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus would align well with the innovative technology that could arrive in the historic district if chosen for SmartSA’s initial campaign.

“Downtown, as you know, is a hub of commerce and housing, and it’s the perfect spot for these innovative collisions to happen,” Romero said. “We’re looking forward to the next steps of this process.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.