Austin Digerati “Awaken” To Opportunities in Civic Tech Innovation

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the mirror and say, ‘We are not aligned here’ and try to figure out a way to change it,” Phillips says.

Another group looking at innovating in affordable housing is Affordable Central Texas, which is raising a private equity fund to purchase multifamily housing projects in order to keep rents from accelerating too fast. “How do you be the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ when [musicians] can’t afford to live here?” asks David Steinwedell, the group’s CEO. “In places like San Francisco and Boston, that train left the station a long time ago. In Austin, they’re calling ‘All aboard’ on that train right now but it has not left yet. There’s an opportunity to do something.”

The fund plans to purchase properties in the $25 million to $50 million range with between 200 and 400 units, and plans to provide returns similar to other real estate funds: 6 percent to 8 percent over about 8 to 10 years. The first investment should be made by early 2018.

Steinwedell, who formerly led the Urban Land Institute’s office in Austin, says he is targeting high net worth individuals as investors, including some who have made their fortunes in tech. “They care about Austin, as corny as that sounds,” he says. “Their first decision to invest in this is, ‘This helps Austin.’ The second decision is, ‘Oh, this is a pretty decent return, too.’ That makes it all the more better.”

The combination of Austin’s technical know-how and the city’s robust community development sector has enabled these efforts to take root, says Zoe Schlag, managing director of the newly launched Techstars Impact Accelerator in Austin. “These two worlds have been able to develop along parallel tracks and at the same time,” she says. “Whereas in Silicon Valley, the venture world really predated impact investing. Austin is really positioned to bridge these two worlds.”

That’s partly why Boulder, CO-based Techstars decided to start the social impact accelerator—its first ever—in the city. Schlag who previously founded and led the Austin hub of  UnLtd USA, another program focused on social and environmental innovations that worked closely with Techstars.

“Techstars Impact is the result of that collaboration,” she says.

Civitas Learning’s Webber says he believes these activities represent the start of stronger relationship between Austin’s tech sector and the community at-large. The hackathon weekend starts with a panel discussion featuring tech leaders such as Mark Strama at Google Fiber; Brett Hurt, founder and CEO of Data.World; and William Hurley, the founder of Honest Dollar, a fintech company sold to Goldman Sachs last year.

Among the projects the hackers will take on is looking at how campaigns can more easily accept donations made in cryptocurrencies, and how data analytics and social media could enable people to see who among their networks have or haven’t voted in order to use positive peer pressure to encourage people to go to the polls.

“If done well, technology can advance progressive politics,” Webb says.  “As we continue to awaken, it’s exciting to see what our impact could be.”

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