Living Cities en-us Fri, 01 Aug 2014 10:52:47 -0400 15 Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at

]]> Fri, 01 Aug 2014 10:52:47 -0400 Zainab Imam
Where do Collective Impact, Community Engagement & Racial Equity Intersect? At Living Cities, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to change the systems that consistently produce poverty, income inequality, and all their related disparities. One of our core beliefs is that the seemingly intractable problems facing cities today can only be addressed when decision-makers from across different sectors come together around a common vision to re-engineer the systems that produce these outcomes in the first place. This approach - also known as Collective Impact - is one that Living Cities has been testing in the social sector over the past several years.

We also recognize that race influences and shapes the same systems that together produce uneven outcomes for low-income people in U.S. cities - from housing to health to education. Given this reality, we recently committed to incorporating a racial equity & inclusion lens across all our work in order to more effectively disrupt the persistent inequality and poverty in our cities.

And at the same, the importance of community voice and engagement in Collective Impact has emerged as a critical issue in the field. More and more, a national conversation around how to authentically engage community stakeholders at all levels of Collective Impact work has grown. Indeed, it makes sense that the perspective of community members is needed to inform and guide the social change efforts that seek to impact their everyday lives.

What is less clear, however, is how Collective Impact, racial equity, and community engagement all intersect. How do we effectively integrate community voice into institution-heavy Collective Impact efforts? How do we authentically and meaningfully involve communities who have historically been left out of decision-making processes? And how do we engage stakeholders in the sensitive conversations about race, class and culture without driving away those who need to sit at the problem-solving table?

Living Cities’ Exploration with StriveTogether

The importance of these conversations can be easily ignored when working systematically. In order to more intentionally address these issues (and in direct response to a call to action by leaders on the ground), StriveTogether and Living Cities are convening a work group of practitioners currently grappling with these issues in their work. By convening this group we seek to build our collective knowledge on how to apply an equity lens in Collective Impact work focused on improving outcomes for youth from cradle to career. We’re working to identify the support that local partnerships need in order to engage communities more equitably in their work and ultimately reduce inequality across different races, cultures, and class groups.

4 Early Insights

While these conversations are still going on, we’ve identified 4 early insights that we think may be useful to others working on similar efforts.

  • First: Conversations about race and class can be incredibly difficult to navigate, and some communities may not have the capacity to constructively facilitate them. Given the sensitive nature of the topics, a common language is often useful to help communities engage in constructive conversations. Language is contextual and certain words can turn some people away while bringing others in. For example, ‘underserved’ or ‘underrepresented’ or ‘minority’ are often used interchangeably to identify target communities, yet they can each inspire different reactions in different people. Regardless, these tough, courageous conversations are an important starting point for any movement towards incorporating equity considerations into Collective Impact work.
  • Second: We need to be clear on who we mean by the community. The first half of an answer is that community is defined as the people who will be impacted by the changes the Collective Impact partnership seeks to make. Going one step further, in equitable community engagement, the targeted community can be defined as those individuals who will be impacted by social change efforts and who are also historically left out of the decision-making process. In cradle-to-career work, this can include local students and youth as well as communities of color.
  • Third: We need to recognize the difference between equity and equality in community engagement. It’s not enough to give all community members an equal opportunity to engage in the Collective Impact effort; we need to actively meet communities where they are and create targeted opportunities around the unique needs of community members historically disengaged from civic decision-making. For example, equitable engagement could include offering translation services for non-English speakers or timing engagement opportunities later in the day so that working parents are able to join.
  • Fourth: We need to more carefully redefine power in Collective Impact efforts. Conventionally, power resides in the leaders and institutions that have authority to make unilateral decisions. Yet, in Collective Impact, power also resides within community members who have the ability to quickly identify what is and isn’t working. Collective Impact partnerships themselves may have a role to play in helping drive this shift by highlighting the importance of incorporating community feedback into the work of the larger partnership.

Join the Dialogue

This is only the beginning of our exploration into equitable community engagement as a way to address inequality. As we continue to explore this question, we’re committed to sharing our insights and questions through this blog. Over the next several months, we will share knowledge ranging from examples of equitable engagement in the field to insights gained from our ongoing discussions. I invite you to join us in this dialogue by reaching out to me - either through email at or through twitter at @_jsarias.

]]> Tue, 29 Jul 2014 19:21:02 -0400 Juan Sebastian Arias
Lessons on Open-Sourcing Social Change to Disrupt Inequality On July 16, 2014, Living Cities hosted a Twitter Chat on open-sourcing social change and the role that this approach plays in our work to disrupt inequality in America. The chat, co-hosted by our Chief Operating Officer, Elodie Baquerot, was the second in a series we’re hosting this summer on #DisruptingInequality, the focus of our 2013 Annual Report. During that chat, participants surfaced a number of themes on what it takes to come up with solutions to complex social problems. Encouragingly, our Twitter community collectively acknowledged the potential of open-sourcing social change to transform the way the social sector works for the better.

To learn more about what it takes to open-source social change and disrupt inequality – and for examples of this work on the ground - check out our post-chat Storify:

]]> Mon, 28 Jul 2014 10:18:24 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
A Mayor’s View: The Effect of Collective Impact Initiatives on City Hall In our journey to explore and learn more about the role of municipal government in collective impact initiatives we had a wonderful opportunity at our most recent Integration Initiative Learning Community convening to interview former three-term Mayor of Minneapolis, MN, R.T. Rybak, who is now a part-time Senior Advisor to Living Cities. As mayor, R.T. participated in several collective impact initiatives focusing on an array of issues including youth violence, transportation expansion, education reform, and chronic homelessness. Below are some highlights from our insightful conversation with R.T. To learn more from R.T.’s experience, watch a highlight video of the conversation, below.

