The "Ambidextrous City:" How America's Local Government Leaders are Thinking About the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow

Posted by Arthur Burris on
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To succeed in a rapidly changing world, America’s local governments have to learn to operate more like the “Ambidextrous Organizations” that Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman have written about, finding ways to perform today’s core functions effectively, while simultaneously building the capability to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.

This is no easy feat. On the one hand, the current fiscal constraints facing cities across the country are making it increasingly difficult for them to meet the needs of their residents. Meanwhile, the systems we need to help produce more opportunity for the next generation than they did for the last -- in areas such as education and economic development– are struggling to keep pace with transformative developments like the Internet and globalization. In short, leadership in the 21st century demands the agility to solve today’s problems while anticipating those of tomorrow.

Twice a year, in partnership with the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, we convene a network of chiefs of staff and senior policy advisors to big-city mayors to discuss the present and emerging challenges that America’s cities face. The summer meeting of this Urban Policy Advisory Group- part of Living Cities’ Project on Municipal Innovation- provided a useful snapshot of some of the top issues that these leaders are thinking about:

Resilience –From Superstorm Sandy to the Oklahoma tornado to the bombing at the Boston Marathon, cities are increasingly aware of the need to respond to both natural and manmade disasters. Top city officials are thinking not only about emergency management during a crisis, but also about what they can do to prepare in advance for such events and reduce the disruption they may cause. Accordingly, interest is growing in efforts such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which aims to help cities think through these increasingly important challenges.

Data – As the availability of data and the tools for analyzing it grow, cities are working to apply their data to solve big problems. Some cities are looking to data analytics to help them proactively address potential problems and guide budget decisions so that resources achieve their greatest impact. Other cities are thinking about how to leverage the sharing of data to break down bureaucratic silos and achieve greater coordination in their work. Cities are also wrestling with how to make the best use of the data generated by their 311 systems, or, for cities that don’t have a 311 system, they are trying to determine what the next generation of this type of platform will look like.

Broadband – The economy of tomorrow will increasingly be delivered by broadband. To be competitive in both a domestic and global context, cities are seeking out effective broadband strategies to connect their residents to opportunity. Those that can build advanced broadband infrastructure will create more opportunities for existing businesses and residents, and will be more attractive to tech entrepreneurs. Cities are looking for effective and sustainable models for building out their broadband infrastructure, and grappling with how to do so in a way that ensures equitable access.

Aging – Many cities face challenges associated with an aging population. To make these cities work for older people will require both short-term and long-term changes in how resources are applied. In particular, cities are thinking through how they can best serve older residents’ needs in areas such as infrastructure and transit, placemaking and urban design, housing, and health care.

Workforce – Key to a strong local economy is a well-prepared workforce with skills that match the needs of current and prospective employers. Cities in our network are pursuing ways to prepare their workforce for the present and the future. They want to fund robust pre-K programs, better utilize the community college system to meet the needs of employers and employees alike, increase coordination among the various agencies that educate and train workers, and create appealing urban places that will help to retain a well-prepared workforce. Cities are interested in the success of approaches such as the Strive framework for cradle-to-career preparation, which uses cross-sector partnerships and data to improve educational outcomes.

Opportunity – Poverty and inequality are issues that cut across many of these other areas, as cities continue to struggle with how best to apply their tools and resources to address economic disparities. Urban policy-makers want to grow their economies in a way that creates opportunity across the economic spectrum to build an inclusive and shared prosperity. Cities experiencing economic growth must figure out how to manage this job and population growth to encourage economic opportunity for all, and must guard against displacement of lower-income communities.

Addressing these and other complex issues will require cities to innovate in how they structure their operations, how they use capital, and how they partner with other stakeholders to achieve collective impact. Living Cities’ public sector innovation work aims to foster the changes needed in these areas. As we continue to engage in this work, including through our Project on Municipal Innovation, stay tuned for additional stories about strategies that innovators in specific cities are adopting to tackle some of these current and looming challenges.