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Innovation in 140 Characters or Less

The Governing Summit in Louisville, Ky., provided unique ways for participants to share ideas.

louisville summit
Dustin Haisler
For six months, we have written about the City Accelerator and its purpose, and provided information about the first cities to enter the program to work on making innovative ideas real for the benefit of their low-income residents.  The cities have been consumed by the hard work of figuring out intractable problems and the backers have been equally occupied with making this new initiative -- the Accelerator itself -- work as planned in changing the course of business for the participating cities.

There is nothing magical about the six-month milestone, but it marked a chance to hear from, and not just about, the people who are making the Accelerator experience real. The context was the concluding panel of a Summit on Government Performance and Innovation in Louisville, co-hosted by Governing and the host city’s mayor, Greg Fischer.

As the moderator, I made the audacious request that participants capture their experience in 140 characters. That's right -- six months of work condensed in a single tweet. Not only did they rise to the challenge, their brevity reduced complex ideas into an irreducible form. Moreover, they did it with playful grace and humor, which are intangible but essential bits of the innovation puzzle in their own right.

I began by asking a group of producers -- the advisors, funders, consultants and academics who support the Accelerator -- to tweet a response to this central question: “When governments are trying to promote innovation, what is the most significant factor that gets your attention?” Below are their responses:

Ben Hecht – President of Living Cities

@Living_Cities looks for govts that take meaningful steps to disrupt status quo & build type practices 4 dramatically better results

Nigel Jacob – Co-Chair, Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston
Local government innovates when it gives its employees the support and cover to take strategic risks that might result in failure

Kristen Scheyder – Senior Vice President, Citi Foundation
Change systems to tackle root causes of problems, not just symptoms

The performers -- that is, the practitioners, boots-on-the-ground members of each respective city's innovation team -- had to create a 140-character answer to this key question: “How do you make innovation happen?” Their responses:

Mary Horstmann – Chief of Staff, Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity - City of Philadelphia
Create space for new relationships - in, out, up, down

Kristine LaLonde – Co-Chief Innovation Officer, Metropolitan Government of Nashville
Space for the light bulb – Innovation Architecture – People before Tech – Sit at the table – Surface, invite, capture, do – Warriors persist. (Note: This is both a tweet and a haiku)
Theresa Reno-Weber – Chief of Performance & Technology, Office of the Mayor, Louisville
Stay calm and fix what frustrates you

The performers and producers unpacked their tweetable summaries during a spirited discussion that followed but there was a bonus insight from Philadelphia loaded with practical wisdom: "Innovation is a hard ask ... bring snacks."

This last panel of the Summit tied a ribbon around a day-and-a-half discussion on Feb. 11 and 12 where like-minded individuals from across the country -- 500 in all -- came together to discuss their shared goal of improving innovation and productivity in local governments.

The event began with a welcome from Mayor Greg Fischer, followed by an opening keynote presentation, "The Evolving City" by Aaron Renn, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, and a panel of mayors from across the country -- Karl Dean of Nashville, Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis, Kasim Reed of Atlanta and Greg Fischer of Louisville -- who examined the pressures, ideas and dynamics impacting today’s cities. 

Renn said innovation is critical today because “We need to be able to take our communities – which were designed for yesterday’s realities -- and make them work for today.” He advised city leaders to “combat the tyranny of the organizational chart” and listen to the ideas of everyone in the ranks of city government, as well as to “know thyself” -- meaning city leaders must take a serious inventory of their cities and figure out their identity if they are to be successful in marketing themselves.

The mayor’s panel, “Cities as Change Makers,” featured leaders discussing the forces that will shape urban areas in the future. Diversity was on everyone’s mind, with Dean noting the number of Nashville residents born in other countries had jumped to 12 percent from 2 percent in the last decade. Dean said these individuals are choosing to live in city cores, as opposed to the suburbs, and Reed said in Atlanta, both Millennials and Baby Boomers are flocking to the downtown area as well. City leaders and policymakers must find ways to ensure there is affordable housing for all of these groups. Hodges, also focused on diversity and changing demographics, said: “The future depends on how well we adapt to changing social and economic conditions in the 21st century.”

Other areas of interest for the mayors included:
  • Dean’s focus on early childhood education. He said universal pre-kindergarten is a “no brainer” for this country.
  • Reed’s declaration that this is city leaders’ “moment.” He noted that many mayors are either personally visiting each other or sending task forces to learn from the ideas of other mayors.
  • Fischer’s advice to tap into the creativity of citizens to benefit everyone.
In all, as an urban planner and former politician -- one who has attended a fair number of professional gatherings over the last four decades -- rarely have I experienced a conference that delivered on promises like this one, which included a unique gathering of diverse players -- including thinkers, planners, politicians and practitioners. The subject matter -- innovation in local government -- clearly hit a responsive chord.
Watch all six plenary sessions using this playlist:

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.
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