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COMMERCE STREET: SA's Office of Innovation

San Antonio’s “Office of Innovation” is not looking for some “shiny new thing."
Credit: KENS

SAN ANTONIO — The City of San Antonio’s Chief Innovation Officer, Brian Dillard, sits down with KENS 5 Eyewitness News to explain what a “Smart City” is, what “Smart SA” means, and what projects are ahead- including testing autonomous vehicles, piloting “smart streetlights” and closing the digital divide.

First, what is the digital divide?

Office of Innovation has been in the city of San Antonio since 2007. Used to be the Office of Innovation and Reform, so it was more of a kind of, uh oh, the auditing guys are coming in. Since then, we’ve pushed over. Our bread and butter for the longest time has been our Process Improvement Team. So basically if our city manager or  department director comes through and identifies a process in the city that’s inefficient or ineffective, our team goes through an assessment and provides a recommendation on how to improve. So that’s been our mainstay for years.

As of the last two years we’ve started doing some “Smart Cities” projects within the city of San Antonio, but there was never really a program or strategy associated with it. So us coming in has really kind of kicked off what we call Smart SA- our partnership between the city of San Antonio, CPS, SAWS, River Authority and a few other partners, and this is basically the attempt to start to implement an entire program. So before we were doing piecemeal projects. If a city council member or manager would go to another town and see something cool, they’d bring it back and say, hey, why aren’t we doing this?

And that worked for a little bit. That’s really the kind of, Smart City 2.0 model, and we’re working on Smart City 3.0, which is really co-creation. So we’re no longer taking shiny technology because it’s cool. Our first three months with my team in the city of San Antonio- so October to December, and all we did was community outreach. We did nothing related to tech (1:56), we identified challenges, rather than technology solutions. We pushed it out to vendors and said hey, we want you to come back with some solutions, that are very community specific for our city. So we’re running through those now. We got about 4000 survey responses back which is excellent, within the innovation zones, and so we’re starting to implement some of those now. And again- not solutions because of shiny tech- but solutions to actually change people’s lives.

And solutions to problems that people told you they had. 

Yes, absolutely. A lot of the problems were traffic congestion, walkability. Pedestrian safety, I mean Vision Zero’s a big goal of ours to reach. But also the climate action item. There’s some real concern about air quality and water quality, especially in a city that has a river running right through it. So all of our stuff really relates on that.

One big project we’re about to start working on is a digital divide assessment.  So we can do technology and data and all that- but if people don’t have access to it, if they can’t afford access to it, we want to be able to identify some solutions on that end as well.

So what we didn’t want to do was just come in, and throw money at a problem that we didn’t really have a clear definition of what that problem looked like. So we’re working with UTSA, SAHA, our housing authority, and the public library- to determine where that divide lies in the city of San Antonio. It’s a really big project. But we’re really excited about that. We think the result will be report cards for each capital district, not only to identify the problem, but then below, create some solutions. Identify some capacity that we can fill in the gaps with some partners. ISPs and telecom companies are coming at us left and right, asking what they can do- and that’s the point of the assessment. We want to be able to strategically tell them, what you can do.

We have a lot of people who probably have the misconception that there’s only a lack of internet or a lack of wi-fi in really rural areas- but could there be areas within San Antonio and are there families that don’t have regular access?

Absolutely. We also work with the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio and based on their studies and the studies they’ve analyzed, 1 in 4 people don’t have access to the Internet in San Antonio.

That’s a large percentage. Who are we talking about- are we talking about older people, or is that a misconception- is it everybody?

It absolutely could be, and that’s what we’re trying to identify- who and where and why. Really there’s three levels to this assessment that we’re taking in.

