At City Summit 2018, 50 cities committed to new initiatives to support their innovation economies. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments in order to showcase successes, identify best practices and connect peer cities who can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:
Kate Kinnison, R&D Administrator for the city of San Antonio, admits that cities and startups aren’t always on the same page. “Sometimes I feel like a translator between the start-up world and [city] departments,” she says. “The way they function and the way they think is totally different.”
Indeed, many of the practices startups embrace — moving quickly, failing fast, developing prototypes — are frequently absent in local government.
As one of the 50 cities that responded to NLC’s call to action to support innovation and entrepreneurship in 2018, San Antonio committed to changing that. Their pledge: expand CivTechSA, a program formed in collaboration with the city and local coworking space, Geekdom.
Borrowing from a similar program created in San Francisco in 2014, called StiR (short for “Startup in Residence”), San Antonio challenges local students, startups and entrepreneurs to develop technology-based solutions to city-identified problems. “[San Francisco] saw hundreds of startups doing amazing things with technology around them, but a city government that was living in the Stone Age,” Kinnison says. “Why aren’t we bringing in more startups into government so we can work more effectively?”
Here’s the challenge: While San Francisco is able to recruit startups from a seemingly endless pool of fledgling tech companies, San Antonio’s local ecosystem is not as deep. However, its base of 31 colleges and universities, with a total student enrollment of more than 100,000, outrivals cities like Austin and Dallas and presents an opportunity to engage students in civic life while developing the local workforce. For students, it’s both a resumé builder and chance to apply their skills in the real world.
CivTechSA engages its participants across three program areas:
- Residency: Startups nationwide apply to be embedded within a City department for 16 weeks to build a custom solution for San Antonio
- Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurs and local businesses participate in events throughout the year focused on solving civic challenges to generate useful insights and prototype solutions for a chance to win cash prizes
- Education: Schoolsengage students at the 6-12 grade and collegiate level to develop solutions to civic problems through class projects, competitions and showcases
Eddie Johnson III, an innovation specialist with the city who leads CivTechSA, highlights several successful partnerships between city departments and the community. He describes how this summer, two vendors, Outreach Grid and Rise Civic Consulting, participated in the Residency program to develop prototype tools to expand homelessness outreach and address affordable housing barriers in San Antonio. Both solutions are in the process of being procured by the City of San Antonio.
Another recent project paired Texas A&M students with the San Antonio Public Library. This resulted in a prototype application that allows users to easily access library account information using voice assistance technology through Alexa.
San Antonio’s CivTechSA program is also unique in its partnership with Geekdom. Geekdom has program managers dedicated to CivTechSA that work with the city to ensure free-flowing communication between the two entities and other program partners. The co-working space, located next door to City Tower, also provides a venue for CivTechSA’s semi-annual “Datathons” and other similar events that galvanize local entrepreneurs while educating the community about civic challenges.
Janice Riley, a programs manager at Geekdom, describes how important it is to have individuals in city government and the community who are dedicated to entrepreneurship: “You’ve got a municipality that’s focused on thinking outside the box to solve problems, partnering with an entrepreneur-focused organization that’s all about startups. We can collectively accomplish more than either one of us could alone.”
CivTechSA has grown rapidly since its inception. In the last year, the number of unique participants in its programs grew from 250 in 2018 to more than 400 in 2019. the program was also able to partner with 17 different city departments to solve a total of 18 challenges. Still, Kinnison is a realist. She emphasizes that quality of programming is more important than sheer number of participants. “You don’t build an [innovation] ecosystem just by reaching lots of people. It’s about keeping folks engaged and excited…if they don’t have a great experience then you’ve lost that person.”
Moving into its third year, the CivTechSA program has already begun establishing new partnerships, like with the Northside Independent School District (NISD) and the Cyber P-Tech program at Sam Houston High School. The program looks forward to further increasing its engagement and impact across San Antonio to address challenges affecting the community.
About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.