In the first of a seven-part series on Living Cities' Equipt to Innovate™ framework, Steven Bosacker shows how Richmond, VA, is tapping the collective intelligence of its city to address one of the toughest of social ills: poverty.

City government used to more or less depend on itself to solve community ills. It paid for and provided residents with the services they needed. The “capital-C City” did, after all, know local problems the best, have the authority to raise the necessary revenues, and were often the only provider in certain areas.

Fundamentally, city officials have been hesitant to broadly embrace corporate leaders, philanthropy and nonprofits as co-equals in city-building, but the same unease has been true in reverse—private companies and foundations have steered clear of syncing-up with government to co-create solutions to some of our biggest community issues. Sadly, all players have tended to march—often on parallel tracks—to the beat of their own drummers.

To solve the intractable problems that have hounded urban centers for decades—stagnant poverty rates, rising racial tensions and crumbling infrastructure—and to keep up with how technology, transparency and information access are changing the way cities govern, a new kind of partnership is at last emerging.

Nesta, a British foundation that backs “new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time,” calls this phenomenon “collective intelligence.” It refers to “the ability of large groups—a community, region, city or nation—to think and act intelligently in a way that amounts to more than the sum of their parts.” Around the world, the most successful local governments are partnering well beyond the walls of City Hall.

Richmond, Virginia, has tapped the collective intelligence of its city to address one of the toughest of social ills: poverty.

After years of ranking low on upward mobility, and with data showing a quarter of the city’s population below the poverty level, Richmond broke traditional barriers inside of city government and partnered broadly outside it to reduce poverty and build community wealth. To cut poverty in Richmond by 40% in the next 15 years, the city figured it would need to move approximately 10,000 adults and 7,000 kids above the poverty line in a lasting way.

No small task.

Though Richmond is blessed with hundreds of organizations, ministries, non-profits and agencies that serve people in need, the life conditions of too many had remained the same for too long. It was time for a new coordinated approach, and the approach the city and its partners used was anything but traditional.

Inside government, the mayor broke all bureaucratic protocols and forced departments to work together in unprecedented ways, consolidating human and financial resources from more than five city departments to create a new cabinet-level Office of Community Wealth Building, the first in the nation. This collected staff then reached deeply into the community to achieve a remarkably aligned mission between as many community players as possible, involve residents from all walks of life and coordinate service delivery to provide a consistent ladder of support and access to quality employment.

The city needed to coordinate and weave together scores of initiatives, from growing social enterprises to connecting residents to employers and training participants for success. Richmond had to work more closely than ever before with the housing authority, the public schools, the transit system and many private partners.

Richmond has set big goals and transparently measured and reported its progress. Though it has so far fallen short of its annual goal of moving 1,000 individuals to a “thriving level of economic stability,” the city has seen 390 unemployed or underemployed residents getting career coaching or training, and 212 participants gaining employment at an average wage of $9.95 per hour in 2016. Richmond folks are the first to say that while the collective forces of a community can provide a common and consistent pathway out of poverty, it will still be one-person-at-a-time whose life is lifted and changed by the city’s new support structure.

The challenges of today and tomorrow are too big and complex for government alone to solve. Like in Richmond, it’s going to require a broad set of community partners and players driving to a shared mission. To get bigger, better results for residents, a go-it-alone approach won’t cut it and will fall short of the public’s big expectations. Partnering around planning, resource allocation and even direct service provision will be the name of the game for innovative impact.


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