First is the infrastructure portion, which is- do you have broadband access to your home. The second one is access to devices. So if you do have access to the internet, do you actually have a device to attack it, which device do you have? There’s a lot less capability on an iphone than a laptop. We’re talking about economic development, we’re talking about applying for jobs, doing homework, for kids- can’t really do that on a smartphone. So access to infrastructure, access to devices- and then the third is really important. It’s all about knowledge. Do the folks that have access to the Internet and access to devices, do they know how to use it? Do they have the capabilities to use it? So that’s really what we’re focusing on with those three items, and we’ll have some pretty clear answers to go off of.

 I know this is in the really early stages- and San Antonio’s going to have its own, problems to solve, and characteristics to contribute to this- but have we seen in other cities, what are the types of ways we might address this?

We’ve seen Seattle and San Jose do some amazing things when it comes to P3 solutions- so, public private partnerships. So when I mention the telecom and ISPs, they’re not only wanting to know where to install wi-fi and all these access points, but they also want to know- can they provide some money? And that’s really the thing with us. We don’t want to just distribute the money in a blanket situation. So that’ll really be a solution for us. The Googles and everything else coming in throwing out the Google laptops- are we actually utilizing them in a productive manner? We want to make sure we’re doing that.

SAHA is doing some tremendous things, and that’s why we’re a partner with them. They actually provide kind of, wide open wifi in a lot of their units. And they’ve done this by creating their own technology, within their own teams. So I think that partnership’s going to be really beneficial.

The public library offers free wi-fi throughout all their libraries. Another one of our partners is VIA. VIA has the largest free wi-fi network in the city, because they offer free wi-fi on all their buses. How do we bridge the gap between all those components?

Switching gears to smart streetlights- how are we doing with that?

Yeah, so this is a great example of how we’re working with our partners closely and also utilizing feedback from that community. Part of that community outreach phase we’re going through. We have five use cases we’re plugging into this RFP, which is really interesting. Typically when you RFP, do a request for proposals, for procurement purposes- usually you identify the technology that you want. Again, we’re using use cases- that we identified and that were dictated by the community members themselves.

So, one of them’s traffic mitigation. So really the streetlights, we’re doing fifteen at each of our innovation zones, and those three innovations are downtown, the Medical Center and Brooks. So we’re taking fifteen lights in each zone, and we’re going to split those out in fives. One vendor gets five in each zone. What we’ll be testing out there is sensoring for air quality measures, temperature sensing so we can identify where the heat islands are in the city of San Antonio, and figure out ways to mitigate that. Another way is traffic mitigation. So understanding in the Medical Center, how traffic flows and how inefficient, or efficient it is. Parking sensing. So we’re going to try to identify some solutions for parking in our downtown area. So there’s some technology out there on-street parking, you can identify it, so when you’re going downtown you can see where the parking spots are available before you have to get there and circle the block a thousand times.

And the last one is really cool, it’s a partnership obviously with CPS (Energy), it’s their streetlights- but it’s a partnership between CPS, the city of San Antonio, and the River Authority. So the last one is a flood prediction model. River Authority is working on it, but they needed the technology to plug in. And that’s where we’re going. So those are the five use cases. Really cool, and I think that streetlight will be implementing around October or September, in that pilot phase, and we’ll start collecting feedback, for about six months, on those innovation zones and what works and what doesn’t.

You touched on this in both of these cases but are you finding that there’s a lot of entities and agencies that are coming up with technological solutions to these problems (already)? How has it been to kind of break down those silos and get everybody working together on that? 

I really talk about my team as, we’re a team of bridge builders. It’s tough to get past the silos, especially in municipal agencies. We work with organizations that kind of cross that line, so one example is the digital inclusion alliance. When we’re doing that digital divide assessment- I want to know who’s doing that work. So we’re not doing double work, and if we are we at least know it. So it’s working with nonprofit associations, having conversations with leaders in the space, if it’s a tech space or public service space. And honestly, dropping off the egos a little bit. Everyone wants to own what they have and get credit for it but at the end of the day as Paula Gold-Williams says a lot, she says we can go a lot further together than we can singular. I think that’s been really incredible, is having those conversations out in the open saying hey- this is what we want to do, are you doing it?

