Management & Labor

Cities to Compete for $45 Million Innovation Grants

Some cities will get grant funding to test a method of problem solving designed by the charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies.
by | August 27, 2014
A pop-up event in the South Memphis neighborhood featuring musical performances, food trucks and temporary retailer stores. Such events are spurred on by grants designed to revitalize cities. City of Memphis

A private foundation is offering $45 million to cities willing to test a new model for solving common urban problems, from handgun violence to chronic homelessness.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation set up by multibillionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has invited more than 80 cities to compete for grants to fund specific “innovation delivery teams." The grants will build upon the foundation’s recent demonstration projects in Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Louisville and Chicago.

The last round of funding paid for teams of anywhere from five to 10 employees to tackle a few high-profile challenges of the mayor’s choosing. The teams teach current city employees a method being pioneered by Bloomberg Philanthropies that combines data analysis with a structured process that welcomes new ideas for solving cities' most trenchant problems.

The teams function as “in-house consultants,” says James Anderson, who directs the government-innovation program for Bloomberg Philanthropies. “They’re not taking over implementation or replacing the expertise” of city employees, but “they’re going to help those actors unleash their own inner innovators.”

While policymakers apply the term “innovation” broadly to mean everything from mobile apps to finding efficiencies in daily operations, Bloomberg Philanthropy has a specific vision of innovation that it’s trying to spread. Its Innovation Delivery Model calls for a commitment to data collection; a reliance on evidence-based best practices; a willingness to test new ideas; a planning process that involves goal setting and measuring progress; and finally, the forging of partnerships across the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Two years ago, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton made use of his city’s $5 million grant to try to revitalize three largely abandoned business corridors. A team of eight people whose work backgrounds included the city attorney’s office, a local school district, Habitat for Humanity and the U.S. Navy, helped reduce the storefront vacancy rate in those areas by 30 percent.

The city held temporary “pop-up” events with musical performances, food trucks and one-day retail shops to generate interest in targeted intersections or blocks within a neighborhood. Then it invited retailers, artists and online businesses to lease vacant storefronts at those locations for six-month periods. “It’s as if you’re staging a house and then having an open house,” said Doug McGowen, who heads the Memphis Innovation Delivery Team. “You’re able to experience what might be.”

Beyond revitalizing business corridors, the team wanted to demonstrate the value of the Bloomberg innovation model. Cities should see innovation teams as a core city service, akin to policing or housing, McGowen said. The Memphis City Council appears to agree: Anticipating that the Bloomberg grant will expire in October, the council approved about $200,000 for the innovation team to continue its work.

Even if the city couldn’t find the money in the future for a dedicated innovation team, however, it appears that elements of the team’s work will find a permanent place in city hall. Wharton said he wants to launch a Citi Stat program in Memphis that will borrow from the data-tracking and management approach embedded in the Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Model. Other aspects, such as creating an environment that that invites fresh ideas based on best practices elsewhere, will hopefully spread beyond the self-contained innovation team. “I think it will become a permanent part of how cities do business,” he said.

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