I just spent three days in London at the third CityLab, an event sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Atlantic and Aspen Institute. The event brings together 400 leaders from around the world who are building a new discipline around municipal innovation. Issues as diverse as human centered design, community engagement, data-driven performance and innovation delivery teams were discussed. Amid the stimulating content and discussions, three quotes stuck with me that, in many ways, reflect the core fundamentals that under-gird this emerging movement:
Reclaim Intelligence You Already Have
Amid a fun and chaotic mix of fifty conversations about innovation, I heard someone say, “Government innovation is in large part about reclaiming intelligence.” In many ways, nothing is more true. At some point we stopped learning and stopped paying attention to what we already knew or can easily find out. In large part, much of the information we need to make better decisions, get improved results, or increase citizen confidence in government, is already available to us, we just need to “reclaim” it.
That’s why we, at Living Cities, invest in helping local governments to ‘build the muscles’ that will let them do that. With former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith, we support a network of mayoral chiefs of staff, the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI) at Harvard, who come together every six months to share what they know about what’s working and what’s not. With Citi Foundation, we created City Accelerator, where five to seven cities from PMI come together for 18 months to build their muscles around specific areas from embedding innovation in the mayor’s office to new methods of community engagement.
It’s About Problem-Solving, Not Money
The amazing Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, had a quote that captured so much of what I’ve seen in municipal innovation, especially the technology-infused efforts often referred to as civic tech, “You can make so much mischief with paint.” She was referring to work that the mayor of Accra, Ghana had described where he took a can of red paint and painted a line down the main road, asking vendors to stay on one side and pedestrians to stay on the other side of the line. Not only did people self-enforce the rule, residents actually reported that it made them feel safer.
Instead of years of studies and millions of dollars of street improvements, the mayor bought a $10 can of paint and experimented with a solution. It reminded me how much simple problem solving and experimentation is a cornerstone of municipal innovation. Whether it’s the work of Code for America fellows in local governments often driven by the lean principles of “Build, Measure, Learn” or Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported innovation teams (i-teams) using the innovation delivery approach, we are seeing this phenomenon of low-cost, changing of mindsets and experimentation occurring in city halls all over the country.
Change Happens from the Inside, Out and Outside, In
FutureGov Dominic Campbell’s comment, “It’s hard for government to fix itself in-situo,” also captured one of the fundamental tenets of municipal innovation from my experience over the past seven years. It’s really hard to do but there is no alternative. My CityLab conversation with Tel Aviv’s i-Team director Itai Egis, was instructive of the formula needed to get government to fix itself – change it both from the inside, out and outside, in.
He told the story of what he had learned about how change happens when he was helping local governments in Israel to bring competition to what was a transit monopoly. He said it had three elements: (1) time, all the needed actors, public and private, needed time to get primed for the change; (2) internal buy-in, a core group of public officials had to develop and embrace the solution; and (3) outside validation. Ultimately, he was convinced that it was adopted because they could point to other cities around the globe who had adopted similar strategies. Commitment from the right people on the inside was necessary but often not sufficient. Best practices and a healthy sense of competition from other cities often can create the tipping point for change.
Time and time again, we’ve seen change happen because internal leadership was able to mobilize support within for solutions imported and adapted from other places. That’s why we are so passionate about having an emphasis on learning with everything we do. I call this “open sourcing social change” and I think of learnings from our work and the work of those we work with as a 21st century “public good.” We cannot afford to constantly reinvent the wheel, or for learning to be contingent on who is in our circles. Like Itai and other municipal innovators, bringing about internal change to harness civic tech, improve education, connect people to jobs, or keep young people of color out of the prison system actually requires access to the best thinking happening outside local government.
Sometimes the shiny new app, technology or charismatic leader distracts us from the core fundamentals. My three days in London reminded me that the fundamentals almost always matter most.