Digital inclusion, accessibility and public safety are top of the to-do list for Clay Garner, the City of San Jose’s new Chief Innovation Officer and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI).
Garner first joined the MOTI team in 2019, after working at Google, and has served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief Innovation Officer.
On what appealed to him about stepping up into the lead role, he told capitaltribunenews.com: “During the pandemic, I really saw how a lot of the tech-enabled or tech-related issues that we work on came front and centre as critical for the new environment in terms of providing services to our most vulnerable people. If you don’t have internet, for example, you struggle to get online for school or for work, and struggle to sign up for an online medical appointment.
“That for me really illustrated the criticality of making our city services more accessible to more people.”
This is shaping his strategy as he takes the helm.
“My first priority is definitely to finish closing the digital divide,” he said. “I would love to get to 99 percent – 100 percent would be nice, but it’s kind of unrealistic in a real-world context. [The goal is] 99 percent of San Jose having meaningful access to the internet.”
San Jose has launched several initiatives to expand digital access, including deploying 15,800 Wi-Fi hotspots with AT&T, a programme to provide free community Wi-Fi for almost 300,000 residents, and a pilot with Helium.
The latter is a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership to tackle two key challenges simultaneously: closing the digital divide for low-income families and expanding Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure for smart city programmes. Residents host Helium hotspot nodes on a decentralised IoT network and the cryptocurrency that they mine is being used to subsidise internet costs.
Garner said all the hotspots have now been deployed and the city is exploring use cases such as air quality monitoring, wildfire detection and fleet management. More will be shared soon on the revenue generation aspect of the trial.
To close the remaining digital gaps, Garner and his team are focused not just on hard numbers but also residents’ feedback and experience.
“Part of my work now is really to understand what has changed during the pandemic and how user behaviour has changed. Where should we be meeting people in terms of our investments?”, Garner said.
Accessible by design
Accessibility is another key focus. Around a quarter of Americans have some type of disability.
“We want to build products and digital services that truly 100 percent of the people in our community can use,” said Garner. “That involves moving accessibility from an afterthought to the beginning of the design process and really bringing more people with diverse accessibility needs and lived experiences to the table.
“I’d love to make that part of our design culture.”
On public safety, Garner is interested in areas such as reducing dangerous driving, and opportunities to improve emergency service responses. However, he is mindful of broader concerns which often arise.
“We want to make sure that the tech capability is really understood in terms of the privacy risks, and that we’re transparent about the privacy risks because we know that a lot of these technologies have potentially adverse impacts on vulnerable communities, which is definitely not what we want to happen.”
The San Jose MOTI team is small so “innovation is a necessity in resource-constrained environments,” Garner said.
He believes it’s “essential that American cities become more open-minded to different ways of seeing and doing.” This includes a broader outlook.
While cities can’t necessarily copy innovations directly from elsewhere wholesale, they can learn a lot from each other. “Sometimes in America, we are a little bit insular in terms of looking for examples for best public policy in cities,” Garner said.
He is an avid learner of languages, fluent in both Spanish and Mandarin Chinese as well as conversational Indonesian. As a high school student, he even had a brush with fame when his Chinese pop covers went viral.
Garner first got a taste for working in local government when he studied for a Master of Global Affairs at Tsinghua University in China as a Schwarzman Scholar and had the chance to shadow civil servants across rural villages in Shaanxi, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces.
He also cites being inspired by international examples such as Singapore’s COVID-19 response and digital services, and London’s approach to data.
San Jose’s former Chief Innovation Officer Jordan Sun has joined SoftBank Robotics America, the North American arm of SoftBank Robotics, as the Head of Product, Design and Engineering.
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