San Antonio is launching CivTechSA, a program that at its core seeks to facilitate collaborations between tech startups and public agencies, introducing entrepreneurs to government work while at the same time forging tech-based solutions to problems the city faces.
This formula may sound familiar. It is, to some extent, inspired by San Francisco’s Startup in Residence program (STiR), which recently announced that it would be expanding to 12 jurisdictions nationwide in 2018. Where CivTechSA differs, however, is that it also involves local junior highs, high schools and universities. The reason for this, organizers say, is that unlike San Francisco, San Antonio’s startup ecosystem is in its nascent stages. Where San Francisco has a vast wealth of startup and tech talent in the private sector to draw from, San Antonio’s own community is still growing.
The city also struggles with brain drain, as many talented young people often move 90 minutes or so up I-35 to nearby Austin, Texas, or go even farther away to larger cities. To combat this, CivTechSA seeks to get kids hooked on gov tech work when they’re young, showing them there are plenty of tangible opportunities to thrive and simultaneously make a difference in their hometown, said Kate Mason, innovation manager for San Antonio’s Office of Innovation. To do this, the program is going to give student participants projects aimed at solving city problems. They will then be solely responsible for the solutions.
Essentially, the primary benefit of STiR — connecting government with new technology — is just one part of San Antonio’s program. CivTechSA is also a long-term economic development tool, an investment in San Antonio’s tech startup community.
So one of the key partners for this new program is Geekdom, a co-working space and incubator at the heart of San Antonio’s tech and innovation ecosystem. While CivTechSA brings students into government, Geekdom will be the city’s link to grown tech talent already in the city.
“It’s important that we partner up with them because they speak the cool kid startup language, the geek language that the city doesn’t speak,” Mason said. “I don’t think this program would be possible without Geekdom.”
A longtime barrier that has prevented this type of collaboration in all cities is the opaqueness inherent to selling products to government. Entrepreneurs who try to get into public work are often discouraged by dense and lengthy processes such as procurement. Dax Moreno, programs director for Geekdom, said this collaboration is a clear invitation from government to entrepreneurs.
“It’s up to us in the startup community to bring our best now that the city has opened up and said ‘come help us,’” Moreno said.
Startup and government collaboration is not without precedent in San Antonio. A good example of past success is Cityflag, a civic tech startup that made San Antonio its first U.S. market. Cityflag is a mobile app aimed at improving municipal 311 practices. Developers worked with the city to tailor a version of it specifically for San Antonio.
“That process got the wheels turning a little bit,” Moreno said. “Not only on the city side, but also in the Geekdom community, because we saw them successfully collaborate with the city.”
Jose De La Cruz, San Antonio’s chief innovation officer, said tech could help solve a wide spectrum of the city's challenges. The Animal Care Services Department, for example, would benefit greatly from a resident notification system to collect info on the types of pets that people are looking for — age, breed, temperament — and automatically notify them when one is available, thereby better serving citizens while also improving adoption rates for stray animals.
In its first year, the program is being funded by $150,000 from San Antonio’s 2018 budget. De La Cruz said organizers will look for ways to make CivTechSA sustainable beyond that.
“We see the future of the program as an opportunity to grow and nurture the tech talent in our city, and to encourage members of our community to become involved in helping to solve civic challenges,” De La Cruz said. “The sky is really the limit for us right now, and this partnership is the first step to bridging the gap between our tech community and local government.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.