Black and white headshot

By Stephen Goldsmith • September 5, 2018

This post originally appeared on Stephen Goldsmith's Better Faster Cheaper blog on Governing.com. 

When San Jose, Calif., Mayor Sam Liccardo took office in 2015, he prioritized tech innovation as a means of improving service delivery and quality of life. Speaking about San Jose's smart city vision statement released in March 2016, Liccardo asserted that the city "cannot continue providing the same services in the same ways. … To thrive, San Jose must innovate."

The key to jump-starting the city's progress toward its tech ambitions was to structure a new suite of offices devoted to innovation and fill them with talented people who could foster important collaborations between agencies and with the private sector. San Jose's goal was as ambitious as it was simple: to be America's most innovative city by 2020.

Even in the heart of Silicon Valley, where artificial intelligence and automation threaten to take jobs away from humans, getting things done still starts with people. Among Liccardo's first crucial hires was Shireen Santosham, who became the mayor's chief innovation officer in December 2015. Leading the Mayor's Office of Technology and Innovation, Santosham would draw on her experience as an impact investor as well as working with private-sector companies like McKinsey and with international nongovernmental organizations.

San Jose operates under a council-manager system, meaning that the mayor's policymaking and administrative capacities are often subordinate to the city council, so it was important that Liccardo's and Santosham's work complement parallel authorities in the office of the city manager. Working with the mayor, Santosham drew on her organizational design experience as a strategy consultant to help craft the smart city vision statement, which was unanimously passed by the city council in March 2016. Aside from establishing a vision for the city's tech ambitions, it also called for the development of an Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy in the city manager's office and a new Smart Cities Council Committee to oversee the work.

In the following months, the city manager hired Kip Harkness as deputy city manager for civic innovation and digital strategy and Rob Lloyd as chief information officer. Like Santosham, Harkness and Lloyd brought a wide range of experiences in cross-sector collaborations. "We were in a kind of magical moment where the political will, resident need and organization all came into alignment," said Harkness.

Having set up the top tier of innovation leaders, the city next spread out technology-focused hires around various agencies. Fuse Corps, a national nonprofit that connects cities with tech talent, helped bring three new hires to the city, locating two in the deputy city manager's office and one in the library. An innovation manager was hired into the Department of Transportation to boost efforts to develop new approaches and embrace new technologies in the transportation space.

This tribe of innovators went to work both inside and outside of City Hall. In less than two years, the team passed an open-data policy, launched an open-data portal, conducted several big-data analytics projects to improve services, and reformed the city's hiring process. Additionally, they launched an award-winning service request app called My San Jose and partnered with leading tech companies, including Airbnb and the content-management provider Box, to launch new civic tech projects to serve residents.

Understanding the importance of speedy, ubiquitous connectivity to achieving its smart city goals, San Jose also went all in on 5G, the next generation of cellular broadband. This June, the city made a deal with AT&T, Verizon, and Mobilitie (on behalf of Sprint) to deploy more than 4,000 small cells across the city on assets like lightpoles -- the largest deployment of this 5G-enabling technology in the country. The companies will also pay for additional hires to support the permitting process for the new infrastructure. Most remarkably, the remaining revenues will go into a $24 million "Digital Inclusion Fund" for the city to close the digital divide for the 95,000 residents who remain unconnected.

There are many lessons to be gathered from San Jose's quick ascent to smart city juggernaut. The city's leaders started strong by hiring experienced managers who could facilitate crucial cross-sector collaborations. They ensured that the mayor's and city manager's offices could work in lockstep to make sure that good ideas take hold quickly. Finally, they have drawn on resources from outside funders to fill out their smart city roster. In addition to the Fuse Corps fellows, telecom-funded staff and advisory boards, the city has leveraged its connections with the Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities and the Knight Foundation.

Becoming a smart city often has more to do with the availability of leadership than any other resource. San Jose is proof of that concept, and its hiring practices and careful organization strategies are an example for other cities looking to jump-start their data-driven performance.