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Digital Leadership and Texas’ Major Metros

By: Chelsea Collier, Senior Advisor, Texans for Economic Progress (TEP)

We are living in an era of digital transformation and city governments around the world are working quickly to keep up, including right here in Texas. Over the past couple of months, I’ve met with leaders in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin to learn about what is happening on the local level in the Lone Star State.

While each city is unique in their assets and their approaches, there are some overlaps between metropolitan areas. Commonality is important especially given how much work there is still yet to do to prepare municipalities for the not-so-distant future.

This is where policy can be helpful and Texas is showing its strength. In the 85th Legislative Session, Senate Bill 1004 passed into law, providing a streamlined approach for cities to support network build out across the state. This efficiency is much needed as diversity between local approaches can hinder the ability to move fast and keep up with the pace of market innovation. Texas’ major metros are also working in lock-step on several other fronts. Here is a quick overview of what I learned from local leaders and what could happen next.

Internal Alignment and External Alliances
One of the challenges for large organizations – public or private sector – is how to communicate across departments when responsibilities are shared and resources are scarce. This issue came up repeatedly in each city I visited, not as a complaint, but as an intention to work toward removing roadblocks, creating clarity and greater alignment.

The result of this strategy is already evidenced in Dallas. Jennifer Sanders, Executive Director of The Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) worked closely with the Mayor, city leaders and the private sector to plan, implement and launch a Living Lab this March. The interactive kiosks provide connectivity, smart LED lighting and are packed with sensors that gather information that is useful to the city and area businesses.

And while San Antonio, Houston and Austin may not have Living Labs yet, they are focused on prioritizing technology and process improvement. City of San Antonio CIO Jose De La Cruz, City of Houston Director of Innovation Jesse Bounds and Austin CIO Kerry O’Connor are infusing their organizations with a spirit of “doing things differently” and pushing for new approaches to traditional challenges.

Data Leads to Better Decisions
In each city, there is a clear understanding and agreement that gathering the appropriate data can support greater operational efficiency for cities. Much of that information – called open data – is publicly accessible.

Civic Hack Nights, like the ones led by Victoria O’Dell with OpenAustin or at San Antonio’s tech startup mecca Geekdom, depend on a city’s open data to fuel city-focused innovation. In Houston, our meeting was only a week before Hurricane Harvey unleashed its devastating effects, and open data was a key factor in the city’s ability to quickly triage the needs of its residents. In fact, tech has even been called the “Unexpected Hero of Harvey,” further supporting the department’s vision.

digital citiesModernizing Infrastructure
Digitization is how cities continue to advance their infrastructure. Leaders in Texas’ major metros are all too aware of how critical it is to increase an urban area’s access to connectivity and they are making strides to prepare their cities for 5G, the next generation network with speeds of up to 50 times greater than current 4G capability.

Preparing for the rollout of 5G requires densifying mobile networks by deploying an increased numbers of wireless cell sites called small cells. Approximately the size of a tablet, these nodes can attach to streetlights, utility poles, on the side of buildings or even contained within digital kiosks.

Each local leader is focused on how to increase access in their cities, especially for the most vulnerable residents. Decreasing the digital divide is topic that is repeatedly front and center. The City of Houston is working with Technology for All in partnership with Rice University on a unique project in Pecan Park that provides digital skills building classes as well as free or reduced-rate Internet services. The research and innovation strategy seeks to empower low-income and under resourced communities through technology access.

So What’s Next for Texas?
There is a tremendous amount of energy both within city government and from local third party groups such as Austin CityUP, Dallas Innovation Alliance, Sketch City in Houston and Geekdom, the Smart Texas Alliance and EPI Center in San Antonio. These collaborations are inspiring new ecosystems and conversations between public service providers and industry.

The ability to leverage partnerships and streamline processes, as outlined in SB 1004, will bring the benefit of connectivity via small cells and eventually 5G technology. While the work is far from complete, embracing smart policies will keep Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio on track as some of the nation’s top economic performers.

Categories Blog, TEP Focus, TEP In The News | Tags: | Posted on October 12, 2017