Austin has recently taken a few big steps in its quest to become a smart city. In addition to a quick win as being one of five US metros awarded the Smart Cities Council Challenge Grant, the City of Austin is also beginning the process of its Smart Austin Strategic Roadmap, a Community Co-Creation Plan.
Austin receives abundant accolades but is also transparent about its boom town struggles with affordable housing, mobility and other economic development issues. While the Smart Cities Council Challenge Grant doesn’t come with ready cash, it does provide a workshop and in-kind products and services to assist city leaders in crafting their vision.
Austin is already way ahead, thanks to Chief Innovation Officer Kerry O’Connor who is evangelizing the concept of co-creation and engaging a diverse cross section of citizens and residents, through modern online tools like Bloomfire and the blogging platform, Medium. Her office and team of Design, Technology & Innovation Fellows are creating a refreshing approach to civic tech. But it isn’t all bells, whistles and headlines. This team is encouraging coordination around complex things.
A presentation outlining the Strategic Plan is available online and begins with the following statement: “For every technology advance or item, multiple issues need to be addressed that go beyond the technology itself. We must look into policies, relationships, and intended and unintended consequences.” This isn’t taking the easy road but instead leaning way in to the hard but rewarding work that can transform smart city talk into meaningful action.
O’Connor outlines the mission: “we must create a clear lane” and goes on to name the long list of collaborators who will make it all happen. Entrepreneurs, technologists, city staff, academics, corporate partners, community advocates and especially citizens and residents who all have something to contribute and much to gain once it is apparent how to engage.
I’m excited to see the conversation not just focus on the neat-o tech, but also address the policies that need to be updated and clarified. There are so many times when well-intentioned entrepreneurial, creative people come up with great solutions only to hit the brick wall of antiquated policies. This doesn’t mean demonizing regulation, but it does mean reviewing what makes sense in a quickly modernizing, tech-inspired world. Clearing the path involves focusing on inclusive solutions that make sense for everyone, creating appropriate protections while adding a degree of predictability that motivates the private sector.
Smart Cities is full of words like collaboration, citizen engagement (which is really about communication) and connection. These terms are easy to say but the real work takes place in the implementation. It means evolving city processes, departments, policies, operations and mindset in order to enable connected technology to deliver city services more efficiently and effectively. It’s not easy but I am encouraged that there is a framework forming with internal champions who are committed to listening. In our conversation, O’Connor said, “we are inviting the community to sit with us in solidarity.”
So here’s the call to action. If you live in Austin, find a way to participate whether through the online tools, in-person meetings and workshops or through traditional avenues like engaging with your City Council Member. If you don’t live in Austin, stay tuned to what is happening here and perhaps the unfolding process will spark an idea about what could work in your community.
Making big steps in the area of smart cities means asking the right questions to frame your local principles, values and norms. It means not assuming one group has all of the answers and really giving credence to the concepts of inclusion and integration. If this is done right, major advances can be made in the interrelated areas of mobility, affordability, healthcare, education, safety, sustainability. The first major milestone predicts submission to the Austin City Council in May and the process begins now.