Zencity Goes Live in Houston: An Interview with Houston CIO Jesse Bounds

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

 Exactly one year ago, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced his vision to not just become a smart city, but to become the smart city. “We must leap, not stroll into the future. We must sprint, not jog. It will be this city that will be the Smart City of the world,” he said.

Mayor Tuner’s plan to transform the US’s 4th largest city – perhaps better known for its energy, health care and aerospace industries – into a global leader in innovation came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey and a visit to Israel, where he learned about the country’s start-up boom. Both occasions inspired the Mayor to partner with tech-giant and smart city leader Microsoft to understand just how to do this – an announcement which made major news in May 2018. Now, one year in, the Mayor’s initiative is fully underway and Zencity is honored to be part of the program. The City of Houston will use Zencity to benchmark the community effect of all of its different new smart city initiatives, and measure resident sentiment about them.

We invited Jesse Bounds, the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Houston who is helping to roll out the city’s expansive smart-efforts, to help us understand the Mayor’s vision, how Zencity plays a role, and how the City is engaging with residents about its major tech overhaul.

So how exactly did Hurricane Harvey and a visit to Israel influence the Mayor’s strategic efforts for the City of Houston?

Jesse: These two things created urgency for the Mayor. First, when he visited Israel, part of his exposure to the tech and startup-ecosystems there involved being shown a map of tech hubs around the world. Houston, he noticed, wasn’t on the map. Houston might be the 4th largest city in the US, but we were the 31st in terms of venture capital investment. We were also ranked outside of the top 20 in terms of tech startups. The Mayor saw this as a wake-up call that something needed to change. He named a task force, launched “Houston Exponential” to support innovation in the City, and much more.

 The other was certainly Hurricane Harvey. The mantra after Harvey was “build forward, not back” and so part of this is building not just a smart city, but a resilient city with model solutions. Today we’ve succeeded in doing that.

What did this urgency lead to? We’re building an innovation district now, launching a host of cool initiatives, and of course – our partnership with Microsoft.

What was the final push to bring in a big player like Microsoft?

Jesse: A few things. First, the Mayor knew he wanted to lead by example. This meant not just transforming the city into an innovation hub, but that City Hall itself should adopt technology and model the kind of growth we’re looking for – so the city itself could lead by example. Additionally, the Mayor recognized that a lot of city departments were already doing really great things, but there wasn’t a central inventory of our smart city initiatives or a thread to tie them together. The Mayor brought in Microsoft who helped us do a tremendous job of surveying the city and understanding what solutions are needed, and then developing a comprehensive approach to growing our smart city program. And of course, Zencity has been an essential component of that program.

What role does Zencity play in your broader smart city vision?

Jesse: Our first initiatives are all very high-profile. We’ve intentionally selected projects that are very visible – like free Wi-Fi on Houston Metro buses and trains. We want to engage the public and we want them to see the benefit of our initiatives. The goal with Zencity is to benchmark how community members think about all of the different smart city projects we are rolling out. The purpose is two-fold. It’s a way for us to potentially identify additional expenditures, but also to let us know the impact on the community of all of our different smart city initiatives.

In addition, Zencity will play a critical role in city programs. For example, Complete Communities, the mayor’s initiative for providing equitable services to all  neighborhoods.

 As part of Complete Communities, the Mayor has identified for improvement five underserved neighborhoods in Houston – including the neighborhood where he was born and raised, and still lives today. The program leverages government, non-profit and private industry resources to improve the neighborhoods for those who want to continue to live there and to attract even more resources to those areas. It started with engaging residents about improvements they consider crucial.

 A key factor of success is not just engaging with residents and listening to the community, but being able to measure whether we’re actually having an impact and knowing that we’re listening to the entire community. That’s where we’re really excited about Zencity, which will help us to quantify and measure impact, as well as help indicate what community sentiment is around the different interventions.

So what is the City of Houston doing to communicate its efforts to the public and engage with residents about its new tech initiatives?

Jesse: Communicating with the public about technology is tough and it’s a hurdle we’re still trying to overcome. Smart City Technology isn’t something that they’re particularly interested in, and the best technologies are usually blind to the eye anyway – they’re keeping us safe or getting us to where we need to go faster. In addition to launching very appealing and visible projects, we’ve launched a website to showcase all the projects and made marketing our smart city efforts a real key area that we want to focus on.

Zencity also plays a role here. It can help us understand what’s effective in terms of messaging – how are we getting the message about technology across to our residents? How are they understanding the city’s efforts in addition to experiencing them? In what communities are the city’s messages resonating differently? Zencity will play an important role in measuring community impact, and how inclusive our engagement around our new initiatives is.