On all levels of government, innovative practices can generate real benefits for citizens and inhabitants. During her visit to Switzerland, we had the chance to speak with Kerry O’Connor, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Austin, Texas. In our interview, she lays out her approach to make "Smart Cities" responsive to the needs of the people, explaining how this helps them tackle challenges in fields such as mobility and homelessness.
Hi Kerry, it’s great to have you. Let’s start with the basics: what makes a city smart for you?
Austin's take on smartness is grounded in the International Standards Organization definition of a smart city, which I really like because it recognises the role of people and collaboration in leveraging technology. We want to be smart by solving real problems for real people.
We try to achieve this by engaging stakeholders and users, by leading collaboratively, by working across disciplines and departments, and by using data and integrated technologies. Ultimately, we strive to improve the quality of life with and for all Austinites, businesses, and visitors.
How do you try to make Austin smart in practice?
The formation of a truly multi-disciplinary team defines our approach. We work hand-in-glove with the city’s departments instead of an individual parachuting in with all the answers. Goal number one is culture change - doing it with city staff, not for them, and involving them in the process.
First, we try to better understand complex challenges. We unpack them, bring in multiple data sources and integrate qualitative research. We then devise a strategy or set up a portfolio of projects and hand them over to people who can implement them. To enable holistic transformations, a human-centered foundation needs to be laid out in the early stages of an innovation project, even though this can appear to be squishy and relational.
One thing is certain, we cannot be "smart" in practice if we still rely on paper. We conducted an inventory of paper processes and found around 650 pdf forms that residents have to print and fill out. You can read more about our process to prioritize these forms and turn them into human-centered digital services on the web.
We work hand-in-glove with the city’s departments instead of an individual parachuting in with all the answers.
The City of Austin has pioneered the development of an innovation community and created the Office of Design and Delivery. Can you explain how this came about?
We started by offering training on co-creation, facilitation, design research, visual sense-making, and presentation design. This enabled us to identify the people who are hungry for innovation, change, or disruption.
I brought in a senior advisor for design and technology and created a Fellows Program, that would bring in multi-disciplinary teams of designers and developers from the private sector to assist these hungry for change people into the city’s department. This program provides us with a permanent flow of talents from industry to work in government. The Fellows Program eventually became the Office of Design and Delivery.
In your work, how do you empower citizens and inhabitants of your city to become co-owners of a service?
There is an imperative in Austin for the City to make policy with its people. Let me give you an example. For our homelessness project, we conducted interviews with 120 people living on the streets, we worked with social service providers, and we made sure to build the in-house knowledge necessary to understand the many faces of homelessness. For example, we had someone on the team who was a former case manager and understood the homeless population. Our team also took training on mental health first aid, as well as trauma-informed care.
How did these interviews with homeless people unfold? How did you manage to overcome potential distrust towards city officials?
We incentivized the interviewee with a $20 gift card per hour, to pay them for their time. Over time, our interviewees started helping each other interact with us, which gave them a new community to relate to.
Some of the relationships with our interviewees went beyond generating insights. One gentleman, for example, a college graduate with an emotional health disorder, had been living on the streets for a long time. Given his interest in the topic of blockchain, we employed him to advise us on a project about using blockchain against identity theft, which is an important topic for people experiencing homelessness.
Normally, people experiencing homelessness don’t have a relationship with anyone that would require them to show up, yet they started showing up for us.
We employed [a homeless man] to advise us on a project about using blockchain against identity theft, which is an important topic for people experiencing homelessness.
What impact did the insights you generated on homelessness have on the city administration?
They led to the formation of the Homelessness Advisory Committee. This committee was designed as a prototyping group and initially conducted small projects. Over time, we realized that this group was an idea in and of itself. Today, the Committee lives within our downtown community core and manages cases of people who are coming through the court system, giving them community service instead of jail.
By doing so, the Committee is able to continuously receive feedback and improve contracts with service providers through a more evidence-based, qualitative approach. This shows that sometimes, the process is part of the solution. Now the Committee gives testimony to the City Council and is the first point of contact when somebody has an idea relating to homelessness because they know the situation.
As someone who has worked in both federal and municipal government, where do you see differences in their respective innovation approaches?
The Federal Government has very specific agendas on the macro level, whereas for a city, implementing similar commitments is less about regulations or ordinances and more about co-creating projects with residents. It would be really hard for the Federal Government to use human-centered design on a local topic to set federal policy because it requires sufficient context.
Can you tell us more about the interaction between the City of Austin and other levels of government?
A contained, local setting allows for testing to inform national policies. When Austin explores autonomous vehicles, for example, we are definitely looking at the Federal Government for standards that need to be developed. In turn, Austin becomes a testbed for the development of these standards.
In 2010, the Obama Administration and Congress came together and passed the America Competes Act, which gave federal agencies the ability to conduct challenges. Conducting a challenge is about framing a problem and then pitching it to potential solvers in a way that attracts the right solvers. In 2016, the Federal Department of Transportation realized the potential to use this methodology to catalyze innovation in the smart city space for mobility.
We are definitely looking at the Federal Government for standards that need to be developed. In turn, Austin becomes a testbed for the development of these standards.
Our Smart Mobility Plan really only started when the Federal Government held the Smart City Challenge in 2016. While Austin did not win the challenge, my colleagues say the experience advanced their smart mobility by three to five years because of the collaboration that it sparked among the four main jurisdictions around transit: the Austin Transportation Department, the Texas State Department of Transportation, the Toll Roads, and CapMetro.
In the public sector, hierarchies and positions often determine the outcomes. How was your position of Chief Innovation Officer built in terms of decision-making power or financial and skills requirements?
Even as a Chief Innovation Officer, I would not say that you always need a CIO. You have to ask yourself first what you want to achieve and then build respective positions around it. For example, if you merely want to deploy new technologies, then it is sufficient to focus on the technologies. Yet, if you want to induce real change, you need a “holding space”, which is administered by somebody to hold the space for change. That can be a CIO, but it can be a program office, a non-profit outside of government, or someone in between.
Moreover, I believe it is important to allow for an emergent strategy. While you need top-down championship, change needs to emerge from the bottom up. This includes bringing people together based on their needs.
Even as a Chief Innovation Officer, I would not say that you always need a CIO. You have to ask yourself first what you want to achieve and then build respective positions around it.
During your three days in Switzerland, you met with public administrators, innovators, and citizens from Bern and Zurich. What did you find most intriguing?
Bern and Zurich are gearing up their smart city capabilities. People are talking about tools for e-participation, innovation funds, innovation labs, and fellows programs. The impact hubs integrate social enterprises. I think Switzerland has all the ingredients for smart cities to take off, yet, I am curious about the specific problems that Switzerland deems most important to make its cities smarter. What are the big challenges for Switzerland’s future? The answers to this question will very much define how the smart city concept makes a difference in the country, and they have to be developed by public administrators together with innovators and citizens.
Kerry, thank you for your time.
Kerry O'Connor currently serves as Chief Innovation Officer of the city of Austin in Texas. During her time at the U.S. Department of State, she initiated the Research and Design Center in the Office of the Secretary of State, was responsible for logistics at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and improved programs and operations at two U.S. Embassies. She holds a Master of Arts in International Affairs from The George Washington University.