San Jose hires a new innovation chief to bridge digital divide
Jordan Sun began as San Jose's innovation chief on June 1. Photo courtesy of City of San Jose.

Growing up in Texas near the border with Mexico and close to large Black and Latinx populations gave San Jose’s new Chief Innovation Officer Jordan Sun a very diverse image of America.

Now he is working in one of the country’s most diverse cities — San Jose — as Mayor Sam Liccardo’s new innovation chief. He replaces Shireen Santosham, who announced her resignation in January.

“You had to be bilingual basically,” Sun said about his experience living in Texas.

Sun said that background attracted him to Silicon Valley and inspired him to drive digital inclusion by connecting more San Jose families. San Jose has long suffered from a digital divide that’s left people in East San Jose in the dark and disproportionately hurt families of color.

“That’s what drove me to really want to get to do something here that’s meaningful,” Sun told San José Spotlight. “And to be able to take my background in tech and innovation and hopefully push the ball forward and drive some meaningful change.”

In the next 10 years, Sun said, his office aims to connect 50,000 households and roughly 100,000 residents to the internet.

“That mission is very near and dear to me,” he said.

After returning from his second deployment to Afghanistan with the Army Reserve, Sun began his job as the mayor’s innovation chief on June 1, as the city faces a financial crisis, partially because of the coronavirus pandemic.

City Manager Dave Sykes said in May that San Jose faces a $71.6 million deficit because of revenue declines more severe than the Great Recession and during the Dotcom Bust.

Also, general fund dollars are expected to drop nine percent compared to the 2018-2019 year because of the pandemic.

However, Sun said the city government is “fantastically lean” compared to the responsibilities it fulfills, especially on his team. He works with two other employees in the mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, one of which is subsidized by an academic fellowship.

“We have a lot of work, with a very small team, on our shoulders,” he said. “We basically work start-up hours.”

Just as asking the federal government or a corporation to cut investing in technology in 2020 would be ridiculous, Sun said, the city needs to continue investing in tech while reprioritizing to operate as efficiently as possible.

“Ultimately, we can’t take the eye off the ball of moving the city forward in a more progressive fashion,” he said. “Especially a time of crisis.”

Sun said he wants to use his fresh perspective to apply the vision Santosham set during her four years in office.

“His extensive experience in public service and technology has prepared him to tackle critical issues like digital equity and assisting the city with economic recovery in the face of COVID-19 — to use technology to help small-to-medium-sized businesses stay afloat and keep people employed,” Liccardo said in a statement on his Facebook.

As Sun took the reins in the innovation office and began pushing San Jose forward in digital inclusion, the city received praise at a national level for improving residents’ lives by using data in problem solving.

Liccardo this month announced that San Jose had earned the silver status of the 2020 What Works Cities Certification, recognizing city leaders for using evidence and data to make decisions, making San Jose one of 16 cities across the country to achieve certification at the silver level.

Sun said most of his efforts as innovation chief so far have been directed at learning more about San Jose’s government and getting to know his colleagues.

“In a COVID environment, that is all virtual,” he said, “it is a lot more challenging than you might expect.”

Sun said he’s glad the pandemic has made people realize how important it is to “bridge the digital divide” by connecting more San Jose households to the internet, especially as people work from home and children rely on distance learning.

“It has taken a pandemic to really emphasize the need for that,” he said. “And folks finally are realizing that the 10% of our population that are under or unconnected are very important and need to be highlighted.”

Contact John Bricker at [email protected] or follow him @JohnMichaelBr15 on Twitter.

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