November 12, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
In 2012, Riverside, Calif. — a city of 300,000 located 60 miles east of Los Angeles — blew the doors off, winning seven national and international awards for digital inclusion, economic development and excellence in leadership. Chief Innovation Officer Steve Reneker, for example, was named one of Government Technology's 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2012, and the city was named "The Most Intelligent City of 2012" in an international competition among the top high-tech cities of the world. The innovations and initiatives that catapulted Riverside to such prominence were chronicled in Government Technology and many other publications.
Reneker attributed much of the city's success to teamwork, and was especially appreciative of Mayor Ron Loveridge's innovation. Hired by Loveridge as executive director of the nonprofit SmartRiverside in 2005, the two have since collaborated on the citywide wireless network and a digital inclusion project, benefitting thousands of low-income Riverside families.
But now, both Loveridge and Reneker are departing. At this pivotal time for Riverside, we talked to Reneker about his successes, the Riverside team, and what comes next.
Reneker said that Loveridge — former president of the National League of Cities — drove a sense of collaboration and pride that was key to the city's progress. Reneker, however, was optimistic that Mayor-elect Rusty Bailey will take Riverside's success to the next level. "He's been a city councilmember," said Reneker, "a visionary, he works in our schools, and he's been a champion around our intelligent community movement."
As for himself, Reneker said that even though he's retiring from government, he has a passion for nonprofits and feels he has another five to seven years of good work left in him. After some well-deserved time off, he hopes to continue his nonprofit work in the area of digital inclusion. Reneker envisions a continued role in the Inland Empire Regional Broadband Consortia, a project of the California Public Utilities Commission. "We've already got a formation there to expand on the last-mile initiatives for connectivity and expanding digital inclusion. So everything we've done here in SmartRiverside, we hope to replicate and continue to grow in those communities."
"You can't do better than we did this past year," said Reneker, "so we're going out on top."
Riverside's team of innovators came in handy when the recession loomed. "We saw the economic downturn coming," Reneker said, "and we knew there was going to be high unemployment and high foreclosure rates, and so we figured it would be the best time to do improvements in the city."
The result was two community projects. One was called "Riverside Renaissance" where Reneker said that former City Manager Brad Hudson sparked a vision that crammed 30 years of civic improvements into five years. "About $1.5 billion in projects were completed in five years, and the transformation that occurred was unbelievable. Parks that didn't exist are now parks, we've got new fire stations, new medians and streets, streets that are paved, the city has never looked better. And everybody that lives here recognizes the benefits the Renaissance brought to our great city — and we were able to do projects at 50 cents on the dollar."
Along with the University of California at Riverside, the city, economic development partners and about 200 community leaders embarked on "Seizing our Destiny" to define what they felt Riverside should look like 10 or 20 years from now. Eight "tracks" were selected, and those were trimmed down to three or four. Hudson's successor, Scott Barber, created "Seizing our Destiny 2.0," to carry out the vision.
"We have a joint city, university and private-sector commercialization effort going on, and we have a company known as the Innovation Economy Corp. here in Riverside, and the city is helping them incubate companies," he said. "We're helping assist them with space, so that they can work for the university and mine research out at our university park." University research data — full of concepts, ideas and even prototypes — were often never patented. According to Reneker, mining this research has already launched startup companies.
According to Reneker, widespread access to free or low-cost broadband is critical to successful digital inclusion programs. In Riverside, nearly 80 percent of the city is covered. "We provide a 1 meg symmetrical service to all of our businesses and residences, at no cost." Managed and maintained by US Internet, customer premise equipment (CPE) is provided by Ubiquity. "Every low-income family is given one of these Ubiquity CPEs that extends that outdoor wireless signal to indoors, to their PC or laptop or Mac."
In an effort to build on digital inclusion efforts throughout Southern California, SmartRiverside is seeking grant funding from the San Diego Futures Foundation. SmartRiverside would produce refurbished computers for low-income households, using local youth from gang intervention programs.
Part of the city's focus on the future involves the schools, which are almost fully electronic. Kindergarteners use iPod Touches as primary educational tools, while Riverside high schools use electronic textbooks and tablets inside and outside of the classroom.
"Those are the kinds of things that I have a passion for, and I have a passion for the Intelligent Community Forum," said Reneker. "I'm a believer in what they do with the impacts of broadband adoption globally to create more intelligent communities."
Such efforts have instilled a strong sense of community pride, Reneker said. "These kinds of things have just taken off in the community, where people have a sense of pride, the community around the Inland Empire, where people want to live, people want to send their kids to school here, they want to raise their kids here, send them to one of our four colleges here, and keep their families residing in Riverside."
Reneker says a lot more communities are starting to get the idea of a chief innovation officer. "In a lot of communities," he said, "the IT director that becomes the CIO is still somewhat in a silo and focused on internal operations. But as things change and the role of the CIO changes to actually go outside the doors of city hall, and be with the communities and collaborate with schools and the private marketplace, I think that's what really restructures the title to Innovation Officer. What we try to do here in Riverside, and I've seen others do it as well, innovation is a key lynchpin to economic development."
Reneker's advice for his successor is to work closely with the city management and the mayor to keep current initiatives going. "There's a commitment to keep our wireless network going, and there's a commitment to digital inclusion. We've benefited 6,100 families but we estimate there are 25,000-30,000 in need," he explained. He feels the new chief innovation officer will be well served by the IT staff, outsourced to Xerox. "They will be looking to the CIO to take a look at those priorities to see if they make sense, and really reflect the needs of the community and the department heads there, and ensuring that the execution continues."