What did you learn about the role of philanthropy, government, and community in collective impact initiatives?

One major thing I learned is that it’s not philanthropy’s job to rescue government. Philanthropy is the jiffy lube that can help make government run, but it is not a substitute for government or an antidote for things not working in government. Collective impact models like The Integration Initiative (TII) can serve as a vehicle to disrupt the government power grid that is often more interested in maintaining control than achieving results. The beauty of the collective impact table is that it jumbles up that rigid government power grid allowing equal distribution of power around the table. In TII and other collective impact initiatives that I was a part of as Mayor, the table allowed the power to shift dramatically, setting the mayor and other elected officials on equal footing with non-profit partners and community members most impacted by the problem we were trying to solve.

How critical is the role of community?

Like I said before, collective impact initiatives can really shift the power dynamic putting mayors and other electeds on equal footing with community. That power shift forces elected officials to recognize how much he or she needs other people to bring about real systemic change that goes beyond their term in office. In working with such an array of partners I had to walk humbly into those meetings, embracing the idea that the change that was needed was only going to be sustainable if I practiced true servant leadership -- which is not easy for type A elected officials, like myself, who often feel they need to have all the good ideas and make it all happen on their own steam. Around our youth violence initiative work, I went into those community meetings knowing that I did not have the solution. Listening to the young people and their families impacted by the violence led to some critical policy changes that would not have happened without that community voice at the table.

What is your advice to elected officials beginning to work in collective impact initiatives?

Elected officials need to accept that there is virtually nothing they can solve totally on their own. I’d advise them to do some real soul searching from the very beginning asking themselves – Am I really trying to do collective impact or am I trying to get a bunch of people to say “I like your idea Mr. or Ms. Mayor?” If the latter is the case then I don’t think they’ll achieve the type of success that’s possible through these efforts nor will they improve the lives of the people they were elected to serve.

What is your advice to those outside of government?

Those outside government need to recognize when they are being brought in as equal partners and when they are not. If equal partnership is not happening they need to push back, letting their elected officials know that they understand the difference between just supporting a mayor’s ideas versus engaging in true collaboration. If those outside of government want effective collective impact they must push their elected officials for shared results, outcomes, and accountability from the very start.

What role did race play in pulling together collective impact tables?

Race was and is a big part of the equation especially when you are pulling these tables together. Often we would find ourselves in meetings with the top people from our philanthropic institutions and social service agencies which was a good thing, but the racial make-up of that meeting was often all white or predominately white people trying to solve the problems of communities of color. We had to racially and ethnically expand the table so we could have an authentic conversation about who we are ultimately trying to help, understand the differences and similarities in experiences of an African-American youth living on one side of town versus a Somali immigrant youth living on the other side of town, and make collective decisions based on that knowledge. The ability to have those conversations drive policy and change was one of the major benefits of working in this new way.

Want to learn more from R.T.? Watch additional highlights from the Q&A:

]]> Fri, 25 Jul 2014 17:31:05 -0400 Ronda Jackson
June 2014 Learning Community Summary Living Cities’ signature effort, The Integration Initiative, supports teams of leaders in cities as they transform systems to produce outcomes for all. Three times a year, Living Cities brings together The Integration Initiative (TII) site teams for a multi-day event focused on sharing lessons learned and providing assistance on cross-site challenges. These events, called “Learning Communities,” offer insights into challenges and opportunities for collaborative initiatives focused on improving low-income communities.

On June 17th and 18th, 2014, teams from the second cohort of sites selected to participate in TII—Albuquerque, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle–met in Chicago for their first “Learning Community.” The two day event, hosted by Living Cities at the Catalyst Ranch, was, for some of the teams, the first opportunity to work together for a significant period of time on their initiative planning. The event featured several presentations from Living Cities staff, as well as facilitated work time for sites to dig deeper into the problems they are trying to tackle, their large scale result, and the outcomes they hope to achieve.

This document outlines the themes and takeaways from the June Learning Community of The Integration Initiative. These key takeaways are categorized into general takeaways, as well as takeaways within Living Cities’ three levers of change: Collective Impact, Capital Innovation, and Public Sector Innovation, with a primary focus on Collective Impact. Each lever section includes an example of the themes at work from the first round of TII, as requested by the attendees.

]]> Fri, 25 Jul 2014 11:00:53 -0400 (Living Cities)
5 Opportunities (and Challenges!) of Community Engagement When Seattle/King County set out to decrease health and social gaps among low-income residents, we embraced a new way of working and engaged in a Collective Impact initiative. In my post yesterday, I shared some of the core learnings about community engagement that informed the creation of our Communities of Opportunity partnership.

Even though our Collective Impact initiative is new, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. But, as I mention, the opportunities also come with challenges.

Here are five opportunities and challenges we’ve faced in community engagement:

1. OPPORTUNITY: Education of residents

At the 2013 Community Forum, Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer of Public Health-Seattle & King County, presented color-coded maps of health and well-being inequities in the county. This visualization of the data (below) was a powerful way to educate residents about core issue we faced in Seattle/King County. The illumination of the intersection of place and well-being sparked attendees to think about issues in new ways. Receiving knowledge in a new way also encouraged us to explore areas where we work “better together”— and where we need to break down siloes to address underlying root causes of poor outcomes.

