A Spotlight on Nashville's Serendipity Practice

City leaders spark innovation in creative ways in this country music community.
May 4, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

If country music is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Nashville, it may be time to think again. One particular encounter changed this perception for me in a very unique way last year.

It was nighttime in Nashville and the skyline was dazzling. As I entered one of those glass elevators in a downtown hotel, there was a gentleman in a glittery black suit standing with his back to the doors looking out on the city. He was clearly unhappy and was sharing a few (not-so-kind) words with the city. A companion standing next to him noticed they were no longer alone and gave him a quick punch in the side. He turned and apologized for his language, and I immediately recognized him as one of the big stars (and I do mean BIG) of country music -- not today's country, but the old country, the kind that made Nashville famous. I knew why he was unhappy. I had heard him on national television expressing his views through gritted teeth and lamenting about how things had changed and how "country ain't country anymore ... and neither is Nashville." To avoid embarrassing him, I smiled and pretended to be oblivious to his identity and the situation in general, but the experience was not lost on me. Those of us who have watched the dramatic transformation over the years know that Nashville has become a very different city than it once was.

Nashville is still a city with a creative soul, and it's still a city of music and merriment. But today, it's a city that covers a much wider spectrum of business, enterprise, invention and entrepreneurial achievement. Nashville has become a modern, thriving, multifaceted city that attracts Millennials and talented individuals of all ages. It has much to be proud of, yet, like other urban communities, it still has much work to do to translate the success that some enjoy into a better life for all of its citizens. Nashville's poverty rate is 18.9 percent, and like many cities, it has a large homeless population.

Nashville has benefitted from a continuous string of good mayors, and the present one, Karl Dean, is serving out the final months of his term-limited eight years in office. The city was combined with surrounding Davidson County in 1962, and the Metro Council consists of some 40 representatives with 5 elected at-large and 35 from districts. Accordingly, the mayor is very important in setting the overall course for the entire 500-square-mile community.

Nashville has prospered under Mayor Dean's watch. Most recently, he announced the opening of a new library in Southeast Nashville called "Commons at the Crossing," a cutting-edge facility and landmark example of his Limitless Libraries initiative. The impressive new facility makes heavy use of modern digital technology and features a "maker studio" with a 3D printer. Through initiatives such as these, Mayor Dean has made it clear that a main purpose of his administration is to extend knowledge and the tools of information to everyone.

Another accomplishment of his is the Office of Innovation, headed by Co-Chief Innovation Officers Kristine LaLonde and Yiaway Yeh. The three basic themes addressed by the office include: 1) Ideas to Reality: focusing on entrepreneurial activities; 2) Continuous Improvement for Collective Impact: utilizing the talents of individuals from Metro departments to address poverty and income inequality; and 3) Data Professionals Network: implementing a commitment to open data and sharing information both internally and externally.

In the short video (above) and the longer podcast episode below, LaLonde describes the efforts of the Office of Innovation and relates to some of its findings.

LaLonde says, "We have a strong belief that there are innovative people throughout our government. It's just that the structure of government sometimes doesn't allow for the innovative ideas of these creative people to have the space to develop ... it's hard to do it on top of operational responsibilities." Taking that point a little further, she talks about listening as individuals discuss and wrestle with complicated issues and the "serendipity" that helps to find solutions and enables those with the ability to implement to move forward.

As an illustration, LaLonde describes a specific example involving the community's homeless population. Nashville is a large and sprawling metropolitan community with multiple pockets of people in need and the services to aid them spread over the entire area. The situation becomes critical during spikes of very cold weather. Warm shelter and services for the homeless might be available, but those in need might not have a way to get there. Due to this transportation problem, the staff, together with "innovators," devised a special transit card usable only during weather emergencies. Homeless people now literally have a "ride in their pocket" to get to shelter during this critical times.

LaLonde credits City Accelerator for adding to the overall process of civic innovation. "The City Accelerator gives us structure for reflection and improvement," she says. "Structure for doing things and 'thought partners' (her term referring to other cities in the cohort) -- it's great for our own learning and we think great for others."

As Mayor Dean sits in his office filled with the memorabilia of his two terms, he reflects on his career in public service (including earlier years as Metro Attorney) and the continuous task and unrelenting effort of transforming a community. Soon the plaques, photos and certificates will be packed away and a new mayor will take his place. He is still a relatively young man with more to give to the great adventure of city building, and I can attest that there is life after the mayor's office.

At this point in life and particularly at this stage in any political career, it is common to talk about legacies. In that regard, Mayor Dean can take comfort in the fact he met the test of "leaving things better than he found them." But he also gave Nashville better tools for civic innovation and embedded a new creative spark in the governmental soul of his city that will continue to pay dividends in years and administrations to come.

You can hear more from Kristine in her own words on Nashville's serendipity practice and the role fortunate happenstance in civic innovation in this City Accelerator edition of the podcast, For The Record (5:48).

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.