Real Talk: How Austin is Becoming a Smarter City (it’s not about the tech!)

Source: Medium

We hear and feel the chorus from around the world that cities are where we can solve problems. Working at the City of Austin, we totally agree. But before we’re able to move forward as the champions of change, it’s time for some real talk.

The same problems that exist in federal and state governments are present at the local level; in my short tenure with the city, I have multiple horror stories about systems built 15 years ago, of monolithic vendor solutions that — while they may have been the right investment at the time — create more problems than they solve and are feared as too big to replace. Even a shining tech hub like Austin isn’t immune.

There are plenty of examples of how *not* to do technology in government, like the recent IRS computer glitch or when the population of Hawaii spent 38 terrifying minutes thinking they were all going to die. In Austin, we have figured out a better path forward. Spoiler alert: it’s not just about the tech.

How we got here: Hardware revolution


The Industrial Revolution is known for, among other things, creating radical shifts in how people work. During the last 20 years, we’ve seen more growth and change at a speed that surpasses what happened during the Industrial Revolution. The revolution of mobile devices — and how we use them is one example. The Pew Research Center analyzedtechnology adoption since 2001, and found that smartphone ownership jumped from 35% to 77% of US adults just over 5 years — that’s not even talking about the addition of tablets as a new platform.

Software revolution

While this explosion in hardware and broadband has been happening, a software revolution has occurred where companies can develop new businesses seemingly overnight. When Austin voted out Uber and Lyft in 2016, there was a vacuum in the market for ride-sharing. In less than 2.5 months, residents launched a non-profit alternative called RideAustin. Its mobile interface is quick and intuitive and even prompts users to consider giving back to other non-profit organizations. Successful applications are built in months rather than years, with an emphasis on ’delighting’ customers with a flick of their thumb so they keep coming back — this is no secret in private industry.

Stagnation in government digital services

This shift has not been seen in most government services. In test after test with the current, we’ve seen frustration from our residents as they try to find the information on a website that’s bloated and difficult to navigate, even for the most tech savvy.

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