Brian Dillard might not have become San Antonio’s Chief Innovation Officer had he not failed college algebra his freshman year at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Brian Dillard during his tour in southern Iraq in 2010. Credit: Courtesy / Brian Dillard

The Sam Houston High School graduate and East San Antonio native left UTSA after deciding he couldn’t financially afford to fail another class and, in 2002, enlisted in the military. His Air Force recruiter saw Dillard had earned an IT certificate in high school, a credential that set him on a trajectory from network administrator in the Air Force to cybersecurity professional in the private sector and now the City executive at the helm of San Antonio’s transformation into a “smart city.”

That effort has been dubbed SmartSA – a collaboration of nine area agencies, including VIA, CPS Energy, and San Antonio Water System – aimed at crafting novel ways to address citywide problems.

Though his position is hard to define and sounds like a technical role, his is one of the few executive roles at the City untethered to an office. It’s a bridge-building position to help people access the City services they need, Dillard said.

“I’m not a techie person,” he said. “I do have a tech background and experience, but at the end of the day, my position is more about the community and the people within it.”

Dillard, 35, joined the City staff last October when he was named Smart City Administrator to help implement smart-city projects. After then-Chief Innovation Officer Jose De La Cruz announced he was leaving the City for a job at SAWS, Dillard was promoted to interim Chief Innovation Officer. In March, the City removed the interim tag from Dillard’s title.

Just before Dillard’s arrival, the City was shifting from a traditional contract model for smart-city projects to one driven by the community, said Craig Hopkins, the City’s Chief Information Officer.

But Hopkins needed someone who was comfortable in different environments from the tech sector to blue-collar communities. They tapped Dillard for the role because he had a record of being able to connect with different communities in San Antonio, Hopkins said.

“He starts with the mentality that says, ‘What do the residents need?’” he said. “Most people start with, ‘This is what I think.’ … He has the ability to first say, ‘We need to go out, do some research, and talk to people before we jump to a solution to articulate the problem.’”

In 2013, Dillard returned to his native East Side when he bought a home in the historic Dignowity Hill neighborhood and later became the president of its neighborhood association, working to reconcile increasingly competing interests in a gentrifying area.

Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association president Brian Dillard gives his opinion at Pints + Politics: Bond & Brew Edition.
Brian Dillard, then the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President, delivers criticism of Carlton Soules’ interpretation of the bond process in April 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After earning his bachelor’s degree online and then leaving the military, he eventually settled into a role with cybersecurity consulting firm Delta Risk. During that time, Dillard was among a group of people attempting to elevate the City’s tech sector.

Local entrepreneur DeAnne Cuellar, who sits on the City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee, said she noticed community-building qualities in Dillard before he was hired by the City. He was everywhere in the community, which is a good sign he’s up for the challenge of the Chief Innovation Officer job, she said.

“He was always a really good listener,” she said. “He would show up wherever there were large meetings of people, he would listen, and he would participate in those conversations.”

Listening is a quality Dillard said he learned as a quiet kid growing up within the former Wheatley Courts housing project on San Antonio’s East Side. He’d go to church and listen to role models: successful black men who had defied the odds in one of the City’s poorest and most dangerous areas.

Gunshots rang out every night in his neighborhood, and Dillard only later realized such a thing wasn’t typical. Despite his rough surroundings, he said he always had the loving support of a two-parent family, something some of his peers didn’t have.

And church ministers like B.B. Gatson gave him someone to emulate, Dillard said, with his a combination of charisma and an innate ability to lead and bring people together. Dillard always had ambitions to do great things, said Gatson, who said he was impressed by his thoughtfulness and compassion for others.

“Brian seemed to never dial back on being a thinker,” said Gatson, who preaches at Liberty View Church of Christ on the East Side. “His mind, to me, was always in ‘sponge mode.’”

Deciding to become a public servant, however, took a while for Dillard. He wasn’t always the most confident person.

But when he stepped back into the neighborhood he grew up in and began tutoring students at Sam Houston High, he realized he needed to become a presence, or else his community could vanish. In the mid-2000s, the high school was already on the verge of being shuttered. Sam Houston had failed to meet state accountability standards in consecutive years and its enrollment numbers were in sharp decline.

“It was mediocrity, and we accepted it for a long time,” Dillard said of the Sam Houston community.

That’s when Dillard attended a meeting to discuss the closure of the school and took the bold step of challenging the school’s parents, who were against closing the school, to be proactive and support the school community rather than point fingers.

Although he received scattered applause, he heard mostly boos, he said.

But after that meeting things began to change. Slowly, the school worked its way off the list for possible closure. People he met at that meeting are still active in helping the high school, he said.

Brian Dillard
Brian Dillard walks down the steps of Sam Houston High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

He said those experiences gave him some of the tools he needs in his current position: communicating and listening to residents but also issuing calls to action.

Action is coming to the City’s innovation zones at former Air Force base Brooks, downtown, and the South Texas Medical Center. Through its Smart SA program, the City has designated the three areas as test beds for smart-city projects, such as a collaboration with CPS Energy to install smart streetlights that can detect air quality, temperature, and flood risk. Successful projects would then be scaled up to the rest of the city.

The idea of turning San Antonio into a smart city arouses some suspicion among residents. Some might think the City needs to fix potholes before it spends money on self-driving cars.

The term “smart city” attracts plenty of buzz, and it has given rise to an entire industry of government contractors looking to incorporate internet-enabled technology into decades-old city infrastructure. But its definition varies depending on whom you ask.

In San Antonio, smart-city initiatives have taken the form of kiosks that have cropped up near recreational centers and tourist attractions since last October, offering a touch-screen with wayfinding tools and information about the city. The project began with City staffers drafting a proposal and soliciting bids from the business community.

But the traditional approach to procurement is changing.

“We’re constantly trying to avoid the smart-city buzzword because we don’t want to be bucketed into that,” Dillard said. “Our projects, our initiatives are really people-driven. That’s why our smart-city program is a challenge-driven model; it’s not tech-driven. We’re trying to solve issues that affect our communities here in San Antonio.”

At a vendor summit in January, the City presented a list of neighborhood problems identified by residents – storm drainage, traffic congestion, and parking availability downtown, to name a few – and turned to government contractors for solutions.

It’s an inside-out model that Dillard suspects more cities will adopt as they roll out their own smart-city initiatives.

“We don’t want to define the solutions ourselves,” Dillard said. “We want the community to define the challenges with us.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.