Maps of Seattle/King County showing concentrations of poor health and social outcomes in dark red in the lowest income parts of the county.

2. OPPORTUNITY: Surfacing of new ideas

Community stakeholders contribute different perspectives to policy, programs, and interventions. The ideas surfaced at the Community Forum ranged from creating a “food innovation district,” to creating a neighborhood-level resource portal, to building partnerships between health plans and housing providers. If not for the forum and the input of cross-sector stakeholders, the Communities of Opportunity partnership may have neither imagined these solutions nor discovered the widespread desire for shared goals.

3. OPPORTUNITY: Gaining buy in early on

At the forum, County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to the meeting participants. He implored everyone to harness the power of Collective Impact and declared that, with the combined efforts of everyone in the room, we could “do something extraordinary.” This enthusiasm from a top regional player demonstrated commitment to the ideas generated in the meeting. It also gave participants confidence that the ideas of the initiative had the support to really take hold in the communities where they work.

4. CHALLENGE: Little advice has been given about how to engage with low-income community members

A common question at a recent gathering of The Integration Initiative sites was: “How do we actually engage at the grass-roots level with the low-income people where we are working?” We heard anecdotes from other health, human services and foundation efforts to work from, but didn’t find a coherent body of work on ways to effectively bring low-income communities into a Collective Impact initiative. Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation called this type of engagement creating a “civic culture.” We need more concrete examples of successful grass-roots community engagement in Collective Impact to learn from. It’s too easy to create tables of “the usual suspects” instead of opening the circle to those with different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our mantras is “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t equity,” but a little guidance on how to make inclusion work well would be welcome. We think our second mantra “if it isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right” can also guide our work on this.

5. CHALLENGE: Hard to define “community representative”

How do you know at which level to engage in a community? Who actually are the grass-tops and the grass-roots players? Should you speak to local elected officials? Representatives of community-based organizations? Neighborhood leaders? People walking down the street? Communities of Opportunity has spoken with many different community representatives and we will continue to engage at all levels of the community. Our King County Community Engagement Guide provides advice about how to structure interactions honestly with community groups depending on whether their input will be advisory or decision-making. Yet we need more clarity on which community representatives can provide the most helpful input around the design and implementation of a Collective Impact initiative. And what kind of feedback loops we can use to ensure we are on track with pursuing community priorities.

Many of the communities highlighted in our maps of King County have clearly articulated actions plans that spell out a comprehensive set of priorities they believe will make their communities healthier and more livable. We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods, so we can build on existing hopes and dreams rather than lose energy by imposing solutions from the outside.

Do these opportunities and challenges resonate with your experiences? If you have had a different experience engaging with your local communities, let us know in the comments.

]]> Fri, 25 Jul 2014 10:09:09 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
How to Steer a Collective Impact Initiative through Community Engagement Community engagement is a critical part of making lasting changes in low-income places. It’s worth the effort, resources and time to do well at both the grass-roots community level and at the grass-tops political and organizational leader level. “Communities of Opportunity,” a cross-sector partnership in Seattle/King County, recently joined The Integration Initiative with a bold goal of decreasing health and social gaps among low-income residents in our county.

The initiative was born from a 2013 task force charged with preparing two King County departments for national health reform. The task force recommended working to change community features in low-income places that contribute to today’s poor health and social outcomes. At the same time, The Seattle Foundation was interested in similar place-based work. Rather than doing business the old way and proceeding on independent tracks, King County and The Seattle Foundation decided to work together in 2014 to co-design a framework that would set the stage for engaging other partners and investors in a Collective Impact approach. One of the guiding principles the partners share is to actively design strategies and interventions with input from all levels of stakeholders from the southern parts of the county, where the greatest disparities lie.

An important pre-cursor to the Communities of Opportunity partnerships was a large open invitation community forum in late 2013. The community forum brought grass-tops and grass-roots leaders from multiple sectors together to explore what it would take to make changes in under-resourced regions of the county. The 175 participants came up with dozens of ideas about how to work in the intersection between health and community development. From that point, the initiative has worked with a smaller design committee, also composed of cross-sector representatives, to identify three places in South King County to employ these strategies. The committee is advising that we use a “mutual selection” process so communities can decide if they want to work with us too.

Even though we have only recently begun this Collective Impact initiative, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. However, these benefits also come with challenges.

Stay tuned for more insight into the benefits and challenges we’ve faced in steering a Collective Impact partnership.

]]> Thu, 24 Jul 2014 11:20:54 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
3 Fabulous Flavors of Feedback Needed for Collective Impact At Living Cities we think of Collective Impact as a set of principles: (1) a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a (2) shared result they aim to achieve and a (3) commitment to behavior change based on a (4) feedback loop of measures and outcomes that signals whether or not they are on track. (whew!) But anyone doing this work knows that, in application, it can be messy and confusing. To stick with the recipe analogy from my recent blog about the yummy tensions of collective impact, feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together. But it isn’t something that you can just throw into the mix. It has individual, flavorful elements that have to be carefully incorporated into the larger process. When done well, this creates an enabling connective tissue upon which the Collective Impact partnership can thrive.


