Austin focuses on giving everyone a voice

Thu, 2017-02-09 12:35 -- Kevin Ebi

As you’re planning your smart cities efforts, do you stop to think about who they will benefit? It makes a difference. Case in point: Austin.

Austin is growing fast and the fact is there’s virtually an unlimited number of projects that it could take on to benefit some segment of the population. But it decided to take a step back and look at what it could do to help those who need the help the most.

It’s an inspiring approach and one that we personally advocate here at the Council. If you’re not familiar with our Compassionate Cities campaign, please check it out. There is a lot that cities can do to improve the human condition, and we look forward to working with Austin to do just that. — Kevin Ebi

Austin is growing fast. Five of the past six years, it topped Forbes’ list of the fastest-growing major U.S. cities. The one year it didn’t get that title, it came second to Houston. Since 2010, the greater Austin area has grown nearly 16%.

Such growth naturally causes traffic congestion and the city was a natural finalist for last year’s Department of Transportation grant. It didn’t get it, but it’s more committed than ever to using smart technologies to improve livability — especially for those who need the boost the most.

Focusing on the under-served
“We thought about proposing solutions involving the airport, but then we thought those solutions will mainly affect professionals who already have a pretty good life,” said Ted Lehr, Austin’s data architect. “We want to use solutions to help people at lower-income levels.”

With its Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant, Austin will work on strategies to develop affordable housing, improve mobility and spark economic development for population groups that have traditionally been under-served.

“This will help Austin use new technologies to meet old challenges of mobility and affordability,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “Winning the Smart Cities Council Challenge Grant puts us that much closer to creating a comprehensive and inclusive strategy to use technology in a way that benefits communities that are usually left behind.”

It begins with listening
But to improve the lives of the under-serve, you first need to know what they actually need and want. Getting to the heart of that is one of the city’s primary tasks now.

“They’re not always engaging in the community the way that the more affluent population does,” Lehr said. “There’s a trust issue. We want to make sure that we get it right.”

With such rapid population growth, there’s a temptation to act as quickly as possible. But the city realizes that to truly make a difference, it needs to be more deliberate.

“We want to move fast, but we also want to do it in a way that our communities will buy-in and embrace it in a way that will be positive,” Lehr said.

The power of data
Other work by the city will also focus on the potential of data — and overcoming obstacles that prevent it from being used effectively.

“There’s going to be a lot of data,” Lehr said. “That raises a lot of possibilities to do things more intelligently.”

The big obstacle is capacity. Without an underlying strategy, the volume of data could grow faster than anybody’s ability to handle it. He’s working to bring city departments together so that they all talk the same language while respecting each other’s spaces.

“A lot of departments are not set up to do the analysis that the data is wanting,” he said. “Then it’s just going to sit there in storage.”

Learn from Austin and other smart cities leaders …
Join us at Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley, May 8-10 in Santa Clara, CA, to hear from all five Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant winners, as well as other enterprising cities and world-renowned smart cities experts. Register today.