San Jose's chief innovation officer steps down after four years

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Shireen Santosham, San Jose, California’s, chief innovation officer is moving back to the private sector after four years with the city, she announced Wednesday

Santosham has been credited with leading Mayor Sam Liccardo’s Office of Technology and Innovation and helping to create the city’s $24 million Digital Inclusion Fund, a new  program to connect nearly 95,000 residents to the internet. In a Medium postSantosham said she is joining Plenty, an indoor farming company that uses renewable energy, limited water and advanced agricultural technology to grow produce.

Shireen Santosham
Shireen Santosham (City of San Jose)

Santosham had previously worked as a consultant at several companies and studied the digital divide between men and women in developing nations at GSMA, a trade association for the worldwide mobile communications industry. As her first government job, leading San Jose’s innovation arm wasn’t a matter of simply finding things the city could do differently, but seeking creative solutions to what she and her cohorts viewed as the region’s most pressing issues, she recalled.

“I didn’t come from a really traditional view of how government works, so when I looked at what I thought needed to be done, I really just thought about where the gaps were where we can have real impact,” Santosham said. “I didn’t really think about it as innovation. I just thought about it as where can we be effective, what resources do we have in City Hall and with partners and our tech community here? If you’re trying to drive innovation, you can’t do innovation for innovation’s sake.”

This approach generated a host of new initiatives during her time with the city, including creation of a citywide user-centric privacy policy that sets principles for data-use and data-collection like “we only collect what we need” and “we will give you control over your data.”

The centerpiece of San Jose’s digital equity efforts is a 10-year, $24 million Digital Inclusion Fund, which is being distributed to organizations that can help the city improve internet access. An inaugural $1 million round of grants is slated to be announced in the coming weeks, Santosham said.

“Often times children over here are trying to do their homework in parking lots with a cell phone and they just don’t have on-ramps into Silicon Valley jobs and the training that they need to really have that opportunity,” she said. “I think this has raised awareness on this issue.”

San Jose has also been an early adopter of emerging transportation technologies, soliciting help to create policy for autonomous vehicles in 2017, creating an autonomous vehicle pilot project in 2018 and recruiting the design firm Ideo to help the city develop a forward-looking mobility strategy that accounts for technologies such as autonomous vehicles and drone taxis.

During Santosham’s time with the city, San Jose also created new bodies such as the Office of Civic Innovation, with which her office developed projects including free public Wi-Fi and a public-safety effort that re-timed streetlights to help emergency response vehicles get through intersections faster.

But it was through management of people, not necessarily technology, that made advancing all these initiatives possible, she said. 

“Everybody told me ‘we can’t recruit high talent people because we don’t pay them enough and all the tech companies,’” she said. “But I will say we built a really top-tier team here. My team alone is a couple of Harvard grads, a couple of Stanford grads, folks who really could have gone anywhere. And so I think the people make a huge difference and a couple good people go a long way.”

Beyond her own team, Santosham said the city’s also made progress in educating policymakers. In San Jose, which operates under a council–manager governance structure, she said building consensus across the entire city government was critical for success.

“We did a lot of things that don’t seem like they would be immediate impact but really do have lasting impact on the city like having a speaker series for the city council members and staff so they get educated on tech topics so that when technology issues come before council we can start conversation that’s pretty sophisticated,” she said.

The city has not named a replacement for Santosham and is now accepting applications for a new chief innovation officer.

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