In Search of a Blueprint for Urban Civic Innovation Hubs


In pursuit of sparking their entrepreneurship ecosystems, cities are getting smarter at empowering local civic entrepreneurs to solve municipal challenges while catalyzing new local industries. According to Donna Harris of the Washington D.C.-based startup incubator 1776, a key ingredient is connectivity.

While we may understandably be complacent about American entrepreneurial capacity in places like Silicon Valley, it is hard not to be impressed by the recent “Rise of the Rest” as Revolution’s Steve Case calls it. At a time when, as citizens, we lament increasing inequality, seeing big and small communities especially in middle-America innovating around daily challenges is an encouraging sign of increased opportunity for all.

Beyond Case’s own “Rise of the Rest” bus tour, Americans recently celebrated a National Day of Civic Hacking. On June 6, urbanists, government staff, developers, designers, community organizers — all driven by a passion to make their city better — came together to collaborate on new solutions to entrenched municipal problems, from struggling schools to collapsed transit systems to lack of affordable housing. The day brought awareness that the public sector is also able to drive new trends in the tech world.

Most encouraging is that such initiatives are embedded in an increased amount of scholarship and analysis guiding mayors and local leaders. Beyond a wide array of Kauffman Foundation research such as the Kauffman Index, one report, Innovation That Matters—by 1776 and the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation—caught my attention in terms of critical success factors. Among other conclusions, it showed that cities where entrepreneurs reported strong connections between the tech community and civic actors had the strongest markets for civic innovation.

Through surveys and interviews conducted across eight cities (San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Austin, New York and Detroit), insights from entrepreneurs, local investors, elected officials, business leaders and corporate partners touched on four highly regulated civic sectors: education, health, energy and city government itself. What they heard confirmed that “all four share a common set of opportunities, challenges, and solutions for growing their startup ecosystems in ways that separate these industries from the traditional tech sector.”

Connectivity sets the stage for civic innovation

Collisions between tech talent and the leaders facing problems with civic institutions (schools, hospitals, utility companies) drive the landscape in civic innovation markets. The research behind Innovation That Matters reveals a clear, positive correlation between network connectivity in civic tech ecosystems and the strength of the ecosystem at large.

Based on that criterion, San Francisco presents a leading civic tech ecosystem in which civic entrepreneurs feel confident in their ability to connect with mentors, investors, universities and corporations.

Other influencing factors for civic innovation

The development of civic innovation relies on the availability of a talent pool, and of publicly released data, accessible technology and design processes, as well as an infrastructure of support for startups founded on the mission of civic problem-solving.

Within that support infrastructure lays an advantage of New York City over San Francisco as a civic innovation hub, according to the report. New York is ahead, the authors argue, in establishing avenues for collaboration with schools, hospitals, utilities and City Hall. Reflective of that infrastructure for collaboration is, for example, the fact that New York collaborated successfully with the data-science community in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to provide real-time flood predictions and map out the areas where volunteers were needed most.

Policy experimentation for civic innovation

The study found that in all eight cities local civic institutions and local corporations are the entities with which entrepreneurs report having the least engagement.

Recommendations to build avenues for collaboration and marketing of opportunities for startups to introduce new solutions to the existing needs of civic institutions include regulatory and policy experimentation in areas such as city government procurement. Procurement practices have typically entailed agencies describing (or rather, “prescribing”) a specific solution to a challenge. Instead, as the report argues, requests for proposals should allow civic institutions to explain their existing pain points and ask others to come up with solutions within reasonable parameters.

The report also calls for allowing conflict and competition to flourish as a necessary complement to effective, organic collaboration.

How can local leaders assess their success in creating a vibrant civic innovation ecosystem? As city leaders seek to give a shot in the arm to entrepreneurship by partnering with startups, I refer back to the recent Kauffman Foundation report on ways to take the pulse of entrepreneurship ecosystems through three indicators beyond connectivity: the density, fluidity and diversity of the ecosystem.

When I founded the Public Forum Institute in the 1990s, I travelled from city to city doing literally hundreds of economic summits in small towns with elected officials. I found economic development communities focused not on new business but simply attracting old business. America now has the attention of its civic leaders who are increasingly viewing their startup communities as local R&D hubs or at a minimum as collaborators in a common mission. The challenge ahead will be vigilance by policymakers in quickly removing barriers identified by their local innovators in implementing smart ideas.

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