In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Carlo Capua, the city of Fort Worth’s new chief of strategy and innovation, discusses his plans to bring more innovation to the city. Capua is also overlooking special projects such as the new Texas A&M’s research and innovation center coming to downtown.
This conversation has been edited for length, grammar and clarity. For a longer version, listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Bodine: So what does the innovation part of your title actually mean?
Capua: We are looking at branding Fort Worth. You probably saw it when we did the bitcoin mining pilot program. It’s looking at things through a different lens, maybe curiosity. How can we try different programs and pilot different things to better understand the implications and the opportunities, and then be able to share that with the rest of the country, the rest of the world?
I don’t think Fort Worth has ever taken that approach before. We’ve always been a very cowboy culture. And I think now we’re cowboys and culture and crypto. Once we did that pilot bitcoin mining program, we got 700 million media impressions, which is incredible. And that’s, that’s the front porch, right? How do you get people to hear about Fort Worth, know where it is, and maybe know one thing about it, but may make them curious to learn a little bit more. And so my vision is for Fort Worth to become what we call a living laboratory, where if we see a cool program or project or something we may think is around the corner in the future, we can test it, we can try it here. With very low risk and sometimes with no cost to the taxpayers, we can experiment and learn what it might mean, if that becomes something important, we can make it important with the future of the city and kind of how things operate here within the city of Fort Worth.
Bodine: For the bitcoin example, sort of like a tech demo, essentially, to attract new innovators, new tech people. When we talk about innovation, to what extent might innovation extend past tech demos? What does that actually look like?
Capua: Let me clarify with bitcoin, the goal of that project, it’s not to make money. I mean, bitcoin, you know, it could be $10,000 today or $100,000 tomorrow, but the goal was to open up to the idea of doing something that maybe nobody’s done before, and to build a culture of innovation within city hall and within the way that we function. So look at digital assets, right? Remember way back when, you’re too young to remember, but when you wanted cash, you had to go to the bank and actually see a live teller and make a withdrawal. And then in 1969, something was invented that enabled you to get cash, lots of other places, even when the bank was closed. That was the ATM.
And then we saw online banking in the early 90s. Then it was PayPal in 1999 and then Venmo and Zelle, and Apple Pay, all these are different iterations in this whole evolution of digital assets. We think cryptocurrency in some shape or form may be the future. I think blockchain technology is probably here to stay because it’s more proven. Bitcoin right now is a little unstable but it’s understanding, ‘OK, what’s the next evolution of digital assets look like?’ and experiment and try it. And so I think that was what we call the zero to one moment and innovation in Fort Worth. That was something big that we did, nobody else in the country not, not Silicon Valley, not Chicago, New York, L.A. any of these other Fort Worth was the first one to do that. And as a result, we’ve got not only media impressions, and you know, we were on the cover of the Malaysian Sun Times in Malaysia, and we were front and center in Bitcoin Mexico.
And so it’s how do we find ways to tap into other markets that maybe never would have known what Fort Worth is? What is the next Bitcoin operation that we’ll do that will bring attention to? The overarching theme is to show that Fort Worth, we’re open to innovation. And we’ve had companies reach out to us that need to relocate a headquarters to open up some tech savvy company. And they saw that we’re open to innovation because of that pilot program, and are now really considering relocating here, or are opening up a headquarters in Fort Worth, because of just some small little trial program that we did with one little Bitcoin machine that didn’t cost the taxpayers any money.
Bodine: So you are saying that there has been serious inquiry from businesses from this sort of philosophical gesture?
Capua: There has. Yeah, I mean, think about it — land in Texas is cheap. Energy is cheap in Texas. So if you’re creating a company that is going to make a big investment in manufacturing production, Texas is very, very attractive to you. Now, if you want if you have a high tech product, doesn’t it stand to reason that you would try to find the most high tech friendly city that understands what you’re doing and gets what you’re doing is open enough and innovative enough to what Mayor Parker says, ‘to cut the red tape and roll out the red carpet for you.’ I think it puts us up even on par with the Austins in the San Antonioes and the Dallases when you’re considering moving a company here.
Bodine:With the definition of innovation, does that only include tech? Or does it extend past that?
Capua: I think everybody defines innovation a little differently. I was talking to the chief innovation officer of the Dallas Fort Worth airport this morning, and he defines it in a way that is different than maybe the chief innovation officer in Chicago, Illinois.
One of my charges is looking at what we do, especially some of the main pain points, for example, public transit. We have a bus system in Fort Worth. We have a very low ridership of people who actually ride the bus. And so the return on investment is not great. But you have to have a bus system, right? Just because certain people do ride the bus. And then when you get in visitors that come in internationally or from other large cities, well they expect to be able to take a bus and you can just not see a lot of people ride it. So how can we take a step back and not ask ourselves— it’s important that we ask the right question. The question I think we’ve been asking is, ‘How do we get people to ride the bus?’ We take a step back. And that’s not the right question. The question is, ‘How do we make public transit more attractive, more affordable and more accessible?’ Is it riding the bus? I don’t know. But I think it’s taking a step back and making sure that we are asking the right question, to figure out exactly what we want. Then we have a better shot of getting there. We just have to kind of think outside the box a bit.
Bodine: Are there any other areas beyond bitcoin at this point that you’re exploring?
