In South Bend, Ind., new buildings housing high-tech startups are being built on the site that once housed the Studebaker automobile factories. This construction is a fitting symbol of the progress toward rebirth of the struggling rust-belt city's economy, which once relied on traditional manufacturing and is now benefitting from the knowledge and technology industries. This economic pivot is mirrored by an internal city-government shift to better use of data and evidence.

I spoke with Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently, after South Bend was named as one of the latest 16 cities to join Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities initiative, about the factors that enabled this growth and the way innovation is coming to permeate the city's government. This economic-development strategy, the mayor emphasized, "is all about taking what we have and finding new value in it."

The city is working to leverage its fiber-optic infrastructure, power substations and talent pool from its strong university presence to attract new growth in the technology sector. An incubator in partnership with the University of Notre Dame and two technology parks, including the one on the Studebaker site, have helped launch a new generation of high-tech businesses.

Buttigieg pointed to the strong relationship between the city and Notre Dame as an important factor in the city's growing talent ecosystem that provides skilled employees to local companies as well as to the city itself. The city and university have multiple channels of both formal and informal collaboration, ranging from participation in the national MetroLab network of city-university partnerships to the South Bend-based enFocus fellowship program, which recruits recent college graduates to stay and work in the community for a year. South Bend's new chief innovation officer, Santiago Garces, was one of the inaugural enFocus fellows. Now he is bringing his degree in science and technology entrepreneurship to bear in driving large internal changes to improve the way the city operates.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg  
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
South Bend's progress on data-driven practices and leveraging the value of its partnerships is well illustrated by a major blight-reduction initiative. In 2013, Buttigieg set an ambitious goal to address 1,000 vacant and abandoned properties in 1,000 days, a milestone that the city reached last fall, ahead of schedule. Leading into that announcement was a year-long study of property and market conditions in different areas of the city by a task force led by James Kelly, a law professor from Notre Dame. That effort enabled the city to effectively deploy its limited resources to the most advantageous areas. The task force's research was coupled with internal reforms to digitize inspection processes and alter the metrics of success for the code-enforcement department.

To start with, the city streamlined its data-collection and inspection-workflow processes, moving from an almost entirely paper-based system to one that equips inspectors with iPads for real-time data access and entry. Managers began emphasizing outcomes, such as the number of properties repaired by owners, instead of mere outputs, such as the number of violation letters sent. A commitment to public engagement and transparency helped ensure strong attention to the work.

South Bend's progress on blight reduction and other city priorities illustrates just what the Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative aims to accomplish in bringing the latest data and evidence practices to the management of midsized cities across the country. What Works Cities is now more than halfway to its goal of helping 100 cities use open data, performance management, low-cost evaluation and results-based contracting practices. Mayor Buttigieg told me that What Works Cities was particularly compelling "because we are a city that's just big enough that we have at least tasted every big-city problem, from gun violence to public transportation."

With a population of just over 100,000, South Bend has limited staff and resources to address problems like these. But the mayor positioned the city's size as an asset. "We are small enough to be nimble, creative and experimental, a natural testbed not only for new technology but for new innovative policies," he said.

As its economy modernizes and its workforce grows, South Bend is a compelling case study of a midsized city's ability to pivot to take advantage of new technology, both internally and externally. Powered by strong mayoral leadership and a talented staff, and complemented by deep relationships with an elite higher-education institution and access to best practices via the Bloomberg-funded initiative, South Bend appears to again be hitting on all cylinders.