5 storylines that shaped urban innovation in 2018

For city hall changemakers, 2018 was a big year. An influx of new mayors brought fresh ideas and new energy to city government. An unprecedented 35-city experiment in prototyping solutions with citizens demonstrated a nimble new way to approach urban problems. And as national governments buckled with dysfunction, cities across the U.S. and around the world proved they’re ready to tackle challenges like affordable housing, transportation, and climate change.

Bloomberg Cities covered it all with regular stories here on Medium, and in our weekly email newsletter, Spark. (Subscribe here!). Here are five narratives that shaped our reporting in 2018.

Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle speaks with Mayor Dagur Eggertsson of Reykjavik, Iceland, at a convening of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in July.

As 2018 started, one in five of America’s 200 largest cities welcomed a new mayor to office. As the year ended, another wave of new mayors won elections, bringing a younger and more diverse set of leaders into city halls. James Anderson, head of the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, offered five tips to these incoming municipal leaders. Number one: Build your team first.

“Good mayors recognize that running a city is a team sport, not an individual one,” he wrote. “Developing a group of trusted, competent leaders — and then giving them the latitude to take charge — is the first and most essential task.”

Early in the year, Bloomberg Philanthropies surveyed U.S. mayors to learn what issues were most important to them and their constituents. Among the key findings of the 2018 American Mayors Survey: 8 in 10 mayors think it’s important for cities to address climate change, and two-thirds of mayors said infrastructure was a top concern they hear about from residents.

To help mayors tackle these and other challenges, Bloomberg Philanthropies partnered with Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School to offer a specialized executive training program tailored to the challenges of governing a city. The first class of 40 mayors completed its year-long training with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in July, just as the second class began the program. Each mayor also designated two senior staff members to go through a version of the program designed for them.

After the first year, Faculty Director Jorrit de Jong and Executive Program Director David Margalit distilled four leadership insights from the first class that all city leaders can learn from. For example: Leadership comes from both the head and the heart. “Mayors increasingly see the value of using data and evidence to make decisions,” they wrote. But “numbers without a compelling narrative are just numbers.”

More reading:

7 Millennial mayors to watch

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Teams from 35 U.S. cities learn the basics of prototyping at the Mayors Challenge ‘Ideas Camp’ in March.

2018 was the year prototyping new ideas came of age in city government. Through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, 35 cities with bold ideas for addressing tough urban challenges received $100,000 and expert coaching to test and improve those ideas over six months.

As the Philanthropies’ James Anderson wrote in February, most successful businesses prototype new solutions before bringing them to market but “it’s a concept that is virtually unknown within the public sector.” Prototyping involves making an early sketch or model of an idea, testing it out with users, and adapting the idea before putting time and money into building a fully functional product. “It’s a low-stakes way to kick the tires and get insights from real people before an idea is launched more broadly,” Anderson wrote.

At an “Ideas Camp” in New York City, teams from the 35 cities learned how to build simple prototypes of their ideas, test them out, gain feedback, and revise their work. Then the teams went home and put the strategy to work with residents. Philadelphia mocked up what a proposed intake center for arrested youth could look like, and role played interactions between police officers, teenagers, social workers, and parents. Meanwhile, New Rochelle, N.Y., and Los Angeles, used virtual-reality technology to prototype ideas for new programs with residents.

In October, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced nine winners of the Mayors Challenge and awarded each $1 million to implement their ideas. Win or lose, all of the cities learned a lot, according to innovation coaches who worked with the 35 city teams. As one of those coaches, Laura Hyde Page of Jump Associates, explained: “While it is tempting to shield people from the mess of the kitchen until an idea is fully baked, residents actually prefer it when they are engaged early and often.”

More reading:

How Long Beach prototyped a park

How this year’s Mayors Challenge winners rose to the top

New Rochelle, N.Y., used virtual reality technology to gather resident feedback on development decisions.

One reason prototyping is so important is that it helps local governments co-create solutions with residents, asking them to help shape the idea as it evolves.

For example, resident feedback prompted Mayors Challenge winner Georgetown, Texas., to completely re-orient its plan to become the first-energy-independent community in the U.S. Initially, city leaders believed financial incentives — paying residents to put solar panels on their rooftops — would be the greatest motivator for citizen participation. But prototyping showed that residents were most interested in access to back-up battery power that the plan could provide. So the city reworked its plan, adding a more-robust battery system to the solar network.

Having a professional designer on your team can make co-creation easier. Most of the 24 cities with innovation teams — cross-disciplinary teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to drive new ways of thinking in city hall — now have at least one designer on staff. They tend to look at problems by understanding what citizens need first, and then working backward to find solution. Bloomberg Cities spoke with four designers to learn more about what they do and how they work. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Stephanie Wade assessed the five qualities designers need to succeed in city hall.

While the need for more citizen engagement in cities is clear, what that means isn’t always obvious for city employees. To make the concept real, the city of Helsinki has developed a board game that small teams of managers and front-line staff can play together to learn about dozens of methods for involving citizens in their work. Our story on the “Participation Game” was our most-read article of the year.

More reading:

How crowdsourcing drives citizen engagement

In Tulsa, volunteers mine data to help city government make better decisions

Cross-sector teams from 10 cities honed their collaboration skills at a March gathering of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Many urban problems are too complex for city governments to solve on their own. They need to look outside for help, forming partnerships with businesses, universities, nonprofits, foundations, and others. Mayors get this. In Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 American Mayors Survey, 85 percent of them said they see collaboration and partnerships as a core value.

Collaboration was a major theme of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. In March, cross-sector teams of eight people from 10 cities each came together to learn about how to structure successful partnerships. Each brought a specific problem or opportunity to work on, and broke into work sessions to plug new insights into their projects. Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patti Harris offered a few tips of her own. One of them: Lead with “Yes” when presented with a partnership opportunity. It’s “not the same as being a ‘yes person’,” she wrote. “It’s about being open to good ideas and willing to jump on them.”

A good example of this thinking came from Pittsburgh: Mayor Bill Peduto tasked his cross-sector team to develop OnePGH — a strategic plan to build a livable city for all residents. “One of the biggest challenges that we identify in our OnePGH strategy is the need to overcome fragmentation between sectors, levels of government, and communities,” Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin said in June. “Our ability to row in a common direction will be essential for the city to overcome long-standing challenges.”

More reading:

When city hall can’t do it all: Building stronger partnerships

How Houston is helping young men of color reach their full potential

Increasingly, city leaders are using data to make better decisions, track progress on key priorities, and save taxpayer dollars: In Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 American Mayors Survey, 76 percent of mayors said they view using data as very important to their jobs. And in January, we learned which cities were most successful at leveraging data.

That’s when What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative the helps American cities ingrain data collection, analysis, and transparency into everything they do, certified nine U.S. cities for excellence in using data. The certification recognizes cities that have successfully aligned their practices and policies with a rigorous national standard for applying data and evidence to the work of local government.

In May, as Mike Bloomberg announced an additional $42 million investment in What Works Cities, Bloomberg Cities spoke with WWC Executive Director Simone Brody about how far the data movement has come in cities. It’s “clearly advancing,” she said. “What was cutting edge a few years ago is now established practice.”

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Data-driven women to watch

The promise and peril of algorithms in local government

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