SXSW: technology doesn't have to cost millions

Chrissy Totty, the head of innovation at Vizeum
Chrissy Totty, the head of innovation at Vizeum

Chrissy Totty, the head of innovation at Vizeum, says the connected city is closer than you think.

Governments and public institutions are perceived as notoriously slow to innovate, but things are starting to change.

A SXSW session on city 2.0 showcased how large cities are grasping technological innovation with both hands to solve long-running problems.

To accelerate change in a structured way, many major US cities like Chicago and New York have appointed chief information officers or digital directors.

So how are they innovating? The five conditions for fostering invention revolve around people, stability, training, communication and reducing red tape.

To establish truly connected cities, local governments are working on initiatives based on these conditions.

When it comes to tech talent, many cities are focussed on creating a pipeline. Chicago is currently trialling a publicly-funded initiative that invites the best tech students from other states to the city’s annual rock festival, Riot Fest, for free in order to woo them into staying.

It has also been working with key schools to guarantee students an interview with a local tech company on graduation, as well as adding coding to the curriculum with content developed in partnership with Google.

Likewise, Jessica Singleton, digital director of New York City, recently signed multi-million dollar deals with LinkedIn and JP Morgan to attract more tech talent to the city.

Regulation and red tape is often where the public sector falls down. However, many cities are completely changing their procurement process and ditching legacy practices. This means thinking differently about problems such as what to do with the city’s network of outdated phone boxes.

New York briefed the problem, not the answer, in an open pitch. It meant that rather than decommissioning the boxes, they are now in the process of converting each one into superfast Wi-Fi hotspots, paid for not by the city but through ad revenue.

Finding the right partner is also vital and local start-ups provide a great, low cost agile way to innovate. In Austin, the government has been working with a local tech company to develop free access data modelling software called Envision Tomorrow, which democratises urban and regional planning.

The unique part is that the software is open to all, requiring only the same level of technical skill needed to use Google Maps.

Brands and agencies should be excited about the opportunities of the city 2.0. From new opportunities for public/private partnerships with brands to more sources of data, our cities will become smarter and easier places to live in the next ten years.

The increasing innovation in cities offers lessons for every company to think about creating the right ecosystem for innovation, focused on tech talent, a future proof infrastructure and making it as easy as possible to do business.

The lesson is clear. Technology doesn’t have to cost millions if the right approach is taken.

Chrissy Totty is the head of innovation at Vizeum

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