The power of cities to change

Two weeks ago, as part of the 2017 Mayors Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies began the first of eight weeks of “Idea Accelerator” workshops. Three hundred U.S. cities will receive the workshops — all designed to help city leaders identify and solve for the most critical issues of the day. The first week of workshops included 120 participants in 12 cities and six states.

During these workshops, city halls are taken through a process of using data to investigate and understand a problem, engaging stakeholders and end users, and generating ideas in an open, collaborative, and iterative way. Idea Accelerators will run through the end of September.

The most urgent problems identified during the first week’s workshops included:

-Affordable housing and improving neighborhoods (26 percent);

-Fixing infrastructure, particularly addressing transportation and congestion (25 percent);

-Economic and workforce development, including creating jobs and spurring growth (25 percent); and,

-Climate and the environment (21 percent).

These workshops are a unique way for us to learn from cities what issues are most pressing in the community. While there were many similarities across these 12 cities, their unique challenges were apparent. In more urban areas, particularly in California and Florida, homelessness and housing affordability were most frequently mentioned. In parts of Maine and Montana, opioids were a major concern with often unexpected reverberations — underscored in one city by a park that is so littered with needles that kids are warned from running barefoot. Environmental concerns varied from city to city. Near coasts and waterways, increasing climate volatility and the need to mitigate flooding was front and center. In other areas, Superfund and environmental clean-up was the focus.

Workshop participants got advice and learned new techniques to improve their city’s ability to solve big challenges. On-site surveys revealed what they found most valuable. Nine in ten told us they liked the sessions on identifying and including a broad range of local stakeholders, an important but often overlooked step in solving urgent problems. As one participant noted, “process matters, it is never as simple as you think.” Eighty-seven percent enjoyed the case studies in making the best use of data to help drive decision-making. Looking at data is crucial for understanding how persistent a problem is, who it impacts, and what solutions impact the problem. Eighty-four percent valued segments on improving communication and engagement with residents, with one noting that the best part was understanding the value of trying to “put yourself in their shoes” and building empathy by focusing on others’ experiences, values, and feelings.

“I am impressed that we received so much attention and so many tools — for free,” one participant reported. A mayor who joined the workshop added that “the day went quickly and was both stimulating and calming. The ideas and methodology you introduced us to were new, refreshing, and invigorating.” And yet another participant said the most interesting thing they learned was “the power of cities to change.”

Learn more about the Idea Accelerators here, and stay tuned as we report insights from each week’s sessions.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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