There is increasingly a growing awareness that inequality of income, wealth and access to opportunity, accentuated along racial lines, is one of the key social issues of our time. If left unresolved it presents a serious threat to our society, our economy and our democracy.
Unless we ferociously change course, the majority of our citizens in 2040 will be less educated, less prosperous, and less free than our current majority, due to decades of dysfunctional systems, disinvestment, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement of people and communities of color.
This is not a legacy any of us should tolerate. Meanwhile, change-makers at the cutting edge in public, private, philanthropic and non-profit organizations are already working together in new ways, using experimentation and innovation to make significant advances and we know this has the potential to dramatically accelerate the pace of change. Imagine what’s possible when we bring those people together to address some fundamental questions, challenges, and opportunities and to co-design a new way forward that will push all of us to see our work as part of a much greater whole.
Living Cities is on a course to do more than just imagining what’s possible. We want to work with a coalition of the willing to make the possibilities reality. That is why we open sourced our 2014 Annual Report, asking a diversity of leaders and changemakers to share what they think should be key elements of a #NewUrbanPractice aimed at dramatically improving the lives of low income people, faster. And, this month, we took the conversation offline, convening over 100 folks in our networks—from our member institutions, to grantees, to our staff, to our social media followers, to a diversity of other thought leaders, dreamers and doers in such diverse fields as civic tech, impact investing, philanthropy, business, the financial sector, social entrepreneurship, government, and philanthropy—to participate in an active process of co-design.
At our #NewUrbanPractice Summit in Philadelphia on May 12-13 in Philadelphia, participants worked to identify the most significant and promising trends, methods, practices and co-design specific ways that we can work together to increase social change scale and impact. Issues for exploration included community engagement, impact investing, leadership, data and technology, and impact metrics. We think that the Summit was a great start but, of course, only an opening salvo of a much bigger conversation and, we hope, movement. Here, I share some of my own reflections from the day and lay out some very tangible next steps that we will be taking as we move the concept of the New Urban Practice from dialogue to action.
Keeping demographics from being destiny. Based on conversations I had as well as feedback from the participant evaluations of the event, the Summit served one of its primary purposes: grounding people in the need for a dramatically larger scale and a dramatically faster pace of change. Many people were struck by the data presented by the speakers (they included Eric Rosengren, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston; Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque; Rip Rapson, President & CEO of the Kresge Foundation; and Nigel Jacob, Co-Founder of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics) on the first night. It was clear that we can’t be satisfied with the pace of change achieved over the past 40 years or we will have a majority population that is less educated, less wealthy, and less free than the current majority;
Creating urgency without catastrophe. Given that, there was a strong sense that we can only achieve sustained change if we can figure out, as one person said, how to create urgency without catastrophes, such as the bankruptcy in Detroit or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We have to be able to sustain leadership and momentum over time and move beyond episodic change to systemic change;
Bringing together unusual bedfellows. We heard from participants that they were energized by the mix of ‘unusual bedfellows’ at the Summit. One person said it well: “There were people I had known but never met and others I didn’t even know existed. That expanded my definition of what’s possible” This is exactly what we wanted to hear as we believe that some of the most innovative solutions to wicked problems like poverty and inequality will come from combining leadership, expertise, talent, imagination, ideas and resources from all sectors and diverse institutions and individuals. This is why we invest deeply in Collective Impact efforts, and why we are committed to a networked approach to problem-solving. The vision for the New Urban Practice takes this collaborative and networked movement that is taking hold across the country to a grand scale where everyone working for dramatically better results for low-income people begins to see others not as their competition, but as their most trusted partners and allies. It is about considering how your work fits into a much greater whole;
Addressing confirmation bias. That said, confirmation bias or the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s own beliefs or hypotheses will be a huge barrier to the building of a New Urban Practice. For example, while many participants were excited by some of the ideas and ways of thinking that came out of the ‘mash ups’ that we designed to bring participants from across disciplines and sectors together to create holistic solutions, others commented that they were surprised by the number of people who couldn’t get beyond their current ways of working. We are all guilty of that. We care deeply about our missions and our work. The New Urban Practice is not a rejection of all of the great work that is already being done, but is rather a call to imagine how all of us could learn from each other, build on past and current successes, and increase our impact by marrying solutions and technologies in new ways. Getting to that mindset is why we attempted to suspend hierarchies and organizational structures at the Summit. We wanted people to bring their experience, knowledge, and expertise but to be unencumbered by them at the same time. Building the level of trust and camaraderie that is required to do that will take time, and we are committed to working with a coalition of the willing to figure out how to best to facilitate that movement in the long term;
Focusing on the public sector and talent. I was surprised by how many times conversations, regardless of topic (whether about a city, like Albuquerque, or a theme, like technology), ended up being about the vital role of the public sector. There was broad acknowledgement that public sector leadership, resources, and talent can and must be fostered, unlocked, and optimized in order to achieve dramatically better results for low income people. Along similar lines, it was clear that there is a need for an investment in talent across the social sector generally. Participants talked about the need for diversity in leadership, the urgent need for talent with the vision and technical know-how to make better use of tools and technologies, and the need for systems leaders. Both of these issues have long been areas of underinvestment. It is clear that we need to explore these issues further as we continue to define the key elements of the New Urban Practice;
Identifying key elements. Relatedly, I heard and read many comments that suggested that the six themes that we selected for exploration: leadership, technology, data and results, community engagement, race, equity and inclusion and impact investing rang true as critical elements of an emerging New Urban Practice. Obviously, these are not the only elements, but they are important ones to take stock of going forward, and I am a firm believer in the idea that you have to start somewhere to go everywhere. If we can work together to define the next generation of practice within these themes towards getting dramatically better results for low-income people, we will be well-positioned to take on other challenges as well. Many participants commented that Rip Rapson’s evening remarks, weaving these themes into the work in Detroit to reimagine and rebuild the city and its civic infrastructure for the future, brought the themes to life and demonstrated how folks working on each of them individually can come together with people doing different but equally important work to create a holistic and inclusive shared vision and action plan.
We are still making meaning of what we learned from the Summit, and look forward to sharing more of our thinking as it emerges. We know that many participants left hungry for more structure and definitions. Some asked why we didn’t define what we meant by ‘dramatically better results for low-income people’ and others asked how we thought we would ever be able to ‘calculate our ambitions’ for a New Urban Practice. That and more is what we look forward to doing with the folks who attended the Summit and others collectively going forward. Indeed, while Living Cities is a convener around the concept of the New Urban Practice, we hope that many of you will want to learn and work alongside us, lifting up what you think should be part of this vision and sharing your successes and challenges. Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to do just that.