Jay Nath, San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer, on civic tech and cross-sector collaboration
Jay Nath has facilitated technological advancement in the City and County of San Francisco for over a decade now, having played a critical role in leading innovative technology initiatives within the city as its inaugural Chief Innovation Officer.
He believes the next few years will be crucial in what could be the technological transformation of a variety of industries.
“Whether it’s around diversity and inclusion, or equity and affordability, technologies have the ability to meet those needs — to serve all of our residents, to be affordable,” he said. “It’s a promising future, but it requires a tremendous amount of partnerships, of collaboration, for that to happen.”
Nath has been San Francisco’s CIO since 2012, and for three years before that its Director of Innovation; but having worked in the private sphere nearly as long, he’s no stranger to the differences between sectors that can make it difficult for them to work together.
With technology, Nath thinks that the challenges preventing cross-sector collaboration can increasingly become a thing of the past.
“What we’re trying to do is blur the lines between the public and private sector,” explained Nath. “There are a lot of challenges around civic co-creation, and we need to work together — we can solve these problems in many different ways.”
The private sector has pioneered the notion that organizations have to move fast and be willing to break things; it also emphasizes the importance of user-centered design thinking, focused on empathizing with and understanding issues people encounter as they attempt to navigate new technologies.
The public sector works very differently, and on longer timescales— due to the nature of the work, government officials are reluctant to take on risks, as they can subject themselves to backlash from a wide number of stakeholders should things go wrong.
“We’re trying to figure out, ‘How do government agencies become a resource instead of a hindrance?’” said Nath. “I think we can learn a lot from entrepreneurs; we can take their entrepreneurial spirit, their agile methodologies, user-centered design methods, and use it to improve public services.”
He sees many opportunities to leverage the latest in design thinking and open innovation in building the next generation of government services.
Nath hopes to instill a “test-and-learn” mindset in those working in government settings (with traditionally relatively risk-averse cultures) by giving them the ability to take “small bets” — experimenting with pilots before committing entirely to new programs, instilling confidence around buying or building technology products.
After establishing the nation’s first open source government software policy and San Francisco’s Open Data Legislation, Nath put his ideas into action with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI) to launch the city’s highly successful Startup In Residence (STIR) program — a pioneer in the country — which has since expanded to include three more cities.
The 16-week program connects government agencies with innovative startups to develop technology products that address civic challenges, and now includes Oakland, San Leandro, and West Sacramento.
From navigation apps for the visually impaired to digital development tools to address affordability, the program has aimed to tackle civic issues in new ways.
Building upon San Francisco’s 2014 “Entrepreneurship in Residence” pilot initiative — which produced 6 technology product innovations designed to meet local government needs — startups help departments unpack issues with data analysis and prototype solutions refined through user testing.
Much of Nath’s work with the city has focused on bringing down the unemployment rate and convincing businesses to stay in San Francisco. He works works on partner programs supporting disenfranchised communities, bridging the “digital divide” by providing affordable high-speed internet access to lower-income communities.
Other projects of Nath’s include the city’s new Living Innovation Zones, community spaces focused on educating and engaging the public; and he’s particularly excited about the transportation space: The city was recently a finalist in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, and there may be opportunities to implement some of the extensive work done in collaboration with UC Berkeley.
Through nationwide competitions such as the one sponsored by the US DOT, as well as through conferences such as City Innovate Foundation’s BRIDGE SF, San Francisco is showcasing and highlighting the innovative progress it’s making — setting a strong example for the rest of the world.
“It’s really important, being able to bring together the region and the world in a conversation about civic innovation,” Nath said. “We have a huge opportunity for the Bay Area to invite the government to learn, and hopefully take those learnings and apply them in other cities.”