When I busted onto the social-sector scene, I succeeded admirably in one thing: pissing everyone off. I was used to speaking in terms of "accountability", "corrective action" and "metrics". When I didn't hear that language back, I assumed (you know what happens when you do that) that it just wasn't there and started to come across as patronizing. I learned the hard way that the private, public and social sectors have different languages. That doesn't mean we don't want the same things, we just tend to go about trying to achieve them in different ways. What I quickly learned was that, while we used different language, we were often doing similar activities. During my work in youth development, we called the sum of these activities “feedback culture.” But it wasn't your run of the mill constructive criticism. Each young person we worked with had to sign a contract about committing to professional behavior (accountability). At the end of each week, what they did or did not do well was read in front of their peers by category (metrics). But that wouldn't have done anything without coaching. So that same group of peers would also give feedback about what they did well and what they could do better so that the person had the opportunity to change behavior (corrective action). What my youth development organization called feedback culture, I believe most professionals would call anxiety-laden.

For the young people I had the privilege of serving, the end result was a career pathway to make a better life for them and their families. Cross-sector partners need this level of transparency and vulnerability. They need the courage to share what's going well, what's not going well, and why in order to improve continuously That requires building trust that everyone in the group is coming from a place of caring and that the temporary discomfort is worth it in order to reach the end result the group is committed to.


It is always hard for me to hear people say things along the lines of, "it's all about the data". That might seem strange since I was an electrical engineering, computer science double major. But what I've found about data is that it is surprisingly subjective. A savvy person can make data do or say whatever they want in order to prove a point of view. Also, the data is not the point. What matters is whatever the data allows passionate people to understand and change. As Jeff Edmondson and the StriveTogether folks often say, the best data doesn't help you prove, it helps you IMPROVE.

Although we spoke about feedback loops in my earlier blog, one thing to note is that “feedback loop” does not equal “information technology system”. Feedback Loop literally means collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track. When people start thinking about data, they often go on a mad spree trying to collect EVERYTHING…blades of grass, wind speeds, rainfall percentages. The best feedback loops are processes that are elegant and iterative. They inform you about the validity of your choices as quickly as possible. I love the blinking speedometer example; those flashing numbers inform you whether you should speed up or slow down, but the desire and choice to do so is still ultimately your own.

Another important distinction is that many organization ALREADY HAVE feedback loops. The challenge is that they exist within the boundaries of their own organization. That brings us to my last element of feedback.


Inevitably, if your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is audacious and scary enough, no one organization will house all of the information needed to be able to assess progress toward the goal. When I was speaking at an environmental conference recently, we walked through an example using an initiative with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions in Washington D.C. by 25% in five years. I asked them, “What are you doing to drive this change?” The answers were fast and furious.

"Planting trees!"

"Engaging employers to change their polluting behaviors."

"Burning down power plants." (That last one was a little alarming but every room has a wild revolutionary.)

When I asked how they would know that the CO2 emissions were reduced, and if they had that data themselves, most folks scratched their heads and said, "Uhh…no." Most of them could tell you the number of trees they planted, or the private-sector people who signed up to change their behaviors, or even their progress toward their goals. It's not that they weren't collecting data. It’s that the issues they are ultimately trying to impact are so interconnected with larger, more complex systems that it is easy to “achieve” programmatic success in a vacuum without seeing any improvement big picture change. Achieving a BHAG will require laying down infrastructure that gets you the right information when you need it. That's what is so awesome about the first two flavors of feedback. If your cross-sector partnership builds a feedback culture and feedback loops that keep them informed if they're on or off track, inevitably there will be a tension with getting the information they need fast enough so that they can change course, if needed, in real time.

A great example of what can happen when people take that journey together is what happened when Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, began preliminary research for a Pay for Success deal aimed at decreasing the average number of days a child spends in foster care. In the process of building a Pay for Success model (which, by the way, is one of the best emerging models that is naturally aligned with the principles of Collective Impact), they realized that part of the reason children were not being picked up from foster care when their parents were released from jail was because the criminal justice systems and the family services systems didn’t “talk”. Since they needed to prove outcomes to receive a financial return, they were not comfortable with convoluted paper pushing processes. The county decided then and there that they would invest in building infrastructure between the two systems so that they would automatically notify each other. This change will last regardless of administration changes, or people being promoted. And as a result, no mother will feel that it is not her right to reach out to her children and no child will wonder why her mother doesn't care enough to take her home. When it's all said and done, that's when you know you've achieved enduring systems change.

]]> Wed, 23 Jul 2014 10:40:55 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Social Physics As A Public Utility This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Prime innovation ecologies are at a premium these days, as both municipal and private-sector officials scout out sites to host the next innovation district or biotechnology firm. A new branch of science, social physics, will help them develop innovative neighborhoods to deepen their bench of prospects.

Developed by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, one of the world’s foremost experts on big data, social physics derives fundamental rules of social interaction from the “statistical regularities in human movement and communication” made tractable by information technology and big data. This is the descriptive aspect of what Prof. Pentland terms “reality mining”: Who is going where, with whom, in what mood, for how long, by what route, to buy what – and all the patterns of conversation along the way.

The key finding is that innovation is an emergent property of interpersonal networks that precisely balance engagement with exploration. Engagement refers to a densely transitive hub of face-to-face ties. These hubs forge ideas into good ideas into actionable ideas by volleying them back and forth in a richly social pattern layered with the implicit communication that accounts for most of the information exchanged between people. Ties of exploration, oftentimes electronic and/or transient in nature, connect these hubs of engagement, seeding them with new ideas in order to prevent them from becoming echo chambers.

