Our newest blog series delves into four, unique accelerants that put U.S. cities on the verge of something "very special" in 2016. Today: The promise of cities.

I began the first blog in this four part series stating that I was incredibly optimistic for 2016, and believe that we are on the verge of something special. Yes, the data and events we see and read about in the news can often be depressing. But I believe that in a decade we will look back at 2016 and see that it was the year where we began seeing rapid, sometimes exponential, narrowing of disparities between rich and poor, white and non-white Americans.

The convergence of four unique accelerants will get us there in 2016 and beyond: (1) public will for a more equitable America; (2) cities as home to a majority of the population and their effectiveness as laboratories for addressing complex social and economic challenges; (3) the ubiquity and power of technology; and (4) the unprecedented availability of impact investment capital. These accelerants are not new, per se, but their cumulative impact on the pace of social change is and will continue to be felt over the next decade.

I addressed the unique power of public will in my last blog. Today, I’m exploring the distinctive ways that cities act as a breeding ground for the results we want from a “New Urban Practice.” How are cities a breeding ground? They provide both the place and conditions suitable for large scale change to happen.

Cities Are…..

Where Change Calls Home

More than 80% of Americans are urban dwellers and that number is growing. In fact, about a third of the nation’s population growth in 2013 occurred in just 10 large metros. This concentration of people, in a relatively limited number of places, makes it easier to target the work in ways that enable solutions to scale. Similarly, as places where young people live and want to move, cities provide the opportunity to break inter-generational cycles of poverty – a frustratingly stubborn problem in America.

Urban Dwelling Population

80% More than 80% of Americans are urban dwellers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Where Government is High Functioning and Innovative

Cities don’t just house the vast majority of low-income people, they also spend billions of dollars annually on education, transportation and social service supports to improve their quality of life…with disappointing results. But that is changing. New, ambitious local leaders understand that cities and their resources can play an out-sized role in improving the lives of low income people—and are taking action to make that a reality. They are focusing on creating a culture of innovation, and are using data and technology to measure results and re-imagine the relationship with their residents. In large part, municipal innovation is driven by the idea that better run cities will not only be more effective in tackling poverty, inequality, the education gap and job creation, but also have more money to do so than many other actors. Cities, large and small, are creating innovation offices, like the Offices of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia; forming Innovation Teams, often spurred by support from Bloomberg Philanthropies; applying in large numbers for innovation prizes; and making municipal data available in ways that allow city residents to participate more creatively and actively in solving top-of-mind problems.

Municipal innovation is undertaken with the assumption that, when promising practices prove successful, they will go straight, “intravenously” into effect. No annual fundraising or advocacy necessary. The innovation and related funding displace the old way that government did business. Mayors, like Louisville, KY Mayor Greg Fischer, are building a local government culture akin to that of a high-performing business, rooted in the value of compassion. In Nashville, Tenn., the City’s innovation team partners with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to train human services staff in leading innovation techniques. The participants in turn become ambassadors and skill-builders within their departments. In Philadelphia, the city is experimenting with behavioral economics and human centered design to boost the enrollment of senior citizens in taxpayer benefits with promising results. As these practices reach the core of government operations, the potential for impact is profound.

Where Leaders Are Coming Together to Solve Complex Problems

The opportunity presented by the concentration of people and new, dynamic public sector leadership in cities is being further realized by another growing, national trend – collective impact. Diverse groups of local leaders—private, public, philanthropic and nonprofit—are moving beyond programmatic fixes, like a job training program for 20 phlebotomists when 200,000 people are unemployed or rebuilding of one school when the entire system is failing, to attacking the root of the problem or system itself. More often than not, these leaders lack the formal authority to solve the problem and don’t have an obvious “plug and play” solution. They are using local data to define and set a shared, ambitious result; holding themselves accountable by publicly issuing report cards on progress being made; and redirecting funding from what hasn’t been working to what does.

We, at Living Cities, are seeing this approach spread like wildfire with incredibly promising results. Whether it is local leaders in New Orleans seeking to reduce the unemployment rate for men of color by 50% in five years or in Dallas, where they are working to improve educational outcomes for more than one million public school kids, from cradle to career, by 2020, a new model that moves beyond incrementalism is being born.

Reduce Unemployment

50% New Orleans is seeking to reduce the unemployment rate for men of color by 50% in five years.

Where the Economy is Growing

Not only are cities addressing the challenges facing low income people at scale but they are also increasingly where businesses go to grow. We’re seeing the rise of what we’ve termed “Urban Serving Businesses,” structured as social enterprises and otherwise, that are building their businesses in cities, creating jobs and often delivering products and services that are improving the lives of low income people and even helping governments in their efforts to innovate. Business accelerators like Tumml and start-ups like City Mart are great examples of this reality.

Similarly, cities are dedicating innovation districts, often including long- distressed neighborhorhoods, where existing universities or hospitals and companies, with billions of dollars of research and procurement opportunities, are connecting with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also reorienting their local economies to become more competitive in the global marketplace. This intentionality has enabled Fresno, CA, for example, to increase their exports 27%. This cauldron with leaders who want to lead, economic growth, and large populations of low-income people (and therefore great opportunities to address barriers to opportunity on a grand scale) makes cities a key accelerant for social change in 2016 and beyond.


Photo Credit: Freaktography, Flickr. CC BY 2.0.