Reflecting on 4 years of service as San José’s Chief Innovation Officer

Shireen Santosham and Mayor Sam Liccardo
Shireen Santosham and Mayor Sam Liccardo

When I arrived in San José in 2016, two suitcases in tow, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I moved from the East Coast with not much more than a feeling that there was something special happening under Mayor Liccardo’s leadership in San José.

We faced a unique — and extraordinarily challenging — opportunity to revive City Hall’s role in improving quality of life for San Joséans after years of underinvestment. We knew that the City could not carry on providing the same services in the same way that it had done for decades. So, with the unanimous support of our City Council, we set an ambitious goal through our Smart City Vision: make San José the most innovative city in America by 2020 (we were recently named #2 — we’re still striving for number 1!).

As I look forward to the arrival of 2020, the moment is bittersweet. I am very proud to reflect on four years of hard work in San José as Mayor Liccardo’s Chief Innovation Officer and leading the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI). On the other hand, as I move on to my next professional adventure at Plenty, an urban vertical agriculture startup, I’m deeply saddened to leave the City and the community that welcomed me with open arms.

In the last four years, we built a startup in government that improved the lives of San José residents. I would like to share some of our highlights with you:

We will be the first city in the country to close the “homework gap” while launching the largest 5G deployment in America.

In 2018, we created a $24M Digital Inclusion Fund to close the digital divide that is completely privately funded through investments by telecom firms that will deploy the largest 5G network in the country in San José. This nationally recognized initiative is the first of its kind in the country and will ultimately build the digital skills and connect 50,000 households in San José to broadband — enabling our students to do their homework, the elderly and differently-abled to connect with loved ones and services, and all people to access jobs and skills for the innovation economy.

In the inaugural round of Digital Inclusion Grants this year, we will give out the first $1M to community organizations across San José to help us meet these ambitious targets.

We became the first city in California to develop a citywide digital privacy policy.

Under the leadership of Mayor Liccardo, we initiated California’s first effort to develop a comprehensive city-wide digital privacy policy to govern the use of digital data across all city services and city-serving vendors. Working with a taskforce of community stakeholders and privacy experts, we designed a set of “Privacy Principles” that were approved by the City Council in September 2019. In the coming year, the City will use the principles to develop a comprehensive privacy policy that will guide all activities in the City to ensure that the privacy of our residents is protected.

We established the Office of Civic Innovation and the Smart Cities Council Committee to institutionalize new ways of thinking and doing at City Hall.

The Mayor’s Smart City Vision called for creating an Office of Civic Innovation and a Smart Cities Council Committee, which we helped establish in 2016. The Office of Civic Innovation, led by Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness and Director of Civic Innovation Dolan Beckel, has been a key partner to MOTI. Together, we have collaborated on projects like Free Community Wi-Fi, new digital services like our city website, the MySanJosé service request app, and improving the emergency response time of our first responders. Moreover, the formation of a recurring Smart Cities Council Committee has brought civic innovation to the forefront of City Council’s policymaking agenda.

We are leading the country in developing an inclusive emerging mobility strategy.

Through embracing new technologies like autonomous vehicles and electric scooters, we have developed a holistic mobility strategy to create a more livable, accessible city that provides multimodal transit options while reducing environmental impact. Together with the City’s Department of Transportation, we enlisted IDEO, the world’s leading design firm, to help us understand the transit needs and realities of underrepresented voices in San José. We have also facilitated an autonomous vehicle pilot, supporting early-stage collaboration between leading-edge automotive companies and the City of San José.

We spurred new cross-sector technology collaborations at City Hall through the Unleash Your Geek challenge.

Since 2016, we’ve hosted two annual Unleash Your Geek challenges to promote cross-sector technology collaboration and open innovation at City Hall. The competition’s first two editions saw the development of solutions including a graffiti-removal drone and solar-powered flood monitoring devices for Coyote Creek. Unleash Your Geek has served to bring in new external partners like universities and startups to collaboratively address difficult issues while inspiring greater civic engagement across San José.

Moving into 2020 and beyond, we are very excited to continue growing our efforts around the Digital Inclusion Fund, work to strengthen the San José startup ecosystem, prototype an AI-powered chatbot to make City Hall more accessible, and host the third Unleash Your Geek challenge (we are currently accepting applications). Through iterative experimentation, we have learned what it takes to create meaningful innovation in our communities — and plan to focus on deepening the impact and sustainability of existing projects.

With your help over the last four years, we have changed the way San José City government works — from embracing new technologies to make the permitting process more user-friendly to partnering with our tech community to close the homework gap for our youth. It has been a pleasure to serve the San José community and I want to thank everyone who helped to make this dream a reality.

Without you, the diverse coalition of community leaders, residents, corporations, and public agency partners that supported our work these past years, we would not have succeeded. There are too many of you to thank here. But, I want to especially highlight the support of the Knight Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, Fuse Fellows, and Harvard University whose critical support made our work possible. And, most importantly, Mayor Liccardo — without his leadership, none of this would be possible.

We will be recruiting for a new Chief Innovation Officer in the mayor’s office. Please send us referrals to people you think would be a great fit! The job description can be found here. As always, we would love to talk further about how we can better engage with residents and community organizations — submit ideas, voice your concerns, or follow us on social media. We look forward to hearing from you in 2020.

Please stay in touch via LinkedIn!