How Can Austin Achieve Smart City Status?

Mar 14, 2017

Austin's chief innovation officer, Kerry O'Connor, talks about what the city is doing to become "smart," at a panel during SXSW on Sunday.
Credit Syeda Hasan / KUT

Beyond the music, movies and tech debuting at South by Southwest, this year’s festival is also hosting city leaders from around the country. They’re exploring ways to become so-called “smart cities,” using technology to address common urban problems.

Jay Boisseau, founder of the nonprofit Austin CityUP, spoke at an event on the topic during SXSW on Sunday. He said one challenge of becoming a smart city is that the term is hard to define.

“I hear a lot of people say in one sentence what it is, but those sentences never agree,” he said. “Or they go off on paragraphs of sentences about what it is, and then I’m confused at the end of it. We have to figure out a great way to talk really about smart cites even though it’s a complex area.”

Boisseau’s group wants to help Austin achieve smart city status by bringing local businesses and nonprofits together to work with city governments. The idea is to leverage all these resources to find solutions to common problems. Take for example pedestrian safety. Partnering with a research firm could help the city identify the safest routes for walking, but as outsiders looking in, it’s not always easy for tech companies to identify these civic challenges.

Luckily, Austin’s got an executive charged with making those connections. Kerry O’Connor is Austin’s chief innovation officer, but she admits those collaborations don’t always work seamlessly. Just take last year’s debate over ride-sharing regulations as an example. O’Connor said Austin needs a better framework for answering those regulation questions early on.

“How do we resolve conflict?” she said. “We don’t want another Uber or Lyft situation happening in this city. We want to be co-creating these technologies with government, and we want to be resolving those conflicts before you get to market.”

O’Connor said her office is working to draft a strategic roadmap to try and make future tech transitions smoother.