A Q&A with Beto Altamirano MC/MPA 2022, SICI Cheng Fellow, U.S. Latino Leadership Fellow, and co-founder of Irys


Beto Altamirano MC/MPA 2022Beto Altamirano MC/MPA 2022 has a digital solution to give urban communities to a voice in policymaking, particularly related to aging infrastructure and climate resilience planning. He traveled to Glasgow in November to share his ideas at the COP26 Tech For Our Planet showcase.

We spoke with Altamirano about his motivations, how the company he co-founded is taking on climate change, his COP26 experience, and how HKS is helping him achieve his goals.


Q: Tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

I was born to immigrant parents and raised in South Texas. Growing up in a bicultural environment and living on the border, I had the opportunity to experience the best of both worlds and what Mexico and the United States offer.  

I got involved in politics at a young age. My father was deported in 2007 and it caused so much frustration and confusion—how could the law and policy divide my family? It motivated me to get involved in politics and public policy and organizing, which paved the way for me to work in the U.S. Senate and White House. My father’s deportation was traumatizing, but it pushed me to take advantage of the opportunities of being an American citizen that my parents gave me.

Today, I’m a technology entrepreneur and proudly attending Harvard Kennedy School as a Mid-Career MPA student.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your company, Irys?

Irys is a communication and collaboration platform born out of frustration. The government and companies are lagging behind using technology to engage with the public—I saw the need for something more flexible than in-person meetings and without the noise of social media. My co-founders and I are insiders in government, academia, and business and drew on our experiences to identify and solve the problems we saw up close.

Cities are growing exponentially, with more than half of the global population living in large urban centers. That number is on the rise. By 2050, UN experts predict 68 percent of the global population will live in cities. Aging infrastructure and the impact of climate change—flooding, erosion, and rising sea levels—are very real crises for communities around the globe.

At Irys, we envision a world where anyone can easily access communication channels to report issues in their urban communities to city government officials or owners of private infrastructure. We want to facilitate that and improve community and urban stakeholder engagement for aging infrastructure and climate resilience planning, policy, and design decision making.

Q: How does Irys support communities exactly?

Irys’ mobile app and dashboard enable community members to voice their concerns and help leaders make effective, data-driven decisions. They can use the app to learn about infrastructure and climate resilience projects in their area, read project details, and send feedback to decision-makers who are shaping their community.

Urban stakeholders like engineering companies, architecture firms, urban planners, or city government officials can use our dashboard to read and respond to community feedback, see data and analytics, and publish content to our app.

Our latest feature called the Community Pulse is an AI-powered social listening tool that allows urban stakeholders to gather community feedback from multiple online sources, including social networks and news websites.

Q: How was Irys chosen to present at the COP26 Tech For Our Planet showcase?

Tech For Our Planet (TFOP) is a unique opportunity for startups to showcase pilots that demonstrate how digital and data solutions are supporting global climate efforts and helping to meet the goal of net-zero emissions.

Irys was the only American and Latinx startup chosen to participate. It was a rigorous application process but once we were selected, we launched a three-month pilot with Arcadis, a sustainable design, engineering, and management consulting group, to work on the Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks’ (SSEN) wildlife restoration project. I presented our findings at the TFOP showcase last week.

Beto Altamirano MC/MPA 2022 presented at the COP26 Tech For Our Planet showcase in November 2021.

Q: What was it like presenting at the showcase and being at COP26 and in Glasgow at such a critical time? 

It was such an honor—and a surreal and inspiring experience—addressing an audience of scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, academics, and concerned global citizens.

I’m so proud of the Irys team taking on climate change. And I’m thankful to our partners, Arcadis and SSEN, for joining us in our technology journey, fueled by public purpose, to leverage data to understand how we can develop sustainable, resilient infrastructure.

As part of the COP26 Tech For Our Planet showcase, we participated in roundtable discussions that focused on digital solutions to combat climate change. Together with other startups, we developed a manifesto with 10 concrete actions stakeholders can take now to make an impact tomorrow. It was an empowering experience.

My main takeaway is climate change is happening now. In 10 years, parts of the planet will be increasingly inhospitable to human beings. And we don’t know how livable certain regions of Australia, North Africa, and the western United States will be by 2100. It may feel like our individual, everyday contributions don’t matter in the fight against climate change, but from big changes to small habits, we can all make a difference to protect the only planet we have.

Q: How has your time at HKS so far helped you to expand Irys’ scope and reach?

I want to create a more inclusive, transparent relationship between people, government, and urban stakeholders. To do this, I’ll continue building and exploring technology solutions that put community members at the center of policymakers’ decision making. I want to design services that respond to individuals’ needs and are relevant to their circumstances, regardless of their socioeconomic status. I also want to support governmental and private organizations to develop sustainable, resilient infrastructure that supports human well-being.

The MC/MPA Program allows me to study the drivers of digital government performance and provides an environment for me to enhance Irys’ vision and tools. Courses like “Digital Government: Technology, Policy, and Public Service Innovation” (DPI-662) with David Eaves have given me space to reflect on my experiences in the government technology world. I now have a bigger team and more technical experience, but my journey would have been a lot easier if I applied concepts I’m learning in class. For example, I recently learned about the Value Proposition Design (VPD) framework and have started using this framework in current Irys projects to create more productive dialogue among stakeholders. Practice is applied theory.

As a social entrepreneur, the Social Innovation + Change Initiative (SICI) at HKS has given me unique opportunities for growth and empowerment. The valuable business resources and SICI community have been particularly significant for me.  

Q: What has your experience been like at CPL as a U.S. Latino Leadership Fellow?

I’m a social entrepreneur working at the intersection of civic engagement and people-centered smart cities. The Center for Public Leadership and its U.S. Latino Leadership Fellowship give me the space I need to understand the drivers of Latinx public sector leadership and innovation and learn from emerging leaders who are shaping the future of public leadership. It’s also a space where I can share my perspective as a Latinx entrepreneur working on public and private sector projects.

The U.S. Latino Leadership Fellowship community and its resources have allowed me to see how I can lead and make an impact in urban communities in the United States. I want to continue to empower disenfranchised communities to find a voice in public policymaking through civic engagement technology. The fellowship has made me reflect on my “purpose in life,” which isn’t easy to define but it helps me stay true to my ambitions and aspirations.


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