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Chairman’s Letter – City Innovate Foundation

By June 15, 2015 No Comments

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By Peter Hirshberg
Chairman, City Innovate Foundation

Dear Citizens:

The City Innovate Summit and the conversation we are having together here and now is a recognition that we have built a movement, that in the merest moment of time we have begun to change the way innovation comes to cities, how they can become more participatory and open.

This movement is about 6 years old and started when the mayors of many cities decided to open up their data to citizens, journalists, public-sector companies, non-profits, city and government agencies. The values of transparency and open innovation began to be applied to government and quickly began to go by the moniker Government 2.0—thanks to the efforts of Tim O’Reilly. As a direct result of open data, cities are investing in innovation by creating Offices of Innovation to spearhead initiatives locally. At the Summit we will be learning from Detroit, Philadelphia, Tel Aviv, and Copenhagen on the impact an innovation office can have on your city. Likewise, at the Summit we’ll discuss the impact of how engaged citizens are working hand-in-glove with city government to co-creating the services and public spaces that define our cities.

The City Innovate Summit is an extraordinary two-day event happening June 17-18, 2015 in San Francisco where over 600 people are expected to come together and engage in a deep discourse about the role of our cities can and will play in global change.

To guide you in your thinking, I want to introduce you to the four (4) key themes of the city innovation movement.

  1. Open Data is an Invitation
  2. Urban planning is Changing
  3. An Inclusive City Benefits Everyone
  4. This Movement is Global

1. Open Data is an Invitation

Both to innovate and to be more transparent about what works and what doesn’t. Technology (open data and the products and services that spring from it) is an enabler, allowing governments and citizens to collaborate and co-create the features of the city in ways never before possible. Open data has enabled cities like San Francisco, Rio, and Los Angeles to drive new policies. From these and other cities, we are learning the benefits of open innovation. Open Innovation has sparked cities to to open up multiple data sets to their constituencies; the results have been startling. For example, here in San Francisco we are finding that data about traffic and public health can usher in new policies that can reduce the impact of childhood asthma and drive traffic fatalities towards zero. Likewise, we can learn from the NY example–which was one of the first cities to require building operators to make performance data available to the public–thus enabling NY to reduce its carbon footprint.

Open Innovation is an also an Invitation to Participation and Engagement. A great example of crowdsourcing in action—where citizens contribute data in a real time —is the Open Street Maps project. Open Street Maps have proved essential to disaster response in Haiti (Earthquake), New York (Superstorm Sandy), and Nepal (2015 Earthquake). New York leveraged open data to enable first responders to respond to Superstorm Sandy to in a way that simply wasn’t possible in New Orleans. Waze–now a Google company–saw it it could serve cities during the crucible moment of the Superstorm Sandy. It was able to crowdsource a request from FEMA to understand which gas stations remained open and had the shortest lines, to direct first responders coming from out of state to quickly refuel on their way into the areas affected by the disaster, where most gas stations were not operating. This is a fabulous example of private/public sector partnership, crowd sourcing, and open innovation.

2. Urban Planning is Changing

It has been said many times: cities are defined by their public spaces. This hasn’t changed. What has is that urban planning is now borrowing a page from the lean start up movement—becoming more participatory, more agile, and embracing the notion of rapid prototyping as a fast and low-risk way to figure out what could work. In other words, traditional urban planning is all of a sudden gaining the powerful, inclusive and iterative tools that we’ve seen take hold on the Internet, in the media, in commerce. And in something that can be as contentious as planning public space something magical happens when you create a prototype…you can enable planners to see how citizens will react in real time.

One such experiment came together in San Francisco recently with Market Street Prototyping Festival. This was an effort that brought together 50 artists to place functional prototypes on Market Street for 3 days. This temporary installation of artwork became a focal point for citizen engagement with artists, tech workers, homeless people, and families all coalescing to discuss what might create a more activated and engaging public realm. Part of the challenge here is making sure that each installation of art found a permanent home within San Francisco and I’m proud to say that the artists are doing just that here in San Francisco.

