An Interview with Emily Binet Royall, Smart City Administrator, Innovation Office, City of San Antonio
While the term “smart cities” sounds glamorous enough to grab global headlines, those who work in this field know that it takes many incremental steps to get the big win. In an ideal situation, members of the community are working with city leaders to directly inform smart city initiatives.
I’ve been watching a city that has been on this path for several years – San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio recently launched The Smart Cities Roadmap and Smarter Together initiative. With great delight, I had the chance to talk with Emily Binet Royall, Smart City Administrator for the City of San Antonio’s Innovation Office. Read on to learn more about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what lessons can be applied to other communities.
CC: Hey Emily! First, congratulations on the launch of the Smart City Roadmap and Smarter Together initiative. I know it’s been a long time in the making so tell us a bit about the path you all took to get here.
EBR: The Smart Cities Roadmap and Smarter Together initiative really came out of a need to refresh our approach to smart cities, and check back in with our community’s needs after the pandemic. The Smart Cities team was founded in 2017, and so much has happened since then. We executed nearly 30 pilots and programs based on our original framework, established the SmartSA partnership and ratified a large data-sharing agreement across all nine agencies that make up SmartSA, and helped the City of San Antonio boost its open data and transparency efforts during the CoVID-19 pandemic. As we began to hire new staff in 2022, we started asking ourselves, what have we learned from the previous five years of work in smart cities? What does San Antonio need from smart cities at this moment? That was the origin of the conversation that brought us to the Roadmap.
We started with lessons learned and let those guide our initial approach. One of the biggest observations from the previous five years was that “technology is always looking for a problem to solve.” Our projects were more successful when we focused on defining problems with our stakeholders and then identified the best way to solve those challenges, rather than leading with an exciting new technology and retroactively trying to find ways to force that technology to address a need.
We also understood that as a small team operating within the Office of Innovation, our capacity was limited and best spent on high-impact projects. We learned that high-impact projects were those that not only responded to resident needs, but also helped a city department find a new way to address a challenge. Front-line city staff are often overlooked in smart city plans that prioritize technology, and we felt strongly that we needed to include city departments as a key stakeholder in our engagement.
So, we hit pause and “flipped the script.” We spent a year engaging three stakeholder groups: our residents, city staff, and our SmartSA partners. San Antonio is a large city, boasting about 500 square miles, with ten city council districts. Our priority was to “meet residents where they are”, and we essentially boot-strapped this process. We engaged residents at about 20 existing community events across the city, and hosted three in-person town hall sessions in each of our Innovation Zones. We also conducted a community engagement survey, and partnered with a local university to synthesize resident feedback using artificial intelligence technology. This effort resulted in 2,267 participants in the Smart City Priority Development survey, as well as what we call a “Community Story Map”, which is a data-driven expression of residents’ views on the future of San Antonio.
We also met one-on-one with 25 city departments, including their directors and middle management staff, to understand their needs for data, innovation, and technology at the frontlines of service delivery. Similar to our Smart City Priority Development survey, we conducted an organization-wide survey for staff, gathering responses from over 500 people in 40 different City departments. We also hosted staff mixers focused on innovation to create a community of practice within the organization, which engaged over 500 city employees.
Our team processed all the qualitative and quantitative data as a result of our engagement process and began to draft the Roadmap ourselves, without the help of any consultants. The Roadmap went through several rounds of internal and external reviews, and finally we worked with Kaizen Labs on the final design and accompanying website, SmarterTogetherSA.com. We’re really pleased with the result!
CC: This is inspiring work and I think any city, large or small, could learn from your approach. Shifting our focus to the Roadmap, give us an overview of what’s in the plan and what makes this unique and relevant to San Antonio?
EBR: Ultimately the awareness, support, and buy-in from our community, partners, and city staff, is really what makes this Roadmap powerful and unique. The Roadmap reflects alignment of resident needs with the priorities of front-line workers in our City Departments. We set forth Guiding Principles for all our work derived from conversations with residents, as well as five challenge areas, which we are referring to as our “Smarter Together Testbed.” These include: Access to Public information, Public Safety, Resilience & Environmental Quality, Safe Infrastructure, and Access to Transportation. In addition to these themes, we have three key focus areas for the municipality which shape what types of emerging technology projects we take on: Data, Business Operations, and Resident Engagement. So, for any new project that we take on, it must address a Testbed challenge area, as well as at least one key focus area. That helps us effectively prioritize projects and achieve high impact as a small team.
I think another really important feature of this Roadmap is that it is backed by a governance process we built in collaboration with our IT and procurement departments. This governance process quickens how smart city solutions can be prototyped within the City. The Team carved out this process with IT and it brings forward all required inputs/approvals from relevant City stakeholders (IT, Legal, Finance, Diversity Equity Inclusion Accessibility (DEIA), Communications and Engagements (C&E), and Sustainability) to ensure that if a prototype is successful, that the City department sponsoring it can fund/scale it thereafter. This allows us to institutionalize smart cities as a process within government, and truly deliver our vision of “Smart Cities as a Service.” This model aims to leverage our expertise in emerging technologies and innovation as a service we provide to residents and city departments.