Capua: There’s a few I’ve actually connected with a national group of kind of innovation municipal innovation experts, and I’ve got a list of 10 different pilot programs that I’m ready to start. Within our budget that we’ll be passing at the end of the month, the main theme of the budget is clean and safe. And so I’m taking that theme and looking OK, what are some things, some innovative things we can do to Fort Worth in the “clean” category? And what are some things in the “safe” category?
Well, I found one – it’s related to picking up trash in parks. You can send staff there to pick up trash and it costs x dollars per hour. But there’s some guy in another I can’t remember what state, but he essentially invented this Roomba, you know, like the automatic vacuum cleaner, but for parks. And you set them out, you’ve got a person that’s controlling them all remote controlled. And they can pick up things as small as a cigarette, but automated. And so you may look at that as saying, oh, well, you’re displacing jobs, but you’re actually creating a different kind of job because you need people to create them, to service them, to monitor them. So you just need to train people a little differently. But that’s one really cool pilot program that I’m hoping to bring in the next few months working with them. But there are entrepreneurs and innovators all over the country, all over the world, that have great ideas. They just need a city to pilot them and to try them out and to implement them for proof of concept. And what I’m saying is, ‘Hey, world, we’re here. We’re Fort Worth, bring us your innovative ideas, and we’ll try them.’ And we’ll tell you what we found. And if they’re good, then we’ll adopt it. And if not, we’ll give you results, and maybe it may be a better fit for another city or country.
Bodine: How do you balance the interest of industry with what might be best for the city?
Capua: Well, that’s an ongoing question. As I find my feet, I think there’s a good balance for what the city needs, and what the citizens and the residents want. What are the core things that we need to be doing in the next 18 months? What are kind of the mid-range things three, two, in three to five years, what’s our city going to look like? And then past five years, what does that mean? How will we be interacting and delivering services to our residents?
The Metaverse for example, I don’t know if you’ve seen the metaverse video, but it’s this amazing, hour and a half video that shows you the future of how we will likely be interacting and working. And some of it involves never having to physically go to the office, the office comes to you with augmented reality and virtual reality. I know Meta has developed a new headset that you can literally put on, you can hang out with your friends, you can play games, but you can also be productive. So it’s almost like you have your workstation right in your own living room. And we’ve experienced a lot of that with the pandemic, people started working from home. A lot of people got used to working from home. And so what we’re seeing right now is a shortage of staffing, it’s hard to find staff for certain things, because a lot of people got used to working from home. So we have to think businesses and governments have to change, in some ways change the way they work if they want to keep their good talent. Because once that genie’s out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in. And once you’ve worked from home, and you’d like the flexibility from work from home, you’ll see other employers that want to keep good talent, being a lot more flexible to respond to what staff wants and kind of reframing their business model and how they work around the new normal.
Bodine: Can you tell me a little bit about the municipal innovation experts that you’ve been talking to? Are there any model cities that you’re looking towards when you’re thinking about innovation and what might be the next pilot program?
Capua: Yeah, I was having a conversation today about smart cities and innovation zones and there are different places and cities around the country and around the world that are doing some cool things. San Jose, for example, has taken the lead on the metaverse. They’re working on creating a digital copy of their city hall to put in the metaverse. So if people don’t have access or don’t want to, need to come downtown, you can put on your glasses or your headset. And you could meet with someone in a virtual city hall. I’d love to see Fort Worth pilot something like that. I mean, think about a developer needing to show their business plan and make an appointment with planning and development. Instead of doing it by email, you could do it virtually without ever having to leave your home. Or imagine a single mom with two kids that has a question about her water bill or needs to pay her water bill. In 10 years, maybe when those augmented reality glasses become really more affordable, she could go to the virtual water department and ask questions and pay her bill without having to worry about transportation, catching the bus, her kids. So looking at this through an equity lens is how can we bring services faster, better, more efficiently, and remove barriers for as many people as possible here in Fort Worth?
Bodine: You mentioned those 10 pilot programs. What’s the process for actually approving that? Is that going before council? Or is it sort of already approved through just the budget process?
Capua: Yeah, right now we’re taking everything through our City Council. It’s important that we have the buy-in from the leadership. So my goal is to, you know, tee up some different projects. I’m fleshing out all the projects to bring it all to council. The bitcoin project, that was our very first one. And that was an easier sell, because it didn’t cost any money because the amount of bitcoin that we’re actually mining more than pays for the electricity that it uses. So my goal is to see how many more of those pilot programs can we do for free? But when we start getting into programs that are transformational, there will be an I mean, there will probably be an upfront cost to show that we’re serious and there’s skin in the game. Because with every successive year, more cities will be competing for the same cool pilot programs. And we went to Fort Worth to get the best one. So yeah, it’s important that we have buy-in from both city management and city leadership to try these out. But when risk is really low, it’s an easier sell for everybody.
Bodine: Anything else that you would like to add?
Capua: I’m really excited. I think Fort Worth can be an aspirational city for innovation and technology. It’s going to take some time. But we are laying the foundation for the next generation of Fort Worth. And with the new Texas A&M Research and Innovation Center, that’s going to totally transform downtown. When we move into the new city hall in a year, that will also help add a little bit more of this innovation and technology into our culture. You know, sometimes a physical change of space can help reset the relationship between someone in their job. And I’m really excited for the future of Fort Worth. There’s so much that we have going for us and the way that we’re growing is pretty remarkable. So there’s big things on the horizon for the city.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.