The predictive dimension of social physics, though, is what earns it the “physics” moniker. Because humans are habituated through the influence of their peers, their behavior can be forecast by mapping and measuring their interpersonal interactions. As individuals, we can perceive this only dimly because we lack an aerial view of the network, but statistically the findings are overwhelming: Our ideas, norms of behavior, germs, fashion choices, and even weight gain are extrinsic properties, mostly determined by who we see every day. So, just as physicists can predict the behavior of an object in space, social physicists can predict a human’s behavior in a network.

The benefit for city planners is that if engagement and exploration can be measured, they can be managed. And the measurements are getting very good.

Researchers at Prof. Pentland’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, its partner institutions throughout the world, and its spin-off companies, like Sense Networks and Sociometric Solutions, are able to tap into the data that stream through telecommunications providers, search engines, mobile gadgets, social media, credit card payment systems, and sociometric badges to precisely map the social dynamics within an organization or location. Furthermore, the City Science Initiative at MIT, managed by Dr. Ryan Chin, has recently launched CityScope, which acts as an “urban observatory, urban intervention simulator, and decision support system”, that allows planners to dial-tune policy inputs to map their effects on a physical representation of their neighborhood or city.

Instead of describing each technology in isolation, consider this hypothetical example of how they might be integrated: A merchants’ association in a well-situated but underperforming downtown retail center decides that it wants to improve the center’s network dynamics in order to generate innovation. Helped along by grants from the city and non-profit organizations, the association contracts with the City Science Initiative for a comprehensive year-long study that requires tracking all credit-card transactions, the location data from all mobile phones, the content of all social media output from the retail center, the construction of behavioral profiles of mobile users, and even the imposition of sociometric badges, which when worn around the neck can measure the distribution and quality of face-to-face interactions, on employees, customers, and pedestrians in the downtown center who opt in.

Using CityScope, the City Science Initiative then projects onto a scaled, three-dimensional model of the retail center the hubs of engagement and ties of exploration. Macro trends, like foot traffic through the light rail and commuter stations and the spatial concentration of different demographics at different hours, can zoom into granular profiles, i.e. behavioral avatars of the pedestrians on Main Street plaza, between 8am and 10am on weekdays; the quality and the quantity of the face-to-face interactions they’re having with each other and which stores they’re having them in; how long they stay at each site; what types of things they’re purchasing; where they go after their purchase, and by what route.

Standing at the helm of CityScope, city officials can then calibrate the network dynamics of the retail center by dialing up or down a host of variables instantiated in the model. Graphics for exploration and engagement are indexed to these variables, so that planners can see in real time and in three dimensions what happens when, for example, permits for sidewalk seating are granted more liberally, or zoning density and mixed-use allocations increase, or the exits for transit stops are shifted across the street to be nearer to open cafes. "Graphing network dynamics onto a user-friendly platform like CityScope,” Dr. Chin explains, “will provide city planners with new insight into how to, literally, build innovation."

As it stands now, planners in charge of capital investment and improvement budgets may be the most receptive, because the money is substantial enough – over $100 million annually for Boston, for example – and the backlog of worthy projects long enough that an apolitical, time-intensive planning tool could synchronize with the already deliberate process for triaging the funds.

Ideally, though, the theory of social physics and the increasing sophistication of its measurement will change the way cities think about fostering innovation. That thinking today is capital intensive: administrations assume that synergy is inevitable when they lure in human capital, whether by recruiting STEM-heavy firms or place-making for the creative class, and build physical capital, like innovation centers. The productivity of the network is an ex post facto and qualitative consideration.

Instead, cities should ultimately treat network enhancement as a public utility, to be measured, improved, and published as open data. Let the market then internalize this new information to determine how capital, both physical and human, is allocated.

Jake Auchincloss is a research assistant at the Ash Center and a dual degree candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

]]> Tue, 22 Jul 2014 10:05:57 -0400 Jake Auchincloss
9 Pieces of Advice on Cross-Sector Partnerships What works in a cross-sector partnership? What doesn’t? What can we learn from past cross-sector partnerships?

We had a panel of cross-sector partnership leaders share their thoughts on these questions at a recent gathering of our sites in The Integration Initiative. Each gave three pieces of advice. Watch the video for a more in-depth discussion:

]]> Fri, 18 Jul 2014 08:27:47 -0400 (Living Cities)
9 Pieces of Advice on Cross-Sector Partnerships What works in a cross-sector partnership? What doesn’t? What can we learn from past cross-sector partnerships?

We had a panel of cross-sector partnership leaders share their thoughts on these questions at a recent gathering of our sites in The Integration Initiative. Each gave three pieces of advice, which are listed below. Watch the video for a more in-depth discussion.

Maria Hibbs, Principal, MPH Social Strategies and former Director of Partnership for New Communities

  • You need to know and understand the culture in which you are embarking on the work
  • Secure a reputable convener and facilitator for a cross-sector partnership
  • Alignment of all of the aspects of your initiatives is essential

Monique Baptiste, Initiative Director, Newark’s Strong Healthy Communities Initiative

  • Constantly assess your capacity
  • Grow patience
  • Find out what “needle” you want to move, and then determine which stakeholders need to be at the table

Eric Muschler, Program Officer, The McKnight Foundation

  • Make it time limited
  • Focus on abundance of existing resources
  • Integrate cross-funding streams to accomplish outcomes

Nine Pieces of Advice on Cross-Sector Partnerships from Living Cities on Vimeo.

