COMMENTARY

Winning Smart City Challenge would be big boost to Austin's tech ecosystem

Posted April 15th, 2016

Traffic congestion as an economic development problem may seem like a strange idea, particularly for the tech industry. But with Austin earning a spot as one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, Austin’s tech community has the opportunity to become a major player in the nation’s traffic and transportation conversation while solving one of Austin’s own longstanding problems in the process. 

Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council.

The Smart City Challenge is a bold initiative out of the Department of Transportation, which has pledged to award $40 million to the city that can best define what it means to be a “Smart City “and become the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies -- self-driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors -- into their transportation network. 

Vulcan, the investment firm founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has pledged an additional $10 million to the effort, and several technology firms have partnered with the Department of Transportation to support the winning city.

Molly Young , executive director of the Austin Technology Council Foundation.

Austin was announced last month as one of seven finalists still in the running based on the strength of our proposal. 

Austin has an unquestionably vibrant tech industry. Our city leads the state in patents and venture capital. It is a global leader in embracing technology. And Forbes magazine says that Austin is one of five cities poised to be the next Silicon Valley tech hub. 

In the words of an Austin band that predates the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, “the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades”. 

So what’s the problem? 

We’ve got plenty of good jobs in Austin and a lot of people in Austin who need good jobs. The disconnect is that the people who need the jobs don’t currently have the skills or training to fill the ones that are available. 

Two-thirds of Central Texas high school graduates don’t complete a college degree or certificate, which means there’s a leak in our jobs pipeline somewhere. The vast majority of Austin tech executives will tell you that they’d much rather hire at home than go looking outside the region to find the talent they need to grow their businesses, but there have to be good applicants. 

There are a lot of smart people working on job training programs. The city of Austin and Travis County are, for the first time, creating a regional workforce master plan to coordinate those programs, and the Mayor’s Office has said it will emphasize training for tech jobs. This is good news. 

Also good news is the work the Austin Technology Council Foundation is doing with fourth thru eighth grade students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The goal is to inspire these students to consider courses of study and career pathways in technology and life sciences as early as middle school.

This effort has Austin Technology Council members and those of other regional tech organizations working directly with students to show them the possibilities of a career in STEM through mentoring, modeling and other forms of student-centered volunteerism.

To get the job done, the foundation is partnering with schools, existing nonprofits and community organizations that are already doing great work in the STEM education arena, and working to amplify their efforts to create a powerful infrastructure that supports the success of both students and industry. 

Recently, the White House named Austin a TechHire Community in recognition of paid internships that Microsoft, Google and IBM are providing at Austin Community College and Texas State University-San Marcos for veterans and low-income residents of Austin. The year-old TechHire Initiative is designed to develop a homegrown information technology workforce, which is exactly what the local tech industry wants as well. 

So we have the good, middle-class tech jobs in Austin, and if we win the Smart City Challenge we have the potential to add even more. This is good news, especially since we have many ways to Austinites trained in a hurry to take those jobs, with more in the pipeline. So what’s the problem? 

The potential tech employee likely faces significant hurdles getting to the job training program. Many low-income residents have fled Austin because of rising rents, lowering our poverty rates by attrition rather than real income growth. The affordability crisis has driven poor people into areas ill-served by mass transit, forcing them to depend on cars on increasingly congested roads.

Austin’s Smart City Challenge proposal envisions using technology to reintegrate people into the flow of Austin with tech-friendly transit cards that reimagine mobility as a service, and creates mobility hubs that offer one-stop-shopping for all transit choices from autonomous vehicles to vanpools to rapid buses to electric taxis. If fully implemented, low-income people would have an easier time getting to work or career training. 

Austin’s bid for the Smart City Challenge is exciting for Austin’s tech community because it would augment a growing ecosystem of opportunity in the tech sector. Other Smart City finalists start behind us, hoping to create what we already have in the tech sector, both in startup culture as well as existing tech leadership in workforce development.

Winning the Smart City Challenge would provide Austin with the literal missing link — getting far-flung workers from home to work (or one of the myriad job-training programs).  

“Through transportation, we can help ensure that the rungs on the ladder of opportunity aren’t so far apart — and that the American Dream is still within reach for those who are willing to work for it,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.  

It’s not enough to create the job — or even the job-training program — to close the opportunity gap in tech.

Winning the Smart City Challenge would mean a lot more to Austin than the $50 million prize or the attendant private investment.

The benefits to mobility that technology would bring to low-income residents would provide a ladder of opportunity for them to finally join the tech ecosystem that has done so much for our economy. 

 Barbary Brunner is CEO of the Austin Technology Council.  

 Molly Young  is executive director of the Austin Technology Council Foundation.

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