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.
This week, Living Cities and the Citi Foundation are announcing the next round of cities vying to be selected for the second cohort of the City Accelerator, the initiative which seeks to accelerate adoption of innovative city plans to help low-income populations.
But the cities won’t be the only newcomers to the Accelerator. Recently, Eric Gordon, an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Technology at Harvard University, was selected to lead the next phase of the multi-year, multi-community undertaking in civic improvement. Like Nigel Jacob before him, Gordon will provide support to participating cities, along with technical assistance and targeted implementation resources.
Gordon has some clear aspirations for Cohort 2. “I expect the cities participating in (Cohort 2 of) the City Accelerator are going to be focusing on civic engagement with a tighter focus than they have in the past,” he says.
Gordon is energized by this focus on civic engagement and the outcomes that stem from it, which he says has not been previously funded or prioritized. However, he says civic engagement is only the beginning of what cities can achieve.
“It’s not simply a matter of people participating. We need to look at levels of trust and levels of efficacy,” he says. “One of the things I am really interested in is, is there a marked increase in self-efficacy or collective efficacy when people are engaged in civic or public processes? The research would suggest there is, but that, to me, is an important outcome we should be looking at. We want to know not simply whether or not people are participating, but whether they trust in the process and whether or not they feel empowered by engaging in that process. That’s what is going to ultimately lead to the long-term democratic outcomes that we want.”
Gordon knows what he is talking about when it comes to civic engagement, bringing with him significant experience. In addition to his roles at Emerson College and Harvard University, he is also the founding director of The Engagement Lab, an applied research facility which focuses on the development and study of games, technology and new media to enhance civic life. According to Gordon, The Engagement Lab is devoted to forging a new place for play in urban civic life.
“I’m of a mind that civic engagement should be an end in itself, but it has to, at all times, be connected to other outcomes as well,” he says.
Gordon says he hopes the City Accelerator’s greatest benefit to municipalities is to develop an articulated set of questions that allow them to incorporate civic engagement and public participation into government processes in a way that’s meaningful and impactful.
“I don’t think we can hope to shift the needle on particular civic outcomes in the course of 18 months, but I’m hoping we could come up with essentially a playbook that would allow cities to incorporate the appropriate civic questions and civic measures into everything they do,” he says.
With this new focus on civic engagement and the addition of Eric Gordon to the roster of professionals working with City Accelerator, it is safe to assume that Cohort 2 will be a somewhat different but still very appropriate extension of the continuing effort to establish a lasting culture of innovation in government.