How did- maybe this is something obvious- but coming up with the idea to use a streetlight to identify flood-prone areas and heat islands- where did that come from?

Other cities are using this technology already and we’re really implementing it…A lot of times, sometimes it’s not geared toward community challenges- it’s geared toward shiny new thing. Since the first week we’re in the job we got vendors coming at us left and right. So it’s really, options are out there- but it’s about what options are most applicable to us here in San Antonio?

I think sometimes people hear the word innovation, or imagining “Office of Innovation,” they think only downtown. And there are solutions we need downtown. But is this a whole city approach and are there solutions we could use to create more equitable transportation…

Yes. The City of San Antonio utilizes an equity lens when we do our budget. We look through that lens day to day when we pick those projects. So the digital divide assessment obviously is a very good reflection of that equity model. Where have we not invested in the past that we need to invest more than other spaces. The streetlight with the RFP, with water quality and temperature sensing, that really affects our climate here in San Antonio. We don’t want to get to the end of the road and think, we should have done that better, we should have seen what was going on.

One of them that gets confused is a project we’re doing down at Brooks- this will probably kick off late fall. But Brooks has been all-in about being an innovation zone. And one of the projects we’re working on now is an autonomous vehicles project, down at Brooks. We’re partnering with UTSA, USAA and SWRI. Southwest Research Institute. We know SWRI’s been working on this for a long time and they’re eager to get off campus and get into a living lab. That gives us the opportunity to get into research on whether this is working or not. UTSA is going to be there helping us understand, are we serving the community members that need to be served best, or are we just blanketing to those that have been entitled and can access this? So that’s a project we’re doing with Brooks. VIA of course, because they’re opening their new transit center, and TCI, Transportation and Capital Improvements department here in the City of San Antonio.

This isn’t just a do something shiny or every other city’s done AV, ok let’s copy them- what we’re trying to do is figure out this first mile last mile issue we have with public transit.

Before I got into this position I was on the VIA board, and one of the big issues we had was getting folks from the bus stop to their home or to their job or wherever they’re going to play and we’re hoping this AV project on Brooks really solves that. Considering Brooks is a live work play area. They have senior living. How can I get that senior person across Brooks to the H-E-B right outside of Brooks a little easier without them having to suffer in the heat? A person with disabilities, how can I get them quicker? So it’s really about trying to connect for the needs of the people rather than the wants so I think that’s going to be really cool.

For people who are unfamiliar, what is AV?

Autonomous vehicles, so driverless vehicles. They’ll start with a driver in the vehicle, someone in there making sure we focus on safety, but we’re hoping over the next few years they become truly driverless. Other cities are doing it. They still have drivers in them but a lot of technology controls the vehicle most of the time. It not only solves that first mile last mile, but it addresses a lot of safety items. When it comes to vision zero technology has some benefits compared to human drivers. Nowadays when humans are more distracted at the wheel than ever, we really think the autonomous vehicles could provide some safety solutions, but also basic transit solutions.

And at this point that’s still very much in the testing phase, right?

Right, absolutely. But that’s what the innovation zones are for- for prototyping and testing. And those were designated by their councilors.

And we’re not just talking about autonomous vehicles for yuppie millennials like me who are going to take it to get somewhere- we’re talking about people who don’t have a vehicle or they maybe are not able to drive?

Yes- and if you can’t afford a car you’re typically going to take the bus. And I can’t put a bus stop right outside your house. We’ve seen that’s an issue with a lot of public transit ridership, they can’t get from a bus stop to their house or to their job quick enough. Especially in San Antonio where there’s a bit of urban sprawl- we’re trying to figure out how to fill in that gap. VIA only has so much funding and we’re trying to leverage those dollars better, and this partnership is part of that.

Is there anything else that excites you about that project or anything else you think is interesting that people don’t know that you want them to?