]]> Thu, 17 Jul 2014 17:20:11 -0400 Jeff Raderstrong
Collective Impact Principles Overview Success is the right tool meeting the right solution. Read more about Collective Impact principles from our Director of Collective Impact, Tynesia Boyea-Robinson.

]]> Thu, 17 Jul 2014 14:51:12 -0400 (Living Cities)
Why Language Is Critical to Catalyzing Change The language around Collective Impact is continuing to evolve, which frankly, for some practitioners, might seem like a pain in the butt. If you look at the language describing Collective Impact on the FSG website, what Living Cities uses, what Strive Together uses, and what many other Collective Impact practitioners use, you might throw up your hands and give up trying altogether.

Before you decide we're a bunch of crazy people who just can't get it together, it might help to check out this great video from the Lean Startup Conference (minutes 8-15) which talks about what it takes to transition an organization to lean startup principles. Here are a few concepts that are similar to what we're seeing as we implement Collective Impact on the ground.

1) Meet people where they are

The presenters in the video were from a company acquired by Microsoft and were struggling to get Microsoft bought into the concept of Lean Startup. No matter what they tried (force feeding, flash mobs, bribery) they couldn't seem to get people to buy into the concepts. Until they realized that what mattered most was behavior change. Similarly, we may feel that we need to go around advocating for Collective Impact. If we just teach people enough of the concepts, they'll surely get it, right? Instead, we need to understand where people are and what we need to do to support behavior change. My colleague Alison Gold has written extensively about the messiness of cross-sector partnerships, and one thing she says is that you need to take time to “form” your partnership so that it is strong enough to survive the “storming” that inevitably comes with developing shared results. Without meeting people where they are and building strong relationships at the outset, it’s difficult to have strong cross-sector parnerships down the road.

2) Use language that resonates with your audience

It's easy to fall into the trap of being patronizing when you're trying to support changing behavior. "Sigh, I just don't know how many times I can explain the same concepts to people to get them to understand me." Before you gallop off on that high horse, remember that changing behavior is just difficult overall and is more about changing hearts and minds than drilling definitions. I recently presented to a group of our sites from The Integration Initiative (TII) about Collective Impact. My team and I made several (painstaking) iterations to the presentation to ensure the language fit the audience. Of course, I got a lot of feedback after that presentation and I will continue to iterate on how I talk about Collective Impact. (If you want more information on how we talk about Collective Impact at Living Cities, see below for a copy of my slides from that presentation.)

3) Recognize culture

The folks at Microsoft rejected the Lean Startup language, but jumped at the concepts behind the scientific method: hypotheses, assumptions, and experimentation. You'll note that at Living Cities, we've focused more on the “Build-Measure -Learn" concept of the Lean Start Up methodology, but why not just use the scientific method? When we work with our innovation partners, the concept of social experiments is rife with baggage. Our mission is to improve the lives and economic well-being of low income people. The people we are privileged to serve are not lab rats or something to be done to; they are actually part of the problem solving process. Build-Measure-Learn has worked for us because the language helps provide guidance without triggering negative perceptions. In the end, what matters most is that the language we use is sensitive to the culture of the people who will be using the tools.

4) Recruit credible translators

You've often heard that change moves at the speed of trust. One critical piece with catalyzing change is to have trusted people on your side who can serve the role of translator. For Microsoft, these were people who had experienced the good, bad, and ugly and could share how changing their approach could help make the team stronger. Similarly, the team in Albuquerque leading the current TII efforts was involved in a similar Collective Impact initiative to end chronic homelessness. While that effort was ultimately successful, that team built credibility in their community by pushing through even when the path was difficult. If Collective Impact efforts are not grounded in concrete experiences, it begins to feel too theoretical and abstract. It's not about the tool, it's about what the tool allows you to achieve together.

5) Iterate to find language that works

The Microsoft folks continue to iterate not just with the products they're developing, but with the language they're using to shift their culture to Build-Measure-Learn to produce change more rapidly. Similarly, our language at Living Cities hasn't evolved in a vacuum. It started in our immediate team, moved to the organization through brown bags and staff meetings, was tested at external conferences, vetted by TII Initiative Directors in a webinar, and then shared with TII sites during a learning community. Every iteration helped us make the discussions more about the changes we seek and less about the tool we're using.

Have any more thoughts on language and catalyzing change? Love to hear it in the comments!


View Ty's slides: Collective Impact Principles Overview from Living Cities
]]> Thu, 17 Jul 2014 14:13:28 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
6 Questions on Disrupting the Pace of Adoption Join our July 16 Twitter Chat with the hashtag #DisruptingInequality. Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of six questions about disrupting the pace of adoption of innovations that expand the scope and scale of social change. We call this #opensourcechange. Participants will have 10 minutes to respond to each question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share final thoughts and ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. How would you define “open sourcing” social change? #DisruptingInequality
  2. What are some innovative approaches you have seen to #opensourcechange? #DisruptingInequality
  3. What technologies and tools do you see being used to #OpenSourceChange across geographies? #DisruptingInequality
  4. How can we better leverage disruptive #technology to accelerate the pace of social change? #DisruptingInequality
  5. How could the social sector work differently to better #opensourcechange? #DisruptingInequality
  6. What innovation/practice in #OpenSourceChange do you think have the greatest potential towards #DisruptingInequality?


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.

