San Leandro, Calif., Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta on Creating a 'Tech and Innovation Ecosystem'

As one of the country's first innovation officers, Acosta talked to us about bringing fiber to her city and working with San Francisco's Startup in Residence program.

by / July/August 2017
Deborah Acosta, chief innovation officer, San Leandro, Calif.

You could call Deborah Acosta a pioneering chief innovation officer. She assumed the role in the Bay Area city of San Leandro in early 2013 when the title was something of a revelation in government. The formerly industrial city lost much of its economic engine when jobs went overseas in the 1980s, so the city vowed to attract technology businesses and hired Acosta to lead the effort. One local entrepreneur wanted to transition his utility software company to the cloud, and partnered with the city to leverage the fiber-optic infrastructure San Leandro used to manage its traffic systems. OSIsoft pulled nearly 300 strands of fiber from the conduit, creating Lit San Leandro, a project that now connects more than 250 local businesses. It’s just the kind of unique partnership that typifies Acosta’s view of innovation. For her, it’s about creating a “tech and innovation ecosystem.”

1. How has San Leandro benefited from the fiber partnership with OSIsoft?

In that agreement, the city of San Leandro received between 30 and 72 strands of fiber. Five years ago, nobody was really thinking smart cities and data. Today, we’re looking at this thinking, “Oh my goodness, we should be doing something that can benefit our citizens and our businesses.” We have a construction project right now that’s almost finished, a deal with Climatec using Paradox Technologies where we’re swapping out all of the streetlights with LED lights, so immediately, dramatically reducing the costs, but it’s also a smart system, because we have a self-healing wireless mesh network on top of all of the light poles. … There are no out-of-pocket costs for the city, and the business, Climatec, guarantees that so there’s no risk for the city.

2. How has that project helped San Leandro on its smart city journey?

Once a city is able to taste what can happen with a smart city project like that, they’re like, “What else could we do?” So we’re actually in the process of interviewing several companies to help us form a fiber-optic master plan, aka a smart city strategy. What should we be doing with our fiber assets? We suspect it might have something to do with our light poles. … What should we be doing with our poles that will help our community move into the era of environmental health, of self-driving cars, of better living in cities? We’re on that journey right now to figure out what we can do with that.

3. San Leandro is involved in San Francisco’s Startup in Residence (STiR) program. How does working with startups compare to engaging with legacy tech vendors?

There’s a huge difference working with legacy companies and startups. Most cities will feel much more comfortable working with legacy companies because they can provide all of the guarantees, the insurance that’s required, which in a city’s view helps to mitigate the risk. In my experience over 20 years in government, that also means that the city must fit its round peg into the square hole. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: You must conform your needs to the product or service being offered. It’s really different with a startup. They want to create a successful project that they can scale across a number of communities, so they want to make you really happy. They listen to you. They work with you to make sure that the product that they are offering and iterating on is actually what you’re looking for.

4. As one of the country’s first innovation officers, describe how innovation happens in San Leandro.

The innovation internal to the city began to happen after people started to see the excitement that was happening on the outside. The STiR program really brought it home, that innovation is something that belongs to every department, to everybody. The next step is definitely going to be to codify what innovation means throughout the city, and I think we’re finally in a place to do that.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.