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By Betsy Gardner • October 29, 2019

Louis Stewart

The new digital economy is coming, and Louis Stewart, chief innovation officer (CINO) for the City of Sacramento, wants to make sure everyone in his city is ready to ride this new workforce wave. As the CINO, he focuses on innovations that make the whole city a living laboratory, but he doesn’t just bring in “tech for tech’s sake.” Stewart wants to spark community imagination about what’s possible and what’s coming so everyone can get on board — and even get ahead of the city with original innovations.


As Sacramento’s inaugural CINO in Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s Office for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Stewart has the freedom to shape the role he assumed in 2017. Influenced by his seven years as the Deputy Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the California Office of Business and Economic Development, Stewart focuses externally on the larger Sacramento community. He wants to connect the dots between startup businesses, data-driven government, and the city’s educational landscape. Mayor Steinberg and City Manager Howard Chen, whom Stewart has worked under since 2018, are supportive of Stewart shifting the city’s innovation mindset outward and looking for opportunities for cross-sector collaboration. 


One of Stewart’s main achievements is the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab (SUTL), which he developed and launched as an innovations-based economic development strategy. SUTL is a framework through which the whole city can be seen as a demonstration area; through the lab, new technologies are piloted around Sacramento. Workforce Development is one of the lab’s seven focus sectors, along with Mobility, Cleantech and Sustainability, Life Sciences and Health IT, Food Systems, Internet of Things and Cybersecurity, and Government Policy and Civic Tech. However, Stewart says that workforce is related to all of those other verticals. It is especially cross-cutting with industries like health sciences and cybersecurity, and Stewart works to align the SUTL framework with the city’s evolving inclusive growth strategy. SUTL is the framework that enables the whole city to be a demonstration area for innovation, by working across government, academia, and industry. 


Through its Demonstration Partnership Policy (DPP), enacted in April 2017, the Lab incubates collaborative relationships. The main goal of the DPP is to bring “new and innovative solutions to enhance customer service, improve City operations and infrastructure, and support the quality of life in a sustainable manner.” Partner businesses are able to test their innovations and showcase them for potential city procurement, but they need to share the city’s cross-sector focus. Partner projects must have demonstrated direct public benefits, especially for underserved populations. Equity is a key piece of the partnership, and there are specific metrics that require potential business partners “to reduce disparities and build equity in the City’s diverse communities.” If a business meets the city’s requirements, it is  allowed to pilot projects with SUTL in Sacramento, using the city as a demo site for a new technology or innovation. 


Many companies come to Sacramento to do demos, and the city makes sure that their technology is brought to, and for, the people. According to Stewart, many residents assume that they won’t be able to experience innovations in autonomous cars or artificial intelligence unless they go to Silicon Valley, so the SUTL wants to show the public that technology and innovation careers are viable in Sacramento as well. When Local Motors, an autonomous shuttle company, came to Sacramento through a demo partnership, Stewart helped them connect with Sacramento State University. As Local Motors conducted its demo, the team uncovered challenges with things like Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. Instead of returning to the company drawing board, Stewart encouraged them to partner with Sacramento State engineering students. As a result of this connection, the company solved their issues and the students gained hands-on experience, and Local Motors is still in contact with Sacramento State for troubleshooting.      


The city has the moral authority to encourage companies to look at city residents for talent development. Although the businesses have the right to keep their work in-house, Stewart prioritizes the collaborative relationships and sees community involvement as a natural evolution of those close partnerships. Companies are specifically asked to engage with the city’s K-12 schools and community colleges, to expose youth to the tech industry and provide relevant experience. Inclusive economic mobility is a key for Stewart, who knows the city can’t transform into an innovations hub without involving all residents. 


One specific pipeline that Stewart encourages is cybersecurity. In his opinion, Sacramento has “all the right ingredients” to become a cybersecurity hub, and he wants to make sure that there is diversity in the future workforce. One way the city does this is through grant funding for programs that teach underrepresented youth, women, and veterans technology skills. For example, Yellow Circle, a local nonprofit that runs boot camps and apprenticeship programs, won a grant to do cybersecurity programs in underserved areas. Once residents are exposed to and excited about public technology from demo partnerships, Stewart wants educational programs to be the next step in building a diverse economic mobility pipeline. As he tells students when speaking at schools, his job is to bring these tech industries and demos to Sacramento, and theirs will be to protect them.       


In April of this year, Mayor Steinberg and Gary May, chancellor of the University of California, Davis, announced plans for a new innovation hub in Aggie Square, part of the UC Davis Health campus. To Stewart, this represents the ideal blend of academia, government, and community. Aggie Square will be the physical junction for economic development in the area, focusing on the needs of the communities surrounding the campus. Planned in conjunction with local residents, the location will serve as a hub for education, training, and social interaction. Focus areas echo the framework of the SUTL, weaving economic development into health sciences, mobility, and cybersecurity. Requests for proposals from developers have been solicited, and the first phases will be completed in the next five to ten years. 


When Stewart imagines what the innovation and workforce landscape of Sacramento will look like in a decade, Aggie Square will be an established and thriving hub. The city will be one of the top locations in the country for life sciences research and a cyber workforce center. Mobility innovations will still be developed and demonstrated in the city, yet all of this will be commonplace. One of the most important innovations that Stewart envisions is the transformed reputation of Sacramento; he wants the city to be considered a frontier for the tech economy, with everyone included in the transformation. He often refers back to Sacramento being the West Coast home of the Central Pacific Railroad; technological innovation is embedded in the history of the city. As Stewart says, the digital economy train is coming, and the city “needs to figure out how to build the track that’s going to take all of us” into the new workforce future. With the collaborative and inclusive work that Sacramento is planning and implementing, the city is definitely on the right track.