If you have questions about participation or involvement, please email Elizabeth Vargas at

]]> Wed, 16 Jul 2014 10:43:25 -0400 (Living Cities)
Cross-Sector Partnerships 101: Structuring Your Cross-Sector Partnership So It Can Support Your Success Tue, 08 Jul 2014 13:16:08 -0400 (Living Cities) #DisruptingInequality: A Twitter Chat with Living Cities JULY 2 TWITTER CHAT ON DISRUPTING INEQUALITY

On Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 1pm Eastern Time, Living Cities will host our first Twitter Chat on Disrupting Inequality. The Twitter Chat intentionally coincides with the 50th Anniversary of The Civil Rights Act. We believe that we are at a unique moment in time to bring the issue of disrupting inequality to the mainstream. We must address these trends with the urgency of now.


We invite you and your organizations to participate in the Twitter Chat on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. Living Cities will moderate the chat via our Twitter handle, @Living_Cities, and the Hashtag #DisruptingInequality. Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about the state of inequality and the role cities play in driving change. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to answer and discuss, before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share final thoughts and ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. As the U.S. celebrates the 50th Aniv of the #CivilRightsAct, where has the nation made the most progress on #DisruptingInequality?
  2. What are the most vital issue areas, locally and nationally, where we must move the agenda forward on #DisruptingInequality?
  3. How are leaders in your city working towards #DisruptingInequality?
  4. What are the most promising innovations for #DisruptingInequality in your city?
  5. How are you measuring the impact of your work #DisruptingInequality?
  6. When you think about the future of access to opportunity in America, what makes you the most hopeful? #DisruptingInequality
]]> Tue, 01 Jul 2014 16:50:13 -0400 (Living Cities)
Innovation in the Air and on Land Noel Harmon, Director of the National Talent Dividend, reflects on private-sector initatives to fund college tuition and workforce development. Check out her article and our prior reflections on the benefits of free college tuition:]]> http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Wed, 18 Jun 2014 10:13:29 -0400 (Living Cities) Living Cities: Toward Open-Sourcing Social Change 2013 Snapshot As social change communications becomes less about PR and more about open sourcing change, we need to build ways to measure how our strategies are doing in supporting not just our brand recognition, but also our ability to be better partners and co-create better solutions.

In the meantime, standard communications metrics can still provide useful data and insights about how our networks are, or aren’t, engaging with us. In the spirit of learning in public, here is a snapshot of what our communications looked like in 2013, including some of these standard metrics.

]]> Mon, 16 Jun 2014 10:16:43 -0400 (Living Cities)
Linking Minneapolis And St. Paul With A Transit Project That Doesn't Destroy Communities Fast Company dives deep into our Integration Intiative work in Minneapolis/St.Paul. The Corridor of Opportunities project is creating a new rail line and helping surrounding communities in the process.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Tue, 10 Jun 2014 17:06:14 -0400 (Living Cities)
The New Scarlet Letter?: Negotiating the U.S. Labor Market with a Criminal Record Download a free PDF copy Steven Raphael's new report. Raphael first studies the factors that influence the market’s supply and demand sides. Next, he presents an empirical portrait of the inmate population, recently released inmates, and the youth who eventually enter the prison system as young adults.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Mon, 02 Jun 2014 11:22:42 -0400 (Living Cities)
Non-Skill Employment Barriers | Strategic Conversation On May 8th, Living Cities hosted a conversation exploring specific strategies to address the non-skill barriers to employment faced by formerly incarcerated workers. This conversation was a follow-up to a March 26th webinar on the same issues . Featuring field leaders from across the country, the conversation highlighted lessons from organizations working at the city, state, regional, and national level to overcome the barriers faced by people who have criminal records.

Listen on SoundCloud

]]> Mon, 19 May 2014 13:45:58 -0400 (Living Cities)
Reflections on Living Cities' Integration Initiative The pace of social change is simply too slow; the scale, too small. In 2010, Living Cities, a long-standing collaborative of 22 of the world's leading foundations and financial institutions, created the Integration Initiative (TII) to try to change that. We set out to work with a 'coalition of the willing'- a cross-sector group of leaders from a limited number of cities - committed to learning how to achieve needle moving outcomes for low-income people. Each site incorporated four high-impact strategies into their work: (1) move beyond delivering programs and instead focus on transforming systems; (2) build a resilient civic infrastructure where decision-makers from across sectors and jurisdictions formally and work together to address complex social problems, a framework now often referred to as collective impact; (3) bring disruptive innovations into the mainstream and redirect funds away from obsolete and ineffective approaches toward what works; and (4) supplement traditional government and philanthropic funding streams by driving the private market to work on behalf of low-income people.

The problems being targeted address many of the nation's seemingly intractable urban challenges, such as workforce readiness & jobs (Baltimore), economic development (Cleveland), urban revitalization (Detroit), equitable transit-oriented development or ETOD (Minneapolis/St. Paul), and education and health (Newark).

As we embark on the next phase of TII, continuing the work with four of the five original sites and expanding the Initiative to include Albuquerque, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Seattle/King County,, I thought it would be valuable to reflect on some of the things that I believe that we have learned along the way that could be of value to others doing this kind of work.

]]> Fri, 16 May 2014 16:20:23 -0400 (Living Cities)
Cities and the Maker Movement The Congressional Maker Caucus is a bipartisan group of legislators aimed at promoting American manufacturing and entrepreneurship by giving congressional support to new technologies that revolutionize manufacturing and help eliminate barriers to entrepreneurship.

The White House will hold the first ever White House Maker Faire (date TBD). The Obama Administration believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to advance several national goals, including STEM education/workforce development, and entrepreneurship/job creation.

