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4 Steps to Successful City-University Partnerships

The productive working relationship the city of Austin, Texas, has established with its local university can serve as a framework for other governments interested in improving their communities with technology.

University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin
Cities and their universities share a common interest in bettering their communities, but it can sometimes be challenging to bring the two together in a formal working relationship. The pieces and parts of a great partnership are there: The university generally has the knowledge and research abilities, and the city generally has the problem that needs an innovative solution. When paired together with the correct guidance and structure, the two can work together to benefit the community.

The city of Austin, Texas, and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) have established a working relationship and process that will advance community outcomes for Austin residents. What follows details how the relationship began and what processes were put in place to facilitate collaboration.


Good Systems is a program within UT that supports teams of interdisciplinary researchers that take on real-world problems and propose solutions that are informed by computer science, social science and humanities perspectives. They are focused on the ethical implications of artificial intelligence technologies in society.

The city of Austin’s Strategic Alliances team fosters and facilitates collaborations between the city government and community partners, including education, nonprofit, industry and government agencies.

When bringing teams together, it is helpful to establish point people to serve as liaisons between and within the organizations. These people are responsible for connecting with other teams or departments deeper in the organization to answer questions or identify resources.

Further, it is critical to set expectations at the beginning of the relationship. The city and university staff tend to work on different time schedules and can have different expectations when it comes to meetings and reporting. It is important to clarify expectations at the beginning so that team members can adjust what they're anticipating from partners — which may mean more or less meeting/reporting than groups are accustomed to.


Both teams are dedicated to improving the community and quality of life for residents of Austin. However, it was essential to create opportunities for these teams to meet, connect and explore their mutual interests. The initial solution involved curating workshops for targeted groups to come together and allowing time for socializing and more spontaneous collaborations to form — a mix of art and science.

The first collaborative workshop was in person and had a twofold purpose:

  • identify potential real-world projects that had a need for research; and
  • identify research teams that were interested in or aligned with the research needs.

In the workshop, transdisciplinary teams were formed based on shared research interests to explore real city challenges. The end goal was for these teams to put forth project proposals for funding.

The initial workshops were so successful that a second round of collaborative workshops was hosted with additional UT and city of Austin teams. Due to the pandemic the workshops were virtual, and a more structured approach was taken based on lessons learned from the first workshop. Surveys were conducted ahead of time to identify shared interests and research opportunities, which then informed the breakout groups and facilitation. Overall, feedback was very positive and numerous collaborator connections were made and project teams formed.

Research and work agreements between the city and UT are not new; however, collaboration had previously been ad hoc and relied on personal relationships to identify collaborators. This partnership introduced a framework for city-university collaboration. It tested the theory that with a strategic and coordinated approach and dedicated staff in place, collaboration would be more efficient and productive.

Contracts, legal agreements and funding can be the most challenging components of completing a project. Negotiating contractual terms and conditions and seeking funding approval can delay progress for months or years.

In August 2020, the City Council unanimously approved a five-year, $7.5 million master interlocal agreement (ILA) between the city of Austin and UT. The ILA provides pre-negotiated terms and conditions, removing legal and administrative slowdowns and introducing pre-approved authorization so that departments aren’t required to seek council approval for every project. It’s estimated that this master ILA could fast-track some projects by as much as 16 months.

It's important to note the ILA established pre-authorized funds, not pre-allocated funds. Departments still need to allocate funds within their budget for research initiatives. This ILA is available to all city departments interested in procuring research, consulting and technical services from UT.


Both the city and university saw the value of the collaboration and made organizational changes to support it, showing their commitment to the new process and breathing life into new partnerships.

The success of the formalized partnership has been proven over and over again by the number of collaborative research projects that have been identified and put forth for funding under the new ILA.

The topics of the collaborative projects are varied and support departments across Austin. Some of the projects currently identified include:
  • EMS Response Optimization: Research and development of mathematical algorithms to improve EMS response time during emergencies.
  • Low-Cost Environmental Sensors: Research to help city staff understand localized air quality issues by significantly expanding air quality monitoring, particularly where residents are experiencing disproportionate rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Smart Mobility Hub: Research and assessment of the design, implementation and outcomes of a community mobility hub.
  • Corridor Performance Dashboard: Research to analyze multimodal metrics of corridor performance.
  • Right-of-Way Study: Research to determine the locations and times when the city can close traffic lanes, while minimizing traffic delays.
  • Video Analytics: Research and testing of automated object recognition in video streams to support pedestrian safety.
  • Traffic Signal Audit: Research optimal signal timing in the downtown area.
  • Housing and Transportation Cost Analysis: Research to develop a method for assessing household transportation costs as a share of a household’s total budget.
  • Austin Housing Analysis: Analysis of 30 years of Austin housing development in effort to inform future local housing policy.
  • Green Economy: Research to identify expansions in green activity and employment.
  • Invertebrate Research: Research to evaluate current and future conditions of conservation land.
  • Water-Forward Climate and Hydrology Analysis: Research supporting water planning, availability and modeling.
  • AI, Equity and Homelessness: Research that uses AI to empower both people experiencing homelessness and the agencies who serve them.
  • Homeless Service Program Evaluation: Research and assessment of the design, implementation and outcomes of the homeless services program.

At the heart of these collaborative success stories is the master ILA. The master ILA is the game-changing factor that has opened the door to increased innovation, partnership and research opportunities. By removing red tape, teams are more eager than ever to embark on a partnership of mutual collaboration for the betterment of the city.

This improved partnership will ultimately result in improvements to the Austin community now and in the years to come.

Sara Smith is an IT business systems analyst senior with the city of Austin’s Communications and Technology Management Department. Her work and interests converge at the intersection of strategy, design research, and complexity navigation. Kate Wilson is the public information specialist for the Communications and Technology Management Department for the city of Austin. She is responsible for the department's communication and public information and is passionate about civic communication.