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San Jose Chooses Its Next Chief Innovation Officer

The city’s pick for the C-level post comes from within City Hall and brings with him a dedication to digital inclusion.

Looking for creative ways to expand digital access in San Jose, Calif., is a passion for Clay Garner — which could serve him well as San Jose’s newest chief innovation officer.

“This is something San Jose has been investing in for a while,” Garner said of San Jose’s efforts to close the digital divide in Silicon Valley. “And it just really blew open how important it was during the pandemic, when you have students who are not able to connect to the Internet at home, and that was terrible for online school, and terrible for online work.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo made the announcement about Garner on Wednesday. The job, which is a citywide position, resides within the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI).

“I think that’s the unique opportunity that the mayor has,” said Garner. “Working with the mayor, I get to work across departments.”

The MOTI team is involved in project management and drafting policy as well. Garner praises the CIO position for its capacity to work across departments and come up with creative solutions to problems like the digital divide.

“Because that’s not one department’s problem. We work with the library. We work with schools. We work with housing to address these issues,” said Garner.

Garner takes the place of Jordan Sun, said Rachel Davis, communications director for San Jose.

“Clay has a deep commitment to public service and his leadership will carry our digital initiatives to new lengths,” said Liccardo in a statement. “Clay believes that innovation should be inclusive and equitable, and his service to San José continues to initiate positive impact on the community through tech.”

Garner, who began working for the city in 2019 as a tech policy adviser, has been involved in a number of digital equity initiatives, such as the city’s efforts to expand a community Wi-Fi program to cover some 300,000 residents. Another pilot in progress is a partnership with Helium, which uses a blockchain-based IoT network to house smart city applications and other innovative features.

“We’re also using the cryptocurrency generated by the network to pay for people’s Internet access,” Garner explained.

Closing the digital divide in this city of 1 million residents — which happens to be the gravitational center of Silicon Valley — has long been a mission for San Jose.

“We have access to all this innovation and companies, but at the same time, despite being in Silicon Valley, we have almost 10 percent of our population that’s disconnected from the Internet,” Garner said. “And that’s really disheartening."

“We can’t have our residents not be connected to the opportunity that the tech economy provides,” he added.

Don’t be misled into thinking Garner’s skills are limited to tech. In addition to knowing English, he is fluent in both Mandarin and Spanish. And when Garner was in high school in 2012, he became a bit of an overnight viral celebrity when his music and vocals took off on Chinese video platforms.

“San Jose is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the U.S.,” said Garner. “And I think growing up I never thought my Spanish or Chinese interests and skills would be so useful in the U.S. But on a regular basis our city has to conduct services [and] outreach in a variety of languages. And Chinese and Spanish are both very prominent in San Jose.”

This story first appeared in Government Technology, Techwire’s sister publication.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas for Government Technology magazine.