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Examining Austin’s “smart city” bona fides

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s reputation as one of the nation’s smartest cities went under the microscope Sunday, with policy and academic experts examining the technology, educational, housing and transportation components – and the city’s shifting needs as it grows – that combine to make it a magnet for creatives.

The South by Southwest panel “What Is a Smart City?” was a typical SXSW mix of big ideas and analysis, though there was one bit of news for locals: The Austin CityUp public/private consortium is in the process of developing a Multiple Listing Service-style resource for Austin properties that accept government housing vouchers, which can be hard to redeem and expire if not used quickly.

Moderator Sherri Greenberg, a state and local government professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, offered that nugget at the start of the session and said that a formal announcement with more details would be issued soon. It served as an example of how Austin leaders are trying to ease residents’ difficulties with affordable housing, which is one of the most pernicious problems thanks to a growing population and slow pace of housing construction.

Transportation received the least talk time, aside from an acknowledgment of a recently passed mobility bond issue and vision statements for how improved transportation opens up more opportunities for citizens throughout the area.

Panelist Catherine Crago Blanton, head of strategic initiatives and resource development for Austin’s Housing Authority, focused on efforts to introduce technology and make it accessible to the 20,000 residents in public or Section 8 housing throughout Austin. Milestones like Google’s agreement to offer and expand internet service in housing developments were touted, especially when combined with sister programs through Austin Community College to provide computer literacy and used computers to residents.

Crago Blanton said those moves helped keep children in public housing from falling behind in their schoolwork, or saved money and time that would ordinarily be spent loitering outside McDonald’s and other businesses where free Wi-Fi access is available.

“Think about a senior who has to spend six hours on the bus just to pay a bill and should be able to handle that much more easily, or someone who (is) injured and should be able to work from home but can’t if they don’t have access to technology,” she said. “And transportation is something more than how to do the basics, but there’s also aspirational transportation because a parent wonders, ‘How can I take my kids to see the Zilker lights?’”

Craig Watkins, a professor at UT’s Moody College of Communication, said Austin is taking steps to bridge the digital divide when it comes to access to technology, but the next critical step is helping students integrate those tools into their everyday learning so they become more sophisticated thinkers and problem solvers.

He said the millennial generation’s standing as the largest and most-educated generation in U.S. history presents problems because the country’s industrial-centric education system is largely inadequate for teaching new ways to think and create. Programs that let students work in teams to solve social issues and tell stories digitally tend to make the deepest impression, Watkins said. He pushed for the creation of more “innovation labs” that let students lead their own goal-based learning.

“There’s not enough emphasis on deep learning and the thinking to be agents of change … it’s not just an issue of (technology) access,” Watkins said. “There’s an opportunity with millennials if we can leverage the energy and the diversity of thought they have.”

By Ed Schipul licensed under Attribution.

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