How Can Austin Supercharge its Smart Cities Startup Profile?

Chelsea Collier, Smart Cities Connect, January 24, 2016

There is a commonly held belief that smart people ask the right questions.  Jonathan Ha and Barak Epstein with Smart Austin hosted a Meet Up on January 13 at Austin City Hall and did exactly that, posing the challenge, “How Can Austin Supercharge Its Smart Cities Startup Profile?”

It’s a valid question, considering that Austin is known worldwide for its startup scene. What was once just a “weird” Texas town now regularly tops lists from the likes of Forbes for being a top tech hub. Austin is also known as a caring city with some of the highest per capita stats for nonprofits and social enterprise enthusiasts. So how does one of the leading cities in the US for all of these things approach smart cities?  And what are the opportunities for startups in this space?

I had the honor of being one of the speakers tasked with answering these questions along with veteran PR maven, Jen Gooding with Prime PR.  Jen, one of the early supporters of the clean tech scene back before there was a clean tech scene in Austin, told a great tale of what led her here. She went on to describe what the smart city movement had in common with the early days of clean tech. The parallels make sense – both are big movements ripe with corporate, startup and university-based activity along the potential to make a significant impact not just to tech, but to the broader socioeconomic, political and environmental issues. I was encouraged by Jen’s talk and was adequately primed to give a hopeful but also reality-focused presentation on my view on Smart Cities.

My section began with what else…China. Nowhere on earth is there a better example of the scale and impact that smart city technology can inspire. Thanks to China’s commitment to invest in infrastructure – both physical and digital – more than 700 million people are moving out of poverty and into aspiring socioeconomic classes. And even though the system of government, cultural considerations and just about everything related to China is so different than the US, their many challenges – environmental, transportation, accessibility and affordability – are similar to what cities face all around the world. Yes, even in Austin.

China’s approach to smart cities is to set the vision at the federal level and deploy government resources to invest in smart city solutions. Their focus is on efficiency and rapid scale. In the US, the roll out has been the opposite. Our federal leadership has been slow to lay out a comprehensive plan and instead, municipalities have been implementing small-scale pilots, leveraging innovation from the tech sector.   However, in 2016, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a Smart Cities Challenge, offering $50 million to the winning city. Seventy-eight cities applied. Seven cities were chosen as finalists (Austin included) and Columbus, Ohio was awarded the prize. The entire process served as a jump start for US cities to form their own smart city strategies, and many are going far beyond the topic of transportation.

Austin is busy with its own smart city strategy, having passed the City of Austin Smart Cities Council Resolution and are starting to work on the City of Austin Smart Cities Strategic Roadmap. There are multiple municipal departments and individuals influential to the process including Kerry O’Conner (Chief Innovation Officer at the City of Austin) and her stellar team in the Innovation Office that now also includes the Design, Technology & Innovation Fellows. Projects in the works and underway include the Riverside Corridor Pilot which deploys data-collecting sensors in efforts to monitor and hopefully ease traffic congestion. Others are focused on critical infrastructure items such as Electronic Vehicle Charging Infrastructure and Gigabit Infrastructure. Others include creating and improving citizen-engagement focused apps like 311 or open data projects that leverage city data that can be (responsibly) used by private and nonprofit organizations. These technologies are a step in the right direction and a place to start toward a smart city future.

So back to the original question, “How Can Austin Supercharge its Smart Cities Startup Profile?” What are the opportunities and what are the mechanisms to get involved? In its Austin-centric way, citizens who care are creating organizations like SmartAustin and Austin City Up as well as policy councils such as Austin Tech Alliance and the Austin Technology Council’s Policy Coalition as a way to encourage connection and information exchange. These groups promise to decrease duplicative efforts, increase efficiencies and bring a new energy to the people in this town who want to make it a better, safer, more connected place to live.

And the City of Austin is asking for help. One of the comments from a city staff member described an out-of-date statute that was negatively impacting the ability to deploy an interactive kiosk. His question was clear, “How can you (private sector advocates) help me move past these barriers?” The conversation morphed into an infinity circle of “help me help you.” There wasn’t a clear resolution but the good news is that there is great willingness to focus on the solutions.

This exchange is further proof that the City of Austin – like many cities around the country – will do well to focus on identifying arcane, mind-numbing, bureaucratic policies and regulations that create a “no” when there could be a “maybe” or a “yes.” Streamlining policies to make way for the investment in next-generation technology is a critical step to becoming a smart city. No matter if the project is related to deploying millions of dollars of high-speed wireless infrastructure, sensors on street lights or a kiosk in downtown Austin, the policy piece makes the difference in cities that win or those that stay stuck in the “way it’s always been.”

Smart cities present the opportunity to do it differently. The kind of entrepreneurial thinking that the startup community brings is exactly the energy and mindset that is needed in this space. And the stakes have never been higher.  Connected technology holds the promise to impact the most challenging aspects of our urban lives. We will need those who question the rules – including regulations that seem to serve no obvious purpose.

Austin has a real chance to be one of the leading smart cities in the US but it will take more than activity in the private sector to make it happen. The kind of organizational and institutional change required is hard. So the metamorphosis won’t be fast and it won’t be automatic. This is an evolving area that will see its fair share of smaller pilot projects, and some will fail. If startups are looking for the quick hit, they won’t find it quite yet. But anyone who is paying attention should stay close to the conversation and consider how their product or service could play a part in this (r)evolution.

Chelsea Collier