Cities present a paradox to innovators, entrepreneurs, and young people with a passion for improving urban life and public services. On the one hand, cities can seem like perfect candidates for innovation, with important problems that are far from solved, and the kind of rich data that problem-solvers love. On the other hand, cities are bureaucracies, and even the most visionary civil servants operate in an environment that doesn’t exactly reward risk-taking and experimentation. So how does a disruptive idea find its way?
On October 30, 2018, I addressed this question in a presentation to the Seoul Digital Foundation. Seoul is one of the most innovative cities on Earth, with a passionate and committed population of young and technically adept people who want to help. But Korea’s local governments are at least as rigid as America’s, and the same challenges resonated. For this conference, called “City as a Sandbox,” I took a look back at projects that I or colleagues have been involved in over the last decade, and the tools we’ve used to pressure innovation in the face of bureaucracy. Consider this a kind of short handbook on hacking your city.
1. Open the Conversation With Open Data
Open data is an invitation. When cities collect and share open data a remarkable thing happens: ordinary citizens — concerned parents, curious students, entrepreneurs, software developers -— take on the role of super-sleuths and urban problem-solvers as they illuminate patterns and trends, ask important questions, and prototype new solutions. Data is also a way to engage with journalists, activists, and local government, and get everyone talking about the same thing.
When Oakland made its crime data public, it wasn’t long before citizens identified trends in lazy policing, such as crimes being reported all at once on the same day every month (which, of course, isn’t how actual crime works). Often, the hack is to do the work of opening the data, because the government can’t or won’t. In Fukushima, worried moms plugged radiation detectors into their iPhones, publishing the data and attracting media attention. In Barcelona, ordinary people deployed sophisticated noise-level sensors in their nightlife-rich neighborhoods and informed the city, resulting in new noise regulations. In Denver, schools are measuring how pollution is distributed in their city and drawing eyes to its impact on the poorest neighborhoods.
2. Use a Crisis as Your Sandbox
In a crisis, energy is high, resources are focused, and the ordinary rules have gone out the window — it’s the perfect time to hack a new approach! As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left much of New Jersey underwater, including the gas stations. The government needed to know which stations were still functional, so they could send gas to where people were lining up to refuel. A White House innovation fellow suggested using GPS data — if you followed the phones, you’d find the crowded stations. So, in a matter of hours, the government formed an unlikely partnership with the startup Waze, to use the data from its popular navigation app. As often happens, the sandbox created by this crisis ended up producing a long-term solution: Waze now helps the government do traffic management in many cities.
3. Drive Policy With Prototypes
When you can’t solve a problem directly — maybe it requires political buy-in, or resources that aren’t available — the next best thing is put out ideas so good that politicians will want to “steal” them, claiming the ideas as their own. Even better: make prototypes of the new concept and share them widely. When great ideas spread in the wild, it’s tougher for bureaucracies to reject them, especially when the press and public opinion rally to the cause.
The Summer of Smart in SF included a hackathon around civic issues, and within a day, participants built a prototype of an app to direct maintenance crews to broken-down buses. (The city had said the problem would take 5 years to solve.) The idea was on every mayor candidate’s platform in the next race, including the winner’s. And when the promise to fix the buses was left unfulfilled a year later, the proof of the prototype refused to go away. Constituents complained, and The New York Times picked up the story; after the headline came out, the mayor’s office funded the project that same day.
4. Dream Big, Start Small
Ask for a small proving ground, and allow the strongest ideas to grow. Prototypes can give audacious, risky projects a chance to see the light of day.
A few years ago, a group in SF had the idea to make the iconic Bay Bridge a digital art canvas, illuminating its two-mile west span with 25,000 LEDs. They pitched it as a temporary art installation, knowing they’d meet with resistance from the city bureaucracy. (Secret fact: three San Francisco mayors — Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee — conspired to maintain it was “just a prototype” throughout the early phases so the project could gather momentum with minimal objections.) The Bay Lights project, beautiful and unique, quickly became so popular that when the prototyping period was up, it was able to amass enough funding and city support to become a permanent fixture of the Bay.
5. Incubate Your Talent
Cities are full of smart citizens eager to solve problems, but they often lack the right tools and connections to navigate local government. They need a process. Formal incubator programs provide focused timelines and objectives, bring people with different skills together, and shield talent from bureaucratic and administrative drains on their energy.
San Francisco has hundreds, maybe thousands, of developers who want to contribute their technical talents to help homelessness, easier access to services or other civic issues. But absent policy know-how, many of them get stuck; it’s in the city’s best interest to connect them with organizations that understand the issues in-depth. Creative Currency researched and identified 5 key issues in the city, connected eager developers with people working in government, and led them through an incubation program. This developed into Startup in Residence, which embeds startups in city hall for 16 weeks; it expects over 1,000 applicants in 2019.
6. Leverage Civic Institutions
Libraries, schools, places of worship — some of the best stories of cities transforming themselves begin in familiar places. Civic institutions make great partners. Hacking your city might mean changing its culture and its belief systems; these backbone organizations can help. Older institutions, struggling to stay relevant in rapidly changing cities, are also usually motivated to try new things.
Newspapers are a great example. The Kansas City Star wants to find new ways to champion its city’s voices and values, and it’s partnered with Maker City to work on shared goals: creating spaces for makers, and driving up awareness about the maker community. Like newspapers, public libraries play a critical role in involving the community and addressing its needs. In Los Angeles, libraries have become hubs for local meetings and debates, and help the public with things like searching for jobs and acquiring citizenship. And in smart cities around the globe, libraries are also transforming, from places to get books and do research, into stewards of digital and creative infrastructure.
7. Anoint Yourself
If you care about making something happen in your city, don’t wait for someone to grant you the authority — you might be waiting forever. Instead, anoint yourself: give yourself the very title that you need in order to act. Faking it ’til you make it can be a powerful hack.
Take the story of Jason Roberts in Dallas, who noticed his Texas city had abandoned tracks for a streetcar, and wanted to bring it back. Everyone told him it was impossible: he had no mandate. So he created the Oak Cliff Transit Authority with some neighbors and friends, which led to plans, a grant, city funding — and now, the existence of the Oak Cliff streetcar.
This article was based on my talk at the 2018 Seoul International Digital Festival, which can be found on YouTube (talk begins at 27:30).