Austin City Leaders and Startups Collaborate on Developing Austin's SmartCities Strategic Roadmap

A few weeks ago, Austin’s Chief Innovation Officer, Kerry O’Connor and Data Architect Ted Lehr invited SmartAustin and some of Austin’s most promising SmartCities startups to provide input into the City of Austin’s Smart Cities Strategic Roadmap (to be completed this spring).  Not only was it a great honor to sit down with these leaders, but it was an opportunity to see how much Kerry and Ted valued the input of startups how eager they were to support the startups' success.  Not all SmartCities companies require heavy engagement with municipalities but many, of course, do.  Through the course of a lively two-hour conversation in Kerry’s office, it was encouraging, and interesting, to see the many reasons why startups and forward-thinking City officials appreciate working together.

The reasons include:

  • A shared sense of civic engagement, focused on ensuring that Austin is a technology leader, and is leveraging that technology to improve the services it delivers

  • A desire to “modernize” how municipalities work in order to increase efficiency, transparency and effectiveness and to streamline business and operational processes

  • An interest in improving the political scene for Austin startups (i.e. not let the Uber confusion/drama happen again :-)

  • An interest in addressing the question: “What else can the municipality do to enable a strong startup ecosystem?”

OK, the last one might seem a bit general, but the meeting helped us identify pragmatic steps a City can take to support its startups.  Topics included regulations, contracting, access to data, and/or access to pilot opportunities.  A startup already working with the City focused on its need for simplified contracting procedures.  Another startup focused on its data access needs.  Yes, Austin’s OpenData project, as we’ve proudly noted, has won prominent awards and has helped make Austin a model city in that domain--but our startups upped the ante. Real-time infrastructure-related data would open new opportunities for providing increasingly intelligent services in, say, building energy management, water management, and mobility.

All of these big thoughts and plans got us excited about Austin’s future.  But some other recent (or recently discovered :-)  work has added to our excitement:

  • Kerry and the Innovation Office have been hard at work developing and implementing a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows program to work on specific projects like Improving the Permitting Process, Getting Austin Closer to Zero-Waste and Designing the Austin Convention Center's Digital Front Door

  • We learned about innovative efforts to provide a simplified and accessible business on-ramp for startups, being developed by the Office of the Chief Information Officer (more on this exciting effort in a later post!)

  • Darren Bates wrote this blog post arguing that technology, innovative programs, and strong social values create the most successful 'SmartCities,’ and that Austin is, therefore, well-primed to succeed

  • The National League of Cities developed the below graphic, which maps budding technology domains to the city landscape, and helps conceptualize what a ‘hitting-on-all-cylinders’ SmartCity might look like.  We've recently started thinking about developing our own map of Austin startups, which would have its own distinct look, and it's been very exciting to reflect on how many relevant solutions are represented by Austin firms.

To illustrate that final point, here's our list of meeting invitees:

  • Bractlet, a building energy management with fluid dynamics and data science expertise

  • Curb, a home energy management company with a strong focus on usability and actionable data

  • data.world, a leader in accelerating data-driven problem solving, with a number of initiatives highly relevant to the public sphere

  • FATHOM, smart water infrastructure management with strong automated metering and data analytics expertise
  • Plum, a home lighting IoT solution with a cool distributed computing platform

  • Smarter Sorting, a data-driven resource recovery firm, with an innovative business model
  • WigWag, a SmartHome solution company that securely connects your favorite smart devices together to work as an ecosystem

These cool startups (most of the above were able to join us) contributed to Kerry’s plan as and to our understanding of their needs, but also learned some key lessons, for themselves, about how to engage with the City.  The top takeaways:

  • Articulate very clearly the municipal services, departments, and values being supported

  • Make sure the project is self-funding!!

So, yes, some of the insights from the day were more revolutionary, and some more foundational or pragmatic . . . .   But the key lesson for us was that an ongoing conversation between municipalities and fast-growing tech business helps each understand the other’s world.  As this understanding develops, and as personal connections grow, opportunity areas can be framed more clearly and then acted upon.  SmartAustin was delighted to see the energy in the room and to be a part of realizing the vision of an increasingly dynamic, agile city environment and City government.  We are so appreciative of the time and initiative of all of those who took part!