CC: There are two things that I’ve always loved about San Antonio’s approach: (1) it is people-centered, and (2) there is a commitment to open data principles and transparent data governance policies. In fact, San Antonio was one of the first cities to create an Interlocal Data Sharing Agreement amongst public agencies. Share more about that and how it came to be?
The IDSA provides a transfer and security protocol for data sharing across nine public agencies that are signatories to the agreement including: CPS-Energy, VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio Water System, UTSA, Opportunity Home, San Antonio River Authority, Bexar County Appraisal District, Edwards Aquifer Authority and the City of San Antonio. It took about three years to ratify the agreement, and finally in December 2021, it was completed. The SmartSA partnership meets monthly to identify opportunities for collaboration and projects that can be powered by the data sharing agreement. For example, the SmartSA Smart Streetlight Pilot Program used the agreement to share sensor data from smart streetlights between CPS-Energy and the City of San Antonio to provide on its open data platform, data.sanantonio.gov.
The City Manager continues to champion the efforts of the Office of Innovation to help the city become more data-informed. Just this past summer, we achieved Gold Certification under Bloomberg’s What Works Cities program. Through the program we launched several progressive policy initiatives including our Data Governance Administrative Directive, our Principles of Data Informed Government, and our Data Stewards program which identifies a liaison for each department who is responsible for compliance with our policies. The Performance Excellence team in the Office of Innovation also manages Innovation Academy, a training program for city staff that includes a curriculum about our data governance policies and approach as an organization.
CC: Tell us what it means to be a “people-centered” smart city, and your stakeholder engagement process played a role in developing the Roadmap.
EBR: For us, being People-Centered, means solving real problems for real people, and including residents in the process of setting expectations and values for the role that technology plays in our community. We know that new technologies like artificial intelligence introduce exciting opportunities for San Antonio, but also come with significant risks. We believe each community should set their own values and expectations for how technologies like these are used by the municipality, and our smart cities team provides the framework and opportunity for residents to share their perspective and views in order to shape policy, projects, and outcomes. It’s been tremendously rewarding to see so many technologists, private companies, and forward-thinking organizations in San Antonio embrace the Roadmap, and I think that’s a testament to how our residents point of view can be amplified in decision-making spaces they may not have direct access to. To me, that’s what smart cities should be all about.
CC: So what’s next? Now that the Roadmap is launched what does the future of Smart San Antonio look like?
EBR: The future of San Antonio is bright! In fact, we worked with a local artist Linda Monsivais Hernandez (@elpunoylamano) to illustrate it in a limited edition poster! However, despite all the work that’s been done to date we know that now the work really begins.
Since the launch of our Roadmap in June we’ve been focused on accelerating the deployment, testing, and scaling of emerging technology that meets our resident’s needs and bringing together the broader innovation ecosystem within San Antonio to align interests and identify opportunities for collaboration. To date, we’ve identified 30 projects, 11 of which are currently being scoped and developed by our team. In addition to that, we are continuing our efforts to engage our stakeholders, and recalibrate our Innovation Zones that were established by city council in 2017.
To date we have met with over 35 organizations throughout SA including a diversity of sectors such as civic and government, entrepreneurship and VC’s, transportation and mobility, medical and healthcare, nonprofits and foundations, workforce development, education, and corporate and commercial entities. We will be convening a workshop of these leading innovative organizations within San Antonio to identify areas of alignment, map innovative efforts more broadly, and explore opportunities for funding impactful projects.
Taking inspiration from the original Brookings definition of Innovation Districts and meetings with best-in-class districts nationally including CorTex in St. Louis, South Lake Union in Seattle, and Chattanooga’s Smart Corridor among others, we are working on our own version of an operational Innovation Zone strategy. The plan is intended to be a reflection of our community-driven innovation ethos and guide intentional investment that will spur positive change for San Antonio. We’re optimistic that with the support of our partners, we’ll build something truly special in San Antonio.
CC: If there was one thing that other city innovators reading this would need to know about creating (or amending) their own Smart City Plan, what would that be?
I would advise smart city innovators to persist in the work of truly connecting with and understanding your residents. This has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of our work, and we feel that our projects are all the more meaningful because they bring technology to bear on the real-world problems of the San Antonio community. I think the role of our team has been strengthened by the idea that we are not experts who define smart cities for the public, rather we are code-switchers who can translate the needs of our residents as they express them, to various stakeholders in our problem-solving community.
Many thanks to Emily, her team, the many partners, and the citizens and residents who have contributed to the Smart City Roadmap and Smarter Together initiative. If you’re looking for a way to make your city truly smart and people-centered, download the plan!