Overcoming “Aimless Innovation”: New Research Reveals How Cities are Innovating with Intention to Tackle Urban Problems

April 2, 2019

Austin, Detroit, Philadelphia among the U.S. cities found to be leading the charge

Media Contacts:
Centre for Public Impact:  Josh Sorin 
 | 512-698-1546

Aspen Institute:  Jon Purves 
 | 202-736-2111

April 2, 2019 ­— A new, first-of-its-kind handbook released today draws on the insights and expertise of nearly 50 city leaders to offer guidance on how technology and innovation can be deployed to benefit entire communities. The Centre for Public Impact, together with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, partnered to make this unique resource available to city officials.

Seven out of every 10 Americans live in a city, and while trust for the federal government continues to drop, residents still look to local authorities to make a difference in their daily lives. While it is within the reach of city governments to help millions of people thrive, the handbook demonstrates that technology-driven solutions today often fail to address long term challenges and overlook pressing needs for vulnerable communities.

“In talking with city problem-solvers, we’ve discovered a growing movement of leaders using innovative solutions to build the broad reservoir of support they need to maintain life and opportunity for all city residents,” said Dan Vogel, Director of the Centre for Public Impact North America. “When cities innovate with intention, they do so in a way that emphasizes legitimacy, equity, and agility.”

While the challenges facing American cities are more complex than ever – tightening budgets, deteriorating infrastructure, and widening inequality – the handbook shares practical examples of where cities have been able to overcome these challenges in ways that align innovation both within city government and across sectors, empower the entire city ecosystem to tackle public sector problems, and grow innovation through the creation of a citywide culture that encourages continuous experimentation with measurement grounded in resident experiences.

“Cities are epicenters of innovation, opportunity, and delight.  Especially in an age of ‘smart cities,’ city leaders will need to continue innovating with an intentional focus on equity to ensure that all city residents are able to reap the benefits of new tools and technologies,” said Jennifer Bradley, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation.

City leaders interviewed for the handbook include Matt Klein, Executive Director of NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, Nigel Jacob, Co-Founder of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Grace Simrall, Chief of Civic Innovation & Technology for Louisville, KY, among others.

A few stories of how cities are innovating with intention:

  • Austin, TX has become more populous and prosperous over the last decade. But as the cost of living has soared, homelessness has increased. As part of its efforts to address the challenge, the City created the Homelessness Advisory Committee of Austin (HACA), which brings together 13 residents who are or have been homeless, to set the direction for the City’s approach to the problem. “We needed to find a way to build the lived experience into the system. And it really is as simple as pulling people together and building relationships.” said Lincoln Neiger, a service designer in the Austin City government.
  • Detroit, MI launched the Mobility Innovation Initiative to improve the city’s public transportation. The initiative, spearheaded by the Boston Consulting Group, brought together a group of 10 public, private, and social sector entities to devise approaches to key mobility issues in the city. The coalition then worked together to define the problem within each of the key mobility issues, to ensure all were aligned on what the initiative needed to solve for. “You need to make sure you’re not just driving technology to problems that don’t exist. We need to make sure we are tackling the most important problems that residents have,” explained Mark de La Vergne, Chief of Mobility for the city of Detroit.
  • To ensure that the city’s bike-share system was available to all communities, the city of Philadelphia’s Strategic Initiatives team worked with residents to crowdsource a decision about where to locate docking stations. They quickly found that the credit card payment system was a barrier for many residents in low-income neighborhoods being able to use the bikes, so the team revamped the payment system so that it doesn’t require a credit card. “In Philly, the conversation is centered around the neighborhoods that need the services most. We make sure marginalized communities are at the forefront of innovation, not an afterthought,” said Andrew Buss, Deputy CIO for Innovation Management.

The handbook, “The Future of U.S. Cities: How cities are innovating with intention to achieve impact,” was authored by the Centre for Public Impact, in partnership with the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute and the Boston Consulting Group. It is available to read here: https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/futureofcities.

NOTES TO EDITORS: The handbook will be presented at an event in Washington, D.C, on Tuesday, April 9, featuring city leaders and experts from across the country. For more information and to register, email Elena.Bell@aspeninstitute.org.

About the Centre for Public Impact

The Centre for Public Impact is a not-for-profit foundation, founded by the Boston Consulting Group, committed to helping governments around the world achieve better outcomes for people through research and tailored support, using the Public Impact Fundamentals to diagnose and enhance the impact of ideas. For more information, visit https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/. 

About the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute

The Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) is a network hub that catalyzes and supports a broader movement to define values-led approaches to the development, piloting, regulation, and evaluation of urban technologies.  We connect city leaders, non-profit organizations, and emerging businesses who share the belief that people deserve more than “smart cities.”  We deserve cities that promote human flourishing and digital infrastructure that enhances the experiences and opportunities that city life affords for all residents, particularly those in underserved neighborhoods.  That’s the standard that we seek to develop and promote. For more information, visit www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/center-urban-innovation/.

About the Boston Consulting Group

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world’s leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with offices in more than 90 cities in 50 countries.


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