Accelerating Innovation in Cities: Early Learnings from the First Phase of the City Accelerator

Nigel Jacob | June 30, 2014

Four months ago, Living Cities and the Citi Foundation announced the launch of the City Accelerator, a three-year, $3 million program designed to “foster innovation and promote collaboration between urban leaders to tackle some of their cities’ most pressing challenges.” We’re knee deep in the selection phase for the first cohort of cities, and have already learned a tremendous amount.

To date, we’ve had the opportunity to hear from leaders on the ground in cities across the nation. We’ve learned about their vision and ideas for adopting and spreading innovation in city hall for the benefit of their communities and residents. It has been an exciting process so far, and we’re eager to share some of what we’re seeing, hearing, and learning.
 
Towards a More Cohesive Approach to Local Government Innovation
 
Going into the application phase of the first cohort, we had several hunches. First, that the theme of the cohort- on embedding innovation into city government- would reveal the diversity of definitions and ideas about public sector innovation floating around in the field and in city halls. What does it mean to be innovative? What does it take for city officials to build and institutionalize a culture of innovation? What is the relationship between performance management and disruptive innovation? And how does increased innovation translate to increased impact on the ground? 
 
We have heard from chief performance officers, chiefs of staff, directors of innovation, policy directors, and in some cases the Mayors themselves from cities large and small about their ideas on how to embed innovation in city government. From these discussions, it is safe to say there is a great opportunity in the work of the City Accelerator’s first cohort to begin to weave these definitions and ideas together, and build some consensus around these questions. 
 
While there may be no wrong answers, and we certainly don’t claim to have the definitive “right” ones, assembling and articulating a shared vision and set of principles (that reflect both the aspiration of public sector innovation work and the realities on the ground in places) is an important first step. We’re excited to work in partnership with the 3 cohort cities, once selected, and the entire network of Project on Municipal Innovation cities to cultivate a shared language and vision, and bring increased definition to what it means to embed innovation in city government. 
 
Government is More Creative than You Might Think
 
Another hunch we had going in to the City Accelerator application process was that a common reputation of city hall- as unimaginative and stodgy– wasn’t entirely founded, and that our application process would reveal some of the creative potential percolating within. Designed with this hunch in mind, the City Accelerator’s application process experimented with an alternative to the traditional RFP process. In addition to a focused written application, we asked cities to produce short, five minute video presentations (either pre-recorded or live) during which they could articulate their vision for embedding innovation in city government. Applicants were then invited to a google hangout where the Living Cities, Citi Foundation, and City Hall officials convened virtually to dig into the substance of their ideas, and engage in a dynamic exchange of questions and dialogue about this opportunity. 
 
The emphasis on a lightweight, interactive, technology-driven application reflected the spirit of the work of the first cohort, and indeed the City Accelerator as a whole. Upon receiving pitches from nearly a dozen cities and interacting with them in early June, our hunch was confirmed. The caliber of creativity – both in thought and production - on display in this portion of the City Accelerator application process certainly gives the “gray government” notion a run for its money.
 
Thanks to the tremendous effort put forth by applicant cities (both those that have advanced to the finalist round, and those that have not), the application process has set the stage for a truly different type of engagement and partnership with cities going forward- one focused on pushing boundaries, testing ideas, and collaborating deeply. 
 
Today, July 1st, marks the official launch of the next phase of the City Accelerator! Citi Foundation and Living Cities, in partnership with the Governing Institute and hosted on governing.com, are excited to announce the launch of the public phase of the City Accelerator’s first cohort, and invite you to get involved.  As we continue to promote a more open dialogue between the public sector and its citizens, members of the public are encouraged to view the finalists’ pitches and weigh in on which they think have the best chance of institutionalizing lasting, impact-driven innovation in city government.  You can visit the City Accelerator landing page here and view videos from our six finalist cities -  AlbuquerqueDenverLouisvilleNashvillePhiladelphia, and San Jose.
 
Share your thoughts on who you think should be part of the first City Accelerator -- your input will be one of the factors that we weigh in selecting the three participating cities -- and stay tuned for more about what we’re doing, thinking, and learning!
 
 
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