Many cities are already playing an important role, the White House is interested in highlighting new/expanded commitments and a “sign on” letter.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Thu, 08 May 2014 16:53:35 -0400 (Living Cities)
The Small Business Development Work of the Integration Initiative Executive Summary Fri, 25 Apr 2014 14:21:13 -0400 (Living Cities) VIDEO: Introducing Nigel Jacob, Urban Technologist in Residence Thu, 17 Apr 2014 13:36:27 -0400 (Living Cities) Putting Community in Collective Impact Five characteristics of civic culture that collective impact efforts must address.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Wed, 16 Apr 2014 13:19:22 -0400 (Living Cities)
Letting the Dollars Land To realize the promise of community investment, the capacity of specific places to absorb available capital needs to grow. New article in Shelterforce from our Robin Hacke.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Wed, 09 Apr 2014 17:45:12 -0400 (Living Cities)
Case Studies: Steps to Avoid Stalled Equitable TOD Projects The following case studies highlight a) the predevelopmentpitfalls faced in station areas by groups of real estatedevelopment projects and b) the predevelopment pitfalls faced in station areas by groups of real estatedevelopment projects. For each case, we identified a list ofcritical predevelopment factors.

]]> Tue, 08 Apr 2014 09:56:35 -0400 (Living Cities)
Collective Action for Community Development The most recent issue of Community Investments, a San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank publication, explores emerging Collective Impact practices and lifts up early learnings from pioneers in the field. The issues is a great resource for tools and cases about collective impact work on the ground. Discover the central role of a strong cross-sector partnership in organizing and leading collective impact initiatives in our featured article: How Do you Build the Right Cross-Sector Partnership to Implement Collective Impact Approaches?

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Tue, 01 Apr 2014 14:37:35 -0400 (Living Cities)
Why You Should Stop Brainstorming We loved this little video (3:49 seconds) on the Harvard Business Review blog about a concept called "brainswarming." It offers a tool for enabling groups that are trying to achieve a specific result, to identify all their existing resources to leverage, as well as propose ideas for how the resources can be turned into strategies that can produce their results. It seems promising because it starts from the results, allows the group to generate a vast amount of ideas, and also enables different styles of learners (as well as both introverts and extroverts) to contribute. Check it out!

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Mon, 31 Mar 2014 12:47:58 -0400 (Living Cities)
INTERVIEW: How to Make Detroit’s Data Accessible Interview with Erica Raleigh of Data Driven Detroit on making data accessible. Erica is the data partner in Living Cities Integration Initative work in Detroit: Read more on Next City:

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 21 Mar 2014 15:52:45 -0400 (Living Cities)
Catalyzing Impact Investments Through Coordinated Grantmaking Philanthropy and the practice of grantmaking traditionally have been very separate from traditional investing in both culture and approach, but the emerging field of impact investing invites a productive collaboration between these two disciplines... From our Amy Chung, Associate Director of Capital Innovation.

http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Wed, 19 Mar 2014 18:16:45 -0400 (Living Cities)
Citi Foundation and Living Cities Launch City Accelerator Program to Drive Innovation and Collaboration in U.S. Cities http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 14 Mar 2014 10:40:07 -0400 (Living Cities) The Public-Private Partnership Whisperer http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 14 Jun 2013 10:02:24 -0400 The Atlantic Cities 5 Transformational Forces That Should Be Driving The Social Sector (But Aren’t) http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:51:52 -0400 Fast.CoExist From Community to Prosperity http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:49:02 -0400 What Works for America What Cincinnati Could Teach New York about Hurricane Readiness http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:47:49 -0400 Harvard Business Review Community Development: Reflecting on What Works http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:45:36 -0400 Stanford Social Innovation Review Louisville working with national group to engage poor citizens http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:43:31 -0400 Business First Aligning Grants with Impact Investments http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:42:33 -0400 Rooflines Catalytic Philanthropy and Private Capital: To Use or Not to Use http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:42:06 -0400 Harvard Institute for Responsible Investment Stuck on the Bus, or, Civic Engagement in a Networked World http://www.livingcities.org http://www.livingcities.org Fri, 19 Apr 2013 11:41:04 -0400 The Slow Hunch VIDEO: Highlights from Living Cities Trends in Focus: Technology & Civic Change Mon, 30 Apr 2012 12:14:48 -0400 (Living Cities) VIDEO: Living Cities- Improving the infrastructure of low-income communities Tue, 17 Apr 2012 15:21:33 -0400 (Living Cities) VIDEO: Robin Hacke, Director of Capital Formation, Keynote at Healthy Communities: 2012 Las Vegas, Nevada Tue, 13 Mar 2012 15:01:03 -0400 (Living Cities) Trends in Focus: Technology and Civic Change Thu, 26 Jan 2012 12:14:50 -0500 (Living Cities) Keynote from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at Living Cities 20th Anniversary Mon, 07 Nov 2011 15:43:07 -0500 (Living Cities) Integrating People, Place & Opportunity: An Inside Look at the Integration Initiative (Part 2) Mon, 07 Nov 2011 15:08:19 -0500 (Living Cities) Integrating People, Place & Opportunity: An Inside Look at the Integration Initiative (Part 1) Mon, 07 Nov 2011 15:07:50 -0500 (Living Cities) Dynamic Collaboration: Cities & The Future Mon, 07 Nov 2011 15:06:22 -0500 (Living Cities)