Civic Innovation: my answers to 7 questions I asked this Mayors’ Innovation Summit panel

Textizen CEO Michelle Lee giving her lightning talk before our panel on civic innovation, which featued, from left, Michael Brennan of SecondMuse, Brigitte Daniel of Wilco Electronic Systems, Keya Dannenbaum of ElectNext, Alex Hillman of Indy Hall and myself.
Textizen CEO Michelle Lee giving her lightning talk before our panel on civic innovation, which featued, from left, Michael Brennan of SecondMuse, Brigitte Daniel of Wilco Electronic Systems, Keya Dannenbaum of ElectNext, Alex Hillman of Indy Hall and myself. Photo lovingly stolen from Aaron Ogle.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors held its annual Mayors’ Innovation Summit in Philadelphia last week, and I moderated a panel Friday morning focused on ‘civic innovation,’ a fancy phrasing for a new era of groundswell public-private partnerships growing out of technology and creative communities across the country.

As is custom, I shared beforehand some questions I wanted to ask the group, and while we didn’t get to all of them because we got into some good conversations, I figured I’d share my perspective on those questions.

The panelists on civic innovation, which featured, from left, Michael Brennan of SecondMuse, Brigitte Daniel of Wilco Electronic Systems, Keya Dannenbaum of ElectNext, Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, Michelle Lee of Textizen and myself.
The panelists on civic innovation, which featured, from left, Michael Brennan of SecondMuse, Brigitte Daniel of Wilco Electronic Systems, Keya Dannenbaum of ElectNext, Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, Michelle Lee of Textizen and myself.
  1. Let’s define the community we’re talking about that is fueling civic innovation: are we talking about young professionals or entrepreneurs or technologists or nonprofit leaders? Is this a new class or distinction? The culture of civic innovation in Philadelphia and elsewhere is springing out of technology and entrepreneurial communities because of the quick action, solutions-based spirit that has grown among its leaders. With particularly stark government budgets, it’s a time when city agencies are becoming more willing to share the stage with other actors, so I do think it’s a new class of people that include a lot of members of these other groups of the past.
  2. Let’s set the table with the Philadelphia example. You’ve all been involved in different ways in Philly’s civic action community. Has something really change in the last decade or so or are are just self-congratulating? The density, awareness and networking of civic actors has most certainly grown in the last decade or so. I’d like to see more pure solutions to big problems, but the constituencies around things like social enterprise and the education of a new class of leaders has happened. There is a new network forming, but I think we haven’t yet coalesced to make good on big, sustained change in tax reform or public education, although perhaps some movement in business climate.
  3. You are all from the private sector but have a surprising intersection with city government. Why the change? Is this a fad or a big transforming change? What should mayors understand or know about the Philly example? We see cycles of government stewardship through generations, so if you look long enough into the future, I’m sure we’ll see it change, but I do think for the next 20 years or so, we’re in a new era of private leadership with public endorsement. We’re seeing that manifest in the explosion of charter school conversation, which means it will be controversial, but in other ways, if local governments can narrow their responsibilities and focus their goals, historically constrained budgets may find conclusions closer to success than we’ve seen. That’ll have a lot of consequence, in smaller municipal workforces and acrimonious battles over expectations, but this looks to me like a relationship change for the future. I think mayors can look at the value of creating safe dialogue between interested stakeholders from the private sector and find ways to empower them beyond traditional financial means. Look at what your central mission and goal is and don’t stray from it.
  4. What is happening in the city-suburbs divide throughout the country? What is the future relationship there and how does it fit with economic development and talent acquisition? We’re seeing the word ‘suburb’ get stretched in its cultural meaning to return to simple geography. It feels like we’re going to have to have a more nuanced view of what the suburbs are in this country: wealthy and poor, racially and ethnically and religiously complex, crime and drugs and poverty are all finding their ways there, and cities are trying to grow their wealthier roles to meet somewhere in the middle.
  5. How should all of us U.S. cities look at each other when we take into account surging wealth and education in BRIC and other countries? Sure seems like our big markets need to be aware of not just other American leaders but what is happening globally. Will we see real talent competition between global players? Immigration policy here may really shape that answer but it most certainly seems like some slice of talent acquisition will involve international travel more and more.
  6. In the past half decade, we’ve talked a lot about the ‘Rise of the Rest,’ non-traditional technology and innovation hubs creating those communities and talking about attracting and retaining that talent. What’s the change? Is this good for our country, or are we losing the density of talent in dominant markets? In this second technology boom, the biggest change has been the explosion of communication and networking tools — blogging and RSS and social media and the ever expanding technologist identification — has dramatically lowered the bar of difficulty to creating a recognizable technology communities. Venture capitalists took to the web and really broke down the details of a more secretive 90s era tech boom and we gave a lot of DIY community lessons. With a lot more people with the toolkit, we’re bound to have more successes. I do think there is something to the idea of lessening the density of a single hub — like the Valley –but if we could find a way as a country to really welcoming and attracting and retaiing the top-level immigrant talent from around the world, we could become a more valuable innovation engine as a country.
  7. If any of these city leaders pulled you in as a consultant to grow their civic technology communities, what would be your first question and first action? First question would definitely be about the goal: what is this city trying to do, what are its assets as compared to others and what are our measures of success. The first action would have to be to bring together the people who are already here and already serving as those community anchors. How do we convey the density that already exists and how to we bring others to the table to get them to want to stay.Once we have an audience, what do we want to do as a collective group? That’s the mission question to start with.