Connecting state and local government leaders
The event provides the local leaders with a forum to dream up what’s next for American cities and towns with tech leaders, futurists and other visionaries.
Mayors from across the U.S. will descend on Austin, Texas this week to take part in the city's signature festival that brings together music, arts, innovation and tech.
For the third year, the city leaders will have their own summit at SXSW (those four letters are pronounced, "South-by-Southwest," by the way) known as Civic I/O. Civic I/O provides the mayors with opportunities to collaborate with the innovative minds from across the world.
“I think there are about 30 mayors that are coming to the U.S. Conference of Mayors SXSW track, Civic I/O, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors has also moved their leadership meeting to Austin this year, and I think that’s going to bring in another 20 or so mayors,” Mayor Steve Adler told Route Fifty. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had 50 to 60 mayors from around the country with us.”
Mayors seem a natural and timely fit for a conference that centers on convergence. And they've continued to expand their footprint at the conference in recent years.
SXSW has been a magnet for artists and media leaders around the country since soon after its inception in the 80s, but politicians got in on the game a bit later. By 1993, Texas Gov. Ann Richards was the keynote speaker for the conference; mayors began showing up in the schedule with some regularity, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2016—then-President Barack Obama also took the stage that year.
While local leaders have exchanged best practices through membership organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors for almost a century, newer efforts from non-profit organizations and private sector partners are turning cities into platforms for civic technology. Whether its Bloomberg Philanthropies’ efforts to drive innovation in America’s cities, Amazon’s City on a Cloud, or Sidewalk Lab’s experiments to optimize cities, the future of civic life seems to be collaborative.
“You can’t run a city now without thinking about non-profits and the business sector,” Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors told Route Fifty. He explained that Washington, while still important, can no longer be relied upon as the main support mechanism. “The money is not going out like it did—the resources are not going out—it’s just pretty dead.”
That leaves partnerships, creativity and innovation as primary drivers for mayors attempting to improve the lives of their constituents.
“As mayors have taken on a greater role as one of the key innovators in government, it makes sense for them to be in the space where conversations about technology and innovation are happening,” Sly Majid, Austin’s chief service officer and a key organizer of Civic I/O, said in an interview with Route Fifty. “A lot of these innovations are starting to intersect with cities in disruptive ways some good some not so good, it’s important for mayors to be part of that discussion in a big way.”
From a mayor-exclusive track where they will learn methodologies to think like a futurist from leading minds, to meetups with SXSW attendees, Civic I/O hopes to funnel for municipal leaders the sort of collisions for which the conference is famous.
For the second year, Civic I/O will also host a civic tech pitch where mayors, technologists and entrepreneurs will hear from startups who are attempting to solve key challenges facing local governments and their communities.
Last year’s winner, RideAlong, had worked with the Seattle Police Department to develop a program that integrates with the 9-1-1 center to provide first responders with “key information about people with mental illness at the scene—and then adds support for the responding official, ranging from tailored de-escalation techniques to personalized service referral options.” This year’s finalists include a broad range of start-ups engage and retain a diverse workforce, as well as a platform focused on police-community relations. The teams will have an opportunity at with prizes up to $10,000.
While mayors will be surrounded by tech, business and artistic leaders from across the world, they will also have the opportunity to learn from each other’s solutions and challenges.
Being a mayor is not a profession most can relate to back at home, and in discussions with Route Fifty ahead of the conference, mayors planning to attend ticked off common policy issues they are facing and looking to discuss with their fellow colleagues: affordability, mobility, public safety, immigration, inclusion and diversity seem ready to take center stage.
They will also look abroad for cues on how to deal with some of the issues that they perhaps have less experience with domestically, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan joins the mayors at Civic I/O.
“We’re very excited about learning from him and listening to him,” Cochran said. “We are all discussing the different things that are happening in our nation, and with Brexit, and with the populism thrust here—even though you might not imagine it—we’re starting to look at other countries to see how they are dealing with immigration, migration and tolerance and everything.”
At a time of international political, policy and technological change, the confluence of entrepreneurs and visionaries at SXSW with mayors seems ripe ground for engaging in a serious dialogue on local solutions.
“Too many times in our political and civil discourse, people seem to be less focused on achieving results, and are focused instead … on scoring political points,” Adler said. “So I think that SXSW serves as a real juxtaposition… a noted statement of what we can achieve when everybody is trying to get things done.”
Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.