It’s no secret that nonprofits and governmental agencies share some shortcomings when it comes to cutting-edge technology. For a number of reasons — not the least of which is a relative lack of abundant cash flow — government on all levels has lagged seriously behind the private sector when it comes to using innovative technology.
It might be surprising, though, to learn just how slow even very large cities have been to roll with the new. The good news? In recent years, most cities have seen the light and are making up for lost time, finding a variety of ways to bring technological innovation to bear on civic affairs. At a recent SXSW Interactive panel — City 2.0: Why Local Government Bets on Civic Innovation — four civic tech leaders from different cities seemed excited and animated as they discussed how their cities are bringing in innovation, presenting ideas and successes at a rapid pace. The four approaches here are some of the ones all the cities seemed to be embracing at some level.
1. Using data to frame problems. “One component to being able to solve problems is being able to see the problem clearly,” said Austin’s Chief Innovation Officer Kerry O’Connor. Looking at the user experience is crucial, and in this case the user is a member of the local community. Getting lots of specific citizen input about issues, using data to model simulations to divine likely scenarios for given projects –– “boring but important work that we’re spending time on the first year,” as she put it, is vital. “There are people here. It’s not just the technology,” she added. “Any tech firm has a more agile organization, a better feedback loop, multidisciplinary teams. If we don’t have that, our technology isn’t going to be that great.”
2. Making problem-solving part of contracted work. Instead of using traditional method of getting bids for particular projects, said Jessica Singleton, New York City’s digital director, the city has developed a “gestalt program of tools we’re throwing at problems.” One of those is to ask contractors how they would address a given problem (what to do with New York City’s outdated pay-phone booths, for example) and to use the solution (turn them into free wireless hotspots, using advertising instead of taxpayer dollars to pay for it) to define their bids. Pretty nifty.
3. Going mobile. Noting that “by and large, people of lower economic status tend to rely on mobile devices more than people of higher status,” Washington, D.C., Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Bryan Kenner said that it’s crucial for cities to make essential city services and input accessible by making it available on a mobile platform. Mobile can help address specific issues around outdated technology in a timely and inexpensive way; examples included a 311 app in Austin and an updating of the process for pre-K application – from fax (!) to mobile in New York City.
4. Getting creative with collaboration. “We’re trying to listen, to work with civic innovators,” said Berman. “City government provides a platform for technology innovation. That extends beyond tech startups to women-owned business, philanthropies, and many more.” Collaborating with local educational institutions can be a good way to bring fresh approaches and new skills to civic problem-solving. Kenner described Washington, D.C. ‘s partnership with Howard University to create some below-market space on campus to be set aside for venture capital funds. “See what people might have available,” he said. “It might not be coding; it could be physical space.” Kerry pointed to the recent Civic Hack Summit on the St. Edward University campus as a productive venture into “strategic co-creation,” she said. “Different groups haves have different motivations. It’s important that motivations work together – to see what everyone is solving for: the city, the university, the citizen.”
5. Finding tech talent in usual places. Just because tons of venture capital isn’t part of the budget equation doesn’t mean civic endeavors can’t attract top-notch tech talent. Cities have gotten creative about both recruiting those individuals and partnering with institutions that seem to have innovation on tap. According to Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, Lollapalooza is a great place to recruit young tech talent, to whom the city’s creative vitality is appealing.
In New York, said Singleton, “There’s a lot of native talent that’s untapped because it’s untrained”; her example was that New York’s job training program until recently still included teaching people how to type on typewriters. That realization led to a partnership with LinkedIn, using its data “to understand what jobs are available and what skills people need to get those jobs,” she said. “It’s important to stay nimble and make sure supply and demand parts of the equation are talking to each other in real time.”