Smart Work Learn Play - Participatory Smart City Innovation and Digital Inclusion in Public and Subsidized Housing

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Smart Work Learn Play - Participatory Smart City Innovation and Digital Inclusion in Public and Subsidized Housing
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Participatory Smart City
Team Organizations American Institute for Research
Austin CityUP
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Texas State University
Transit Empowerment Fund
Wells Fargo
Team Leaders Catherine Crago
Participating Municipalities Austin TX
Status Launched
Document None


Smart Work Learn Play, initiated by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), with support from Next Century Cities, the Transit Empowerment Fund and the City of Austin’s Digital Inclusion and Transportation departments, aims to ensure that the design, deployment and use of smart cities technologies are inclusive and equitable. The program hires HACA-resident Smart City Ambassadors to work local government and corporate partners to: 1) teach HACA residents how to use digitally-enabled education, workforce and transportation tools; 2) advocate for and manage meaningful partnerships with private smart city technology providers; 3) engage in democratic processes, online and face-to-face with local and other government officials; 4) participate in design of smart city systems and tools with a wide array of actors. This project has successfully conducted a small pilot phase with non-profit and corp partners. In this stage, we will build on that pilot to encompass a broad array of smart city issues, technologies, tools and diverse low income populations.


  • The Housing Authority of the City of Austin’s digital inclusion program has made great strides in connecting the poorest Austin residents with free or very-low cost internet, digital literacy training and an earned refurbished device. However, cloud applications often require 2-step authentication, online banking, and digital literacy that relies on an understanding of database architectures.
  • The very low-income “personal technology stack” is often several generations behind the “smart city technology stack;” few smart city standards-makers and program leaders require engineering-type use cases to be developed for diverse low-income people and their diverse low-income technology stacks.
  • Very low-income individuals face barriers in access to education that could lead to a diverse STEM pipeline; schools struggle to overcome poor “math identity” in minority and low-income student cohorts and low-income residents are rarely included as meaningful participants in “engineering” design.
  • Many municipal government entities struggle to reach low-income people -- who are often the highest system users -- even as they undergo historic changes in Austin’s housing, transportation and education sectors.



Major Requirements

  1. Leverage existing partnerships and develop new partnerships that begin to develop participatory smart city design and deployment between low-income people in public and subsidized housing and public, private, philanthropic smart city stakeholders:
    1. HACA and Wells Fargo teamed up to provide HACA-resident stipend-paid Smart City Ambassadors to teach basic digital literacy focused on smart city applications in HACA property computer labs; the Transit Empowerment Fund and Lyft invested in a fund to provide digitally-powered transportation training and practice to HACA families and seniors.
    2. Smart City Ambassador expertise will be built through corporate visits focused on a technology or engineering process (Austin CityUP members Intel, Google, IBM); research and practice in conjunction with municipal entities designing and deploying smart city tools (DPS, 211, Transportation, Energy). A badging system will be developed to track and encourage smart city capacity among Smart City Ambassadors.
    3. HACA’s partnerships with Internet Service Providers (Google Fiber, USFon) and with refurbished desktop, mobile and tablet providers (Austin Community College, Indeed, Austin Forum on Society and Technology) are the basis for ensuring that residents have internet connectivity and hardware to leverage smart city technologies.
    4. Previous investment in evaluating the digital capacity of HACA (Ford Foundation, Open Societies Foundation, 2015) and City of Austin low-income residents and current pro-bono support from the City of Austin (basic digital literacy) and American Institutes for Research (analysis in the context of smart city) will provide ongoing insight.
  2. Direct smart city digital inclusion education and services are possible because of partnerships with Austin Transportation Department, Austin Energy, CapMetro and Lyft are the basis for digitally-powered training, including energy efficiency and Smart Trips.
  3. Engage collaborators in determining how to design and systematize resident, public, private touch points.
  4. Co-active and regular reporting that encompasses both quantitative and qualitative results; social and economic mobility and engineering-perspective inputs and outputs.

Performance Targets

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) Measurement Methods
  • Increase very low-income resident use of digitally-powered smart city applications for education, workforce and transportation.
  • Develop capacity: awareness, knowledge, confidence and behavioral intent in Smart City Ambassadors.
  • For a given City effort, increase online and offline participatory design or deliberative democracy.
  • Conduct 4 digitally-enabled Transit Adventures for up to 40 residents. Survey 50 residents 3 and 6 months post program to track cohort use; compare to 2015 and 2019 baseline surveys.
  • Conduct pre- and post-interview, qualitative analysis. Recruit and retain 8 Smart City Ambassadors for full program and 10 Smart City Ambassadors for 2-month programs. Conduct 3 smart city corporate workshops. Description of promising and best practices to develop Smart City Ambassadors.
  • Analysis of pre- and post- online inputs from low-opportunity areas. (IP address-based.) Engage 100 residents in online citizen democracy. Increase number and frequency of Smart City Ambassador and resident participation in ‘smart city’ programs.

Standards, Replicability, Scalability, and Sustainability

There are more the 4,000 public housing authorities in the United States, and thousands of subsidized housing providers. Because very low-income housing spans across major cities and most medium- and large-sized municipalities, and because housing is integral to smart city initiatives related to sustainability, education, workforce development and transportation, this program could be implemented at other sites across the United States. Additionally, many of the large- and medium-sized smart city technology and other product companies are deploying their technology in municipalities across the U.S. - if the curriculum, smart city digital literacy skills hierarchy, Smart City Ambassador capacity and development program are deployed in other cities, there could be a lasting impact in the way that corporate, non-profit and municipal partners engage the low-income community who by the very nature of their housing are embedded in the areas that can benefit most from smart city technology deployments.

Cybersecurity and Privacy

Digitally-divided residents of cities are perhaps at the greatest risk of cybersecurity and privacy threats. Cybersecurity and Privacy issues are two of the topic areas select Smart City Ambassadors will develop expertise in. All smart city technology training courses delivered by vendors and Smart City Ambassadors in housing will include learning opportunities related to Cybersecurity and Privacy.


  • We expect this program to increase income at select HACA properties. We expect greater educational opportunities for residents that leverage smart city tools to do homework at home or to overcome the transportation barrier to education.
  • We expect a greater sense of optimism and feeling of inclusion among participating low-income residents, who often perceive smart city efforts as “exclusively for…” or “for the rich people across the street.”
  • We expect to see greater awareness and understanding, and a greater sense of connection between Smart City Ambassadors and private and public smart city stakeholders - those are the connections that Richard Florida cited in his work on creative capital communities, and the connections that many studies attribute to higher patent production and higher patent indexing.
  • In addition to developing relationships that could result in participatory design, we expect public and private smart city stakeholders to be able to identify changes in their working assumptions, understanding of the technical environment, and to be better than average estimators of the cost and time required to deploy smart city technologies in low-income populations.


This program has been piloted through the lens of smart city-related transportation tools and applications, from summer 2016 - summer 2018. This program will scale now to include senior and family sites, starting with a launch of the 2019-20 Smart City Ambassador cohort in late June, 2019. Trainings, workshops and site visits with corporate and municipal government will take place through December, 2019 as Smart City Ambassadors conduct outreach and training with HACA residents at property computer labs. Inputs (quantitative and qualitative) will be collected through this period and the Smart City Ambassadors and residents will contribute to the narrative around smart city design, development and deployment through a variety of media channels.