Fort Collins looks far into the future to be more innovative today

When the pandemic hit, Fort Collins, Colo., was already on the way to building something many cities suddenly wished they had: a municipal broadband utility. City leaders were able to quickly leverage their growing fiber-optic network to bring WiFi to students who had no other way to get online for virtual school.

The seeds of the idea to build that network were planted 10 years ago in the city’s “Futures Committee.” The group is a subcommittee of the City Council chaired by Mayor Wade Troxell, with an unusual mandate for local government: to explore challenges and opportunities lying 20 to 50, or even 100 years into the future. In a heads-down City Hall culture where daily crises can easily outrun long-term strategy, the Futures Committee is key to how Fort Collins holds space for expansive thinking and cultivates innovation.

Troxell, who helped launch the Futures Committee as a councilman 10 years ago, calls the body a “think and do tank” and a way to ensure Fort Collins remains a “learning community.” The committee brings in local and national experts like author Richard Florida or architect Andres Duany to lead broad discussions about where cities are headed, and invites elected officials, city staff, the public, and often, leaders from surrounding cities, to participate. After a year when city leaders have been working nights and weekends on pandemic response, the Futures Committee is where they pivot to big-picture questions like how today’s changes will transform the ways people work and live in the years and decades to come.

Jacqueline Kozak Thiel, the city’s chief sustainability officer and executive liaison to the committee, says she frequently fields inquiries from other cities asking how the Futures Committee works. To learn more about it, Bloomberg Cities caught up with Kozak Thiel and Mayor Troxell, who leaves office next month due to term limits.

What’s the point of having something like the Futures Committee?

Mayor Wade Troxell: A lot of times in city government, we have our heads down. And what we’re thinking about is moving the next chess piece, not about where we’re going next in terms of the overall game. The Futures Committee is about lifting our heads up, looking to the horizon, and saying: Are we on the right vector? These things can otherwise get caught up in the politics of the day.

How is it different from other venues the city has for dialogue or long-term planning?

Jacqueline Kozak Thiel: The City Council has other committees that every week are dealing with the immediate needs of our community. But this committee has an informal rule that nothing on the six-month planning calendar can be on the agenda. That’s intentional, to really take them out of that space so they can think big and think ahead.

A best practice for any leader is setting aside that conceptual “visioning time,” and yet the discipline to carry that out is often lost with how much we’re all trying to respond to every day. And so this is a set time every month, intentionally not tied to some council decision that’s coming up or some current project. It liberates us to be provocative and to reimagine and challenge current structures and systems.

How far into the future does the Futures Committee look out?

Troxell: I say 30, 50, or even 100 years out. It’s not far-fetched. I was born here, and in that time we’ve gone from a city of 20,000 people to 175,000 people. Some would say, just on that growth alone, that Fort Collins must be a less desirable place. I would say it’s actually a more desirable place, for many reasons. The thing is: How, in 50 years, can we make our community even better than it is today? That doesn’t just happen because the winds blow you where they blow you. You can be very intentional about livability.

What’s an example of an impactful idea that grew out of the Futures Committee?

Kozak Thiel: The very idea of the need for municipal broadband first started in a conversation at Futures. Fast forward, it ended up with Council referring a ballot initiative to the voters, and the voters overwhelmingly said, yes, we want municipal broadband. Because of that future thinking, we were ready when the pandemic hit and there was just such a need for connectivity.

Troxell: We are rolling out gigabit-speed symmetric broadband to every premise in our community. This past year, a lot of people said: “Whoa, we really needed that.” But it was 2011 when we started talking about it and asking: “What’s our digital future as a community?” We wanted to future-proof ourselves, and that started us on the path to our broadband utility. It’s as fundamental as water, electric, sewer, and stormwater.

How does this work help Fort Collins build a more innovative culture in City Hall?

Kozak Thiel: The mental process of innovation requires disruptive and dreaming dialogues. Setting time aside for us to ideate and bring in diverse perspectives is part of the process of innovation. What I love about it, too, is that government processes can be so formal — like this is the time for public comment, and there’s such limited back and forth with elected leaders, even for city staff sometimes. And this is really a free flowing, dreaming dialogue.

Our partnerships with Bloomberg Philanthropies have been a recurring part of the Futures Committee agenda in the past few years. That’s because so much of Futures is about that learning and reimagining space, and our partnerships with Bloomberg have been a really key feedback loop for that.

We’re also innovating around new ways of understanding as equity has become even more front-and-center for local governments. A lot of the topics at Futures Committee are around social innovations, in terms of rethinking civic capacity and how we’re engaging with our community, especially those who have been intentionally or unintentionally excluded. Futures has been one of our key vehicles to enable and scale innovation.

Who are some Futures Committee presenters you remember and why?

Troxell: Andres Duany was great in terms of challenging every orthodoxy. We talked about systems for gathering public input, and he said: You should go to the youngest person in the room to have their comments heard first. Because it’s oftentimes the loudest or most senior person who gets to speak.

Kozak Thiel: We’ve had people like the developer Jonathan Rose to talk about affordable housing, or Richard Florida to talk about the future of cities and recovery post-COVID. We’ve brought in leaders from other cities, like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Wyo., to hear about their initiatives to build mindful communities. And we’ve looked at the future of health equity, which during this time period was a really important topic to talk about.

What’s been cool for us during the pandemic is that instead of flying in a speaker to meet at City Hall, now we’re all virtual. We were starting to go virtual already before COVID because city resources are limited. But now that everybody’s virtual together, the thought leaders we’ve been able to get to speak to us — and the number of leaders in our community who can attend — has really expanded. I think that will continue after the pandemic.

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