Recap: Paseo Prototyping Challenge & Festival

Winning team Work Together

Sometimes the (civic) stars align.

I served as a judge in this weekend’s Paseo Prototyping Challenge in San José, and I’m incredibly proud. I’m so proud that I need bullet points to keep track of all my pride:

  • I’m proud of San José State University (SJSU) for designing a months-long challenge for its students that focused on interdisciplinary cooperation and civic engagement.
  • I’m proud of San José Mayor Sam Liccardo for showing up on a Saturday night (dressed to the nines!) to praise student teams for “harnessing what is great about San José” and offering his city “as a classroom” to the public university that sits in the middle of it.
  • I’m proud of local companies and foundations for mentoring the student teams and rewarding them for compassionate ingenuity.
  • I’m especially proud of Microsoft’s extended Silicon Valley team for showing up to share Hololens technology with SJSU students and the public, including new San José City Councilmember Lan Diep.  Microsoft’s DX team partnered with SJSU faculty and students to combine AR technology and art – one more way to connect all of San José’s talent!
  • I’m very proud of former Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement fellows Shivani Aurora (pictured trying on a Hololens!) and Andrew Hernandez for all the work they’ve done over the last year to bring this great civic event to life.
  • I’m incredibly proud of the dozens of students who created something new that would make this great city even greater!
Mayor Liccardo

And perhaps most of all, I’m proud that these undergraduates used (at least) five key principles and best practices of civic tech to drive their work. No matter where these students end up — at a tech company, in the public sector, teaching, founding a nonprofit — they’ve already kicked off their professional lives with rock solid values.

The Paseo Prototyping Challenge began last fall, and the interdisciplinary student teams faced three milestones before the final competition this weekend. At each milestone, they had to present their prototype to a panel of community members and experts for feedback and suggestions. So here’s civic tech best practice #1: the teams designed, prototyped, tested, & iterated multiple times in just a few months, demonstrating a commitment to not only actually building something, but also to improving as they go. SJSU’s insistence that the teams come from different corners of the university – a typical team featured a software engineer, a business major, and a design expert — incorporated civic tech best practice #2: diverse teams produce better results.

The 15 student teams that made it through all three milestones presented on Saturday to judges from the Knight Foundation, Autodesk, Intel, the San José Mayor’s Office, and Microsoft (yours truly). The following criteria guided the judging:

  • Does the project have the potential to impact society in a positive way?
  • Does it address a pressing social or environmental need in San José?
  • Does it combine design and technology in a unique and innovative way?
  • Does it solve a problem using expertise from multiple disciplines?
  • Does it help improve the city of San José?

The inaugural Paseo Prototyping Festival’s winning team is Work Together, which demonstrated civic tech best practice #3 by learning from policy experts and users. Work Together drew on the knowledge of local nonprofit Downtown Streets Team (whose founder, Eileen Richardson, used to be CEO of Napster and knows a little bit about innovation) to create a platform that connects San José residents looking for odd jobs with opportunities as well as the resources they need to complete each job successfully. Work Together walked away with $5,000 in cash to go with their giant hearts and giant brains.

Second place teams H2o Flow and SCV Foods

Second place was a tie! SCV Foods uses technology to connect local small-scale produce growers with local small businesses. By combining the two most San José things ever — fruit and hustle — SCV Foods showed their sensitivity to local needs and resources, civic tech best practice #4. I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of Vitamina Juices & Blends, which served as the pilot business for the SCV Foods technology. The only thing tastier than fresh juice is fresh hyper-local juice that increases economic opportunity!

The other second place winner, H2o Flow, were no strangers to civic tech competitions; they won last fall’s Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge. Since then, they’ve decreased the cost and size of their sensors that turn water conservation into a competitive game between neighbors, friends, roommates, or even family members. They’re investigating partnership with the San José Water Company, they’ve got the slickest pitch in the game, and they’re addressing a deep civic problem with tech instead of just making a shiny widget, civic tech best practice #5.

Mayor Liccardo calls San José a place with “greatest density of talented people on the planet.” Through the Paseo Prototyping Challenge, SJSU gave its talented students the opportunity to learn from each other and the city around them. Doesn’t that make you proud?