Urban Innovation Lab

The Urban Innovation Lab aims to lift up transformative ideas emerging from the Washington region, in order to support change on the ground and create models that other urban areas can adapt, through a quarterly cycle of impact-driven gatherings. The cycle begins with a Big Idea Night, at which Aspen Innovation Scholars “pitch” path-breaking strategies to a larger audience. That event is followed by a Deep Dive Roundtable, a private event at which key stakeholders discuss how to translate the solutions surfaced in the previous event to systemic change. The cycle concludes by publishing an Action Paper for implementing the agendas shaped through the two previous events. The Urban Innovation Lab aims to host a total of four event cycles in 2016 and 2017.

The Challenge:

Even as “Washington” the hub of federal power has foundered, Washington the city has flourished. Nearly bankrupt in the 1990s, the central city has now been posting budget surpluses for years. Between 2010 and 2015, DC’s population grew by more than 11% to 672,228, closing in on its all time high in the 1950s, and in 2015, DC permitted more new housing units than in any year since the Census started keeping track in 1980. Attracting all of these new residents, job growth in the D.C. metropolitan area outpaced the national rate, even as federal contracts remained flat. The region’s economy is diversifying, spinning out ventures that explode its old reputation as a great gray fortress of defense contracts and pencil pushers.

But DC’s rapid renaissance has exacerbated deep-rooted challenges, including displacement, income inequality, and stubborn geographic disparities. There is a clear east-west divide in the region that reflects both racial and economic segregation. Affordable housing has become scarcer than ever.  To take just one example,  2005 and 2012, the number of rental apartments available in D.C. for under $800 a month (in 2012 dollars) fell by almost half. The rising incomes of the past few years have not been distributed equally. While just over 7% of white District residents lived below the poverty line, 22% of hispanic residents and 26% of black residents do. One in ten District residents live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $10,000 a year.

The Urban Innovation Lab enters this complex and changing landscape with a clear goal: accelerate solutions to DC’s challenges by connecting the resources of the Aspen Institute to the ideas of the region’s boldest social entrepreneurs.

The Lab, managed by Carolyn Zelikow, is an initiative of the Center for Urban Innovation under the leadership of Jennifer Bradley.