3. An Inclusive City Benefits Everyone

Cities that are more inclusive are more livable, attract a more diverse talent base, and are capable of attracting and retaining both corporations and the arts—institutions that together drive tax revenues and tourism.

An inclusive city requires a vibrant ecosystem for job creation, one that relies not on one single industry. Of course, San Francisco is well known for our innovation in the technology sector. The products, innovative technologies, and major companies created by technology entrepreneurs here in San Francisco are really unprecedented. At the same time, we are incredibly cognizant of the example of Detroit, which for too long depended on the auto industry. We here in San Francisco have a lot to learn about how to be an entrepreneurial city that is also inclusive, creating opportunities for all of our citizens not just the top 20%. Affordable housing is one pre-requisite. Another, is making a conscious effort to build our city upon a network of loosely coupled industries that together make for a diverse, inclusive city.

I personally am most excited about what the Maker Movement brings to our cities, which is why I am collaborating with the White House, Maker Media, the Kauffman Foundation and nearly 100 U.S. Cities on the Maker Cities Project. A Maker City is just what it sounds—a city that has made it easy for people from all walks of life to build products and services using a set of low-cost tools. In San Francisco, we have TechShop, where anyone can go hands on with a 3D printer, pick up a soldering iron, or experiment with Raspberry Pi, an incredibly tiny computer.

At the City Innovate Summit we will hear from Detroit, San Leandro, and Pittsburg—how they are nurturing new businesses based on the Maker Movement and small-batch manufacturing. In San Francisco, there is SFMade, a program that has encouraged all kinds of small-batch manufacturing–from artisanal whiskeys to jeweler to bags–to thrive here in San Francisco. Likewise, we see New York making a conscious decision to bring back fashion manufacturing through incubation and job creation. Projects like these are the leading edge of the broader movement to bring advanced manufacturing and supply chains back to the U.S.

There are hundreds of such experiments happening right now, one example of which is the Digital Harbor Project, which turns under utilized community centers into Maker Centers. I am enormously optimistic about the ability of the Maker City movement to re-energize our cities, change how we educate our young people, and introduce middler schoolers like Victoria Walker–who recently beat out adults to win the AT&T Hackathon at age 11–to the wonders of making. We need more discussion around how making can lead to a meaningful career, beyond the tech sector. After all this is America…the birthplace of ingenuity.

4. This movement is a global

The ecosystem around our cities is the largest example of open innovation on the planet. The city is not just the biggest story on earth—on some level they are our last best hope. Cities are the unit of innovation, they can move faster than any centralized government, and they are the nodes of sharing our best and more innovative ideas to solve the very real problems we face in sustainability, housing, and mobility. The mayors of our cities in the US are looking to innovation to help them mitigate the unavoidable. No mayor wants to be the guy/gal who was on watch when levees break and was unprepared, experienced Snowmaggeden and couldn’t get the snow ploughs out to the right places, or had to ration water or electricity. Thankfully there are cities around the globe that have already dealt with challenges of this scope and they are more than willing to share what they have learned as well as the technology and data that made the difference when crafting a solution to cataclysmic events. The US has an enormous amount it can learn—for example—in how to build more sustainable cities. London famously charges an entrance fee for anyone who wants to bring a car into the central business district. This type of thing is called “demand-based pricing” and has been proposed many times here in the US and is always shot down by business interests. Cities overseas that are brave enough to experiment with ways to reduce our dependence on private automobiles are experiencing significant reductions in obesity, childhood asthma, and carbon emissions.

In short, when in the late 1960s and 1970s our citizens were up in arms about the disaster that was our cities, today everywhere we look cities are innovating their way out of some of the biggest issues facing the planet. Sustainability. Inclusiveness. Resilience.

So what should you expect from the City Innovate Summit? Expect to be amazed by the pace of innovation coming from our cities. Expect to share ideas openly and honestly. Expect to build upon the ideas presented by others – back in your cities. After all, as I am fond of saying:

Cities are an Open Platform. No one Owns It, Everyone can Improve upon It.

Originally published on the City Innovate Foundation blog.