By Michael G.  Albrecht

On February 24-25, 2020, the City of San Antonio hosted the City of the Future (CoF20) conference, presented by Zpryme in partnership with CPS Energy.

CoF20 delivered a high energy, compelling argument that the discussion of trends in the electric power industry has become inseparable from a wider conversation that considers, as Chris Moyer, Senior Director of Content and Research at Zpryme emphasized in his opening comments to the audience, the importance of people and the “interdependences of the connected community.”

That discussion addresses how proposed smart, sustainable infrastructure – intelligently connected with municipal business processes while streamlining workforce & economic development, e-government, and public health – serves the needs of the people. Literally, giving power to the people. Or, as a San Antonio official put it, “putting residents before technology.”

In Texas, this trend – tying technological innovative with citizen-focused urban planning – is unfolding through the City of San Antonio’s SmartSA program at the city’s Office of Innovation. The guiding philosophy of SmartSA is “constituency and consensus building.” Collaborators in SmartSA include Via, CPS, UTSA, San Antonio Water System, and San Antonio River Authority.

To add immediate real-world context to this discussion, COVID19 has brought into sharp focus the benefits of intelligent infrastructure, supported by reliable, resilient electric power, and its collective ability to enable immediate communications and critical information flow between citizens and government agencies. Simple examples like being able to dial 311 and 911; logging into social media news feeds; examining online GIS virus maps; receiving automated text messages from electric utilities and public health officials are all benefits of innovation.

We tend to take these services for granted, but they place a huge role in sustaining our modern world. Imagine if during the 1918 pandemic they had these capabilities; instead of 50 million fatalities, losses might have been a fraction of that number. Hopefully that will be the case with the current crisis.

In San Antonio we find a citizen-driven, forward-looking collaboration of public and private leaders pushing efforts to embed technological innovation at their electric utility – community and rooftop solar, electric vehicle recharging infrastructure, connected home energy management systems – that enhance community-wide economic opportunity into the fabric of local society.

The ideal is to use these and other technological implementations as a catalyst to drive training opportunities for residents to acquire new skill sets. In addition to providing sustainable power and municipal services, the goal is to bridge the digital divide and create social equity for all residents.

CoF20 presented a lively two days of panel discussion, interspersed with industry and government keynote speakers, who described to the well-attended audience the significant logistical, financial, bureaucratic, and social challenges – and intended benefits – of these efforts. Panel discussions offered a spirited, collaborative exchange of ideas and experiences by officials, vendors, non-profits, and community activists.

Conference conversation centered around the SmartSA program, designed to digitally integrate the following services:

  • Renewable energy and storage
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure
  • Smart water infrastructure
  • Transportation, traffic and pedestrian mobility flow infrastructure
  • Sanitation and waste management
  • Smart LED lighting with sensors for air temperature and quality, etc.
  • Interactive community kiosks
  • Public WiFi connectivity
  • Workforce, education and healthcare services
  • Training and skill set development
  • E-government services

SmartSA is in the formative research and implementation stages. Deployments of these technologies and services have been installed in three Innovation Districts around San Antonio. Trial runs are undergoing testing in the field and with citizen focus groups to fine tune deployments for the best service delivery possible before deployment at scale.

Panelists also discussed the challenge and importance of protecting personally identifiable information (PII) and securing data integrity as these projects roll out.

SmartSA’s collaborations include vigorous outreach efforts to educate communities on options available, and to then engage with residents and businesses to understand which services they wish to see implemented.

Innovation projects described at CoF20 included presentations on the following programs under the SmartSA umbrella:

  • Smart Cities Initiative
  • Big Sun Solar
  • Climate Action and Adaptation Plan
  • Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program
  • Innovation Zones

Jason Rodrigues, CEO of Zpryme, urged conference attendees to “keep in mind what the future generations are going to do with what we do here.”

By looking beyond the understandable glittery attraction of fascinating digital technologies, but instead focusing on the education, involvement, and needs of citizens, the City of San Antonio is a true innovator in the electric power – and now intrinsically related – public services sector. Efforts like these are building the emerging Smart World.

Video of City of the Future Summit is available online here and here.