Urban Innovation

Building the Case for Urban Innovation Labs

October 28, 2015

(Photo Credit: istock)

To kick off this year’s CityLab, an annual event bringing together mayors and innovators from across the globe, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the American mindset about failure is the key to our nation’s success. “The mind-set in America,” he said,” is basically, if you try and you fail, and you try again and you fail, your family brags about Joe, ‘our son Joe he’s started three businesses already. He’s on his fourth business.’ Elsewhere they’d call you a failure.”

That mindset is not just fundamental to America’s entrepreneurial character, but is an important aspect of how cities will forge their futures in the 21st century. The world’s cities are hubs for business, culture, and most significantly: innovation. 

CityLab 2015 brought together people practicing urban innovation from Hyderabad, India; to Melbourne, Australia; to Tel Aviv, Israel; to Providence, Rhode Island. Their cities have become laboratories for innovation, and sharing these ideas is a chance to improve the lives and wellbeing of city residents across the world. 

One of the sessions at CityLab, called “Innovation Speed Dating: 50 Conversations to Transform the Way Cities Work,” brought together 20 leading city practitioners and a room full of observers to discuss the most promising urban innovations, many of which are being developed in “urban innovation labs.”

What is an urban innovation lab? It’s an entity focused on developing context-driven and cutting-edge solutions to a city’s most pressing challenges. The best labs promote a culture that allows for testing and learning — or drawing upon Bloomberg’s language, a culture that adopts the best parts of America’s mindset about entrepreneurial failure — where new approaches can be conceived, challenged, improved upon, and if effective, implemented across the city. 

Urban innovation labs come in many shapes and sizes. Some are embedded within government, such as the Bloomberg Foundation-sponsored “i-teams, ” which help mayors effectively design and implement solutions to problems in their cities. Some are housed outside city hall, but work closely with government staff (the Aspen Institute hosts an Urban Innovation Lab focused on the Washington, DC region).

One common element of successful urban innovation labs is a persistent focus on challenges unique to the city they are working to improve. Every city — including the ones I mentioned above — has unique challenges. For example, the non-profit Hyderabad Urban Lab focuses on clean water and general sanitation, whereas the Tel Aviv city government’s “i-team” has a focus on affordable housing solutions. These cities share a risk-tolerant culture and dedicated teams that are embedded within city governments or given freedom by city governments to develop new approaches to these problems. 

We need innovation labs to provide the flexibility and information that government has lost, particularly in many western cities. Rob Adams, director of city design and projects for Melbourne, Australia, framed the need for innovation labs by pointing to the 1980s, when governments began to privatize their operations, and in his view began to “contract out their intelligence.” Innovation labs are the government’s effort to build up its intelligence.

Can innovation labs fail? Yes, certainly. But their failures should be understood as opportunities to learn and further calls to try again. Cities – through innovation labs – should make small bets on informed hunches about how to improve their services. Whether it’s a hunch that collaboration between educators and parents will improve student outcomes, or that tourists donating excess transit credits to poor residents will improve economic productivity, innovation labs can structure experiments to test these hunches cheaply (and with minimal disruption to the general population). All of these bets and experiments will not succeed, but the mentality of “failure and learning” as a pathway to success is crucial to healthy cities and happy city dwellers. Urban innovation labs can help government reinvent its service, and improve outcomes for residents. 

Eric Lavin is founding manager of Aspen Ventures at the Aspen Institute.