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San Antonio engages communities through civic technology

by Municipal World Staff
in Innovation

San Antonio has experienced a rapidly growing technology and startup ecosystem in recent years, but has struggled to engage this sector, particularly startups that find it difficult to overcome bureaucratic barriers to doing business with the city.

To help breakdown these barriers, the CivTechSA program was launched in October 2017 as a partnership between the City of San Antonio’s Office of Innovation and Geekdom, a local co-working space, incubator, and leader in the startup and tech ecosystem. The goal of the CivTechSA program is to connect students, entrepreneurs, and the tech community with the city to solve community challenges and grow civically-minded tech talent.

CivTechSA’s case study was presented during the Transforming Local Government Conference’s Innovation Showcase, where it was honoured with a 2019 Outstanding Achievement award.

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Four Pillars of Engagement in Tech Ecosystem

There are four pillars that engage different segments of the technology ecosystem: Grade 6-12 students and teachers; university students; entrepreneurs; and startups. City departments submitted challenges ranging in complexity to be addressed by different pillars of the program, resulting in customized tech solutions for the city.

In the first year of CivTechSA, the Grade 6-12 program focused on training teachers to incorporate civic engagement, technology, and entrepreneurial principles into their curriculum to inspire students to give back to their community and pursue entrepreneurial careers. University students were paired with city departments, who provided data and guidance for students to help solve challenges. The entrepreneur program included a variety of events and workshops, such as a startup weekend and datathon. The startup component was a 16-week residency in which two startup companies were embedded in city departments to solve specified challenges.

The City of San Antonio’s Office of Innovation was the primary initiator of the program, however, Geekdom was engaged early on to help develop the program and is an equal partner. Geekdom has become a catalyst for San Antonio’s downtown tech district and has helped bring together the tech community, forming close partnerships with numerous tech-focused community organizations. CivTechSA has leveraged those existing partnerships to help engage participants, gain buy-in from the tech community, and maximize the impact of the program. Partnerships with tech companies, a pair of high schools, and three universities have helped promote civic engagement and entrepreneurial principles among students.

San Antonio’s City Departments Energized

In addition to the 15 external partners that CivTechSA has worked with, the program has also engaged city departments. At the beginning of the year, the Office of Innovation issued a call for challenges, asking departments to submit challenges they would like to see addressed through the CivTechSA program. In total, 18 departments submitted 30 challenges, and the program worked directly with 10 departments in the first year.

Geekdom, who the city contracts with to manage day-to-day operations, hired a full-time program manager to act as the point of contact with external stakeholders and partners, engage and recruit participants, and manage the logistics for events and meetings. The contract also includes funding for the development of a website for the program, which Geekdom subcontracted, and for marketing and promotional materials.

The CivTechSA concept is replicable for any jurisdiction wanting to bridge the gap between government and the local technology sector. If not the whole program, individual components of the program are replicable depending on each jurisdiction’s assets and resources.

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Civic Engagement Leads to Community Buy-In

In its first year, CivTechSA engaged over 200 participants, 10 city departments, and 15 external stakeholders. Thirteen civic challenges were addressed through all pillars of the program. These are partnerships that would have otherwise not been created and challenges that would have otherwise not been addressed.

The biggest outcome this program has had so far is establishing a mechanism for the city and the tech community to work together. The program has also helped cultivate a network with academic institutions, including high schools and universities, in which students are provided with hands-on experience with real-world challenges.  MW

✯ Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Julie Fader and Luke Simcoe’s article: How to be smart(er) in mid-sized cities. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


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