Innovation Teams (i-teams) are in-house innovation consultants who help cities tackle their biggest challenges. We spoke with Andrew Maxwell, Director of the i-team in Syracuse, New York, about his team's efforts to improve City infrastructure over the past year.

Why did your city apply to the i-team program?

Syracuse has a history of leading the way on issues of civic importance. We felt that being part of the growing civic innovation movement was important, both for Syracuse, and for advancing the concept of cities as laboratories for growing ideas that can change the world. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has championed this cause, and creating dedicated innovation capacity at City Hall has been a goal throughout her administration. Having the opportunity to work with Bloomberg Philanthropies and bring new resources and expertise to bear in tackling our toughest challenges was an opportunity we could not pass up.

How do you think about innovation—what does the word mean to you?

To me, innovation is finding creative new solutions – or a combination of solutions – that can help to solve seemingly intractable problems. Innovation isn’t always about a new invention or gadget. It’s really about applying fundamentally new thinking to old problems. When I tell people what I do, I get mixed reactions to the phrase, “government innovation.” These may not be two words people are used to putting together, but if we are to successfully take on the major urban problems of our time, we had better learn to embrace the concept. Creativity and innovation is vital to any enterprise. Embedding this principle into the work of municipal public service will be central to the success of communities across the globe.

What are some specific challenges your city is currently facing?

Municipal governments all across our country are experiencing daunting dynamics. Declining tax bases, exploding personnel costs, deteriorating infrastructure and the persistence of concentrated poverty in our neighborhoods mean that we are working to solve growing problems with shrinking resources. Amid this great challenge, I have been asked if we can afford to invest in a new group like this – an innovation team – at City Hall. My question in response is: can we afford not to? We need creative thinking in government now more than ever. We face significant challenges in areas ranging from income inequality and education, to water infrastructure and transportation, to public safety and housing. Injecting bold new thinking into this work is crucial to improving quality of life and expanding economic opportunity in our cities. Our i-team here in Syracuse is helping us do just that.

What are some specific opportunities you see to improve your city?

Syracuse is home to beautiful historic neighborhoods, impressive arts and cultural assets, world class educational and medical institutions, and a talented, hardy and kind-spirited citizenry. We are a resourceful, scrappy city that at once has a small-town warmth and big-city energy. I believe our size is an advantage. As a mid-size metro we have many of the challenges of larger cities, but a more manageable scale at which to tackle them. We have the ability to nimbly forge partnerships, prototype experimental initiatives and implement new solutions in ways that can significantly improve conditions in our city. Additionally, the connections we now enjoy with the other i-team cities create new opportunities to learn from work being done elsewhere. So much can be learned from the work being done in other cities, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the talented i-team directors and members from across the network.

What has been the biggest surprise so far during the process?

The biggest surprise to me has been the speed at which our i-team work has progressed. Introducing a new style and methodology into the work of city government can be a huge challenge, but with the hard work of our great team, the support of our Mayor, and the partnerships we enjoy with City departments and our partners across the community, we have moved quickly in developing and deploying new initiatives to strengthen the Syracuse community.

To learn more about the Syracuse i-team, check out their website, Innovate Syracuse.