Yeah. So I actually think this crosses all boundaries when it comes to innovation and smart city solutions. It’s really the community engagement aspect of it all. It’s cool knowing about data and knowing about technology and being in that space, but it’s interesting how talented my team is when it comes to knowing about data and how we use data and being able to collect it and knowing about the technology that’s there to offer, but the third level on that is community engagement and that aspect.

16:00 So we don’t want to operate around the people- we want to operate with them. One of the areas we have coming up is some community engagement opportunities called sandboxing. So my teammates came up with the idea of- why don’t we take the technology and put it out there for the community to play with? When it comes to smart streetlight, why can’t I take it to the community at a meeting and say okay, ask me about it. That really makes it a little easier to start implementing things that people aren’t familiar with, because you get them familiar before you start implementing. I think that’s the coolest component about all of this is the people aspect and how the community’s starting to address that, prior to us implementing.

Is it tough to find the people you’re hoping to engage with for these solutions to engage with them, or how do ya’ll do that?

It’s very tough because I have a very lean team. So my Smart Cities team is made up of four people right now. And in a city of 1.5 million, not the easiest- but that’s where we work with our partners. We sat with CPS (Energy)’s leadership to identify, how do we better engage with your customers? Because your customers are my customers. That’s where it really becomes more impactful. Working with UTSA on the digital divide assessment, that’s how we get out there. And they have plenty of students that are really engaged on this topic. How do I look for something that benefits the entire city? That’s where the partnership really comes into play, is the engagement portion.

Are there any other partners you’re looking for or anyone else you’d like to hear from or reach out to?

Money, money, money (laughs). Honestly, it does come to outreach. That community engagement aspect- you can never have enough volunteers, you can never have enough people raising their hands to say hey, I want to know more about what you’re doing. Typically you’ll get that when it’s time to go negative but this is really a positive conversation right now and we want to be able to hone that in a little bit more. We want to be able to be proactive when it comes to educating our community members, rather than just running into a spot.

When people hear “Smart City, or Smart Cities,” do they get what that is?

No. The first question we always get is- a smart city for who? A smart city is… I think it was Austin’s city manager who was going to a conference on smart cities and he was going there to speak and when he got on stage someone asked, what’s a smart city to you?

18:35 And he said, I drove out of my city and I drove down past a homeless encampment on the street, and he said that to me, is not a smart city. I think smart city applies in every single realm, of how a city works- whether it’s stormwater or housing- I think it applies to all of that angles. Now, do you have the capacity to answer all of those with a Smart City solution? Probably not. Can you be more aware of it? So with digital divide it’s not just about throwing out technology, it’s about, why is this occurring? That’s really a smart city- getting down to the baseline level of it. We don’t really enjoy using smart city terminology because it has become a buzzword, a lot more, but it’s what me and my team are there for- to redefine what that means and to make sure the focus isn’t on technology, it’s on people.

And it sounds like your focus is not on technology- it’s on people.

Absolutely. It’s always about the people. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what’s really the running thing within our office, and within our team- we don’t have people who are like, hey that’s not cool enough. Is it affecting the people? Then it’s very cool.

Anything else that you think is important to know?

There is one other thing, folks can get involved in this space. We have a program called CivTech SA, and what this is is a program to focus on, we work with sixth graders to twelfth graders, we work with colleges and universities, we work with startup companies, and the whole focus is on, bringing civic challenges to the community and saying- hey, we may not be the smartest people in the room. So we bring it to them and say what are the challenges- anything from a better way for the airport to work, to how do we predict better flooding prediction analysis? How do we do that better in this space? How do we solve for homelessness? Currently one of the teams within our residency program is trying to do that, trying to solve for our homelessness issue. Where are homeless individuals and how do we solve for that? So the CivTechSA program is really important, through that progression. We’re going into year three of that so I’m really excited about that and we’ve built it into a robust program so I think that’s a good one for people to get involved with and can be involved. You don’t have to work in the Office of Innovation to get involved. We’ve got you.



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