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Innovation and the City

“There is a treasure trove of what people learn through the innovation process. People doing work on the ground actually put together tidbits and nuggets…that’s where innovation comes from.” – Ben Hecht, Innovation and the City Forum

When Michael Bloomberg’s term comes to a close as Mayor of New York City, he will not be remembered for a single idea or issue. Rather, he will go down as one the nation’s most successful urban innovators, with a legacy of pioneering policy experiments in virtually every area—from sustainability (the comprehensive PlaNYC) and public health (trans fat reporting) to economic development (the Cornell-Technion applied sciences campus) and financial literacy (the nation’s first Office of Financial Empowerment office).

New Yorkers will elect a new mayor this fall. But with the city still facing a number of huge challenges, and little help expected to come from Washington, New York’s next mayor will have to be every bit as experimental and innovative as his or her predecessor. With this in mind, the New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service and the Center for an Urban Future decided to team up to provide a little innovation homework for the next Mayor.

In recent years, with the federal government mired in partisan gridlock, cities have become the drivers of policy innovation. We spent months looking for the most promising ideas that have worked in other locales that have clear potential for replication in the Big Apple. The entire process worked like a funnel—gathering a multitude of ideas at the front end and continuing to refine and winnow them down to the very best. It turned out to be an experiment that had never been attempted, so we made the rules up as we went.

Our experimental process began with interviewing over 200 policy experts around the world, including many Living Cities staff and members. We found dozens of promising ideas from every corner of the country and few from around the world. In total, we had 120 innovations that made our first cut. Next, in an attempt to get a better handle about which of these intriguing policies were actually feasible in New York, we got feedback from policymakers with real expertise about how government actually runs in New York, from those inside city hall to those running nonprofits. That left us with 20 highly promising ideas. We then convened some of New York’s most thoughtful policy experts in two interactive roundtable discussions, where we road-tested the 20 policies. The feedback from these sessions led us to a final list of 15 game-changing reforms that have proven effective in other cities that are scalable in New York. The ideas are detailed in our recently published Innovation and the City.

The ideas run the gamut, but what’s truly fascinating is that none of them fit into a conventional policy areas of education or housing or jobs. They are a real silo-crossing mash-up. One of our favorites is Kindergarten to College Savings, a program that provides an automatic college savings account of $50 for all public school kindergarteners in San Francisco. This effort pairs the need for more college readiness with asset building strategies and brought in the private sector as Citi managed the accounts and the San Francisco Foundation garnered additional dollars for parents who add money. Another intriguing program is Spacehive from the UK. They use a crowdfunding web site to generate community ideas and match funds for local capital projects. And some are just smart management approaches like the Denver Peak Academy, an innovation school in which hundreds of entry- and mid-level bureaucrats enroll in a five day change-management course and craft their own reform platform to take back to their home agency.

But New York is not the only city that can benefit from this inventory of innovation. A number of regions—Los Angeles and Minneapolis—will have new administrations and local leaders everywhere face significant challenges. These 15 ideas are based on the best of what is happening right now and meant for everyone to cut, paste and appropriate.

Neil Kleiman is the Director of the New York University Wagner Innovation Labs where he leads projects sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford Foundation and Citi. Neil is also part of a consortium administering the federal National Resource Network, a multi-agency Obama administration initiative to develop the nation’s first one-stop shop for cities to access technical and policy assistance.

Jonathan Bowles is the Executive Director of the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan-based think tank dedicated to independent research about key issues facing New York and other cities. He has authored more than two-dozen policy reports, including studies about New York’s tech sector, the importance of immigrant entrepreneurs and the challenges facing the middle class.

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