San Antonio is in the early stages of installing smart technologies in three designated “innovation zones” – Brooks, the Medical Center and downtown.
In 2017, the city launched SmartSA and partnered with CPS Energy, SAWS, VIA Metropolitan Transit and the San Antonio River Authority. This year, the partners decided to create innovation zones to test new technologies before implementing them across the city, following cities including Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Kansas City that have similar pilot programs.
Chief Innovation Officer Jose de la Cruz said the team wants to test new technologies that can improve mobility, access to services and the city’s use of energy and water. Cruz said the most important part of the innovation zones is to gather information on what types of solutions work best for San Antonio.
“Without infrastructure and data, the smart city concept really goes nowhere,” Cruz said. “It’s all about the data we can attain from this to make better data-influenced decisions.”
Each of the three areas were selected for specific challenges they face and potential benefits they each offer. The 1,300-acre community at Brooks provides a mini city concept that allows SmartSA to test flooding, drainage and public WiFi improvements. With an estimated 260,000 vehicles going in and out of the Medical Center every day, the team will try to ease traffic congestion and improve parking and pedestrian safety. Downtown will allow the partners to test lighting improvements in addition to trying out parking and pedestrian-safety ideas.
Several other U.S. cities are already rolling out smart technologies and innovation zones. Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the most advanced smart cities in the nation with their implementation of sensors for air quality, pothole predictors, advertising kiosks and more.
Kansas City has spent more than $2 million to roll out its smart-city program. But Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, said the benefits far outweigh the costs.
“There are almost no cons,” Bennett said. “The mission of the city has not changed. Because of that, we are able to do things more efficiently, more effectively and faster in regard to maintenance or in regard to identifying problem sets. There is not a whole lot of downside to that.”
Beginning in 2014, Dallas also began deploying smart-city technologies. Through partnerships with companies such as AT&T and the Dallas Innovation Alliance, the city was able to develop their version of an innovation zone called a Living Lab at the West End Historic District downtown in 2017. Jennifer Sanders, executive director and co-founder of DIA, said creating innovation zones is hard, but beneficial, work.
“Creating a visual destination that citizens can see and experience can help to educate and engage on what smart cities are and the benefits,” Sanders said. “This extends to other audiences like city departments, students, etcetera. Economic development very often results from these investments in innovation and infrastructure. Empowering startups and small businesses drives business growth and job creation. It’s hard for me to think of downsides to creating these zones.”
Sanders said she believes San Antonio has several advantages when it comes to smart-city technologies.
“San Antonio has all of the elements of success, and I think there is a lot of great work already being done in civic, startup and innovation space,” Sanders said. “It is a strong hub for cybersecurity, a critical area for the public and private sectors, and your Chief Innovation Officer Jose de la Cruz has done a great job.”
While the city is still in the early stages, Bennett said San Antonio is on the right track.
“I think San Antonio is ahead of the curve,” Bennett said. “I think strategy-wise San Antonio is extremely advanced. ... It is just trying to figure out how to get all of these components financed and implemented into other city operations, which is a hard thing to do.”
Throughout the next year, the SmartSA partners will continue to identify problems in the three locations across the city by talking to residents and hosting a vendor summit before officially instituting the innovation zones.
“This is our concept,” Cruz said. “This is the way to move the smart-city program forward for the benefit of the entire city to learn about the emerging technologies that are out there that we can benefit from.”
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