Far from the dysfunction of our national political scene, city programs are emerging around the country to get a wider range of people involved in innovation and entrepreneurship. The programs hold the promise of revitalizing communities, broadening economic opportunities, and making cities better places to live and work. It’s a 21st century brand of governance, politics, and civic engagement.
Cities are brimming with strong civic tech communities, building apps for the daily challenges of city life (like where’s my snowplow?), creating social platforms for engagement between the city officials and citizens, and developing sophisticated digital ways to deliver government services. Community groups are gaining greater access to information about their city and new and better ways to communicate with each other and elected officials. Technology is fueling all these developments. The basic modern tools that make such changes possible include the cloud, analytics, sensors, and mobile computing.
As this new urban landscape takes hold, many cities are striving to ensure that everyone, especially members of historically disadvantaged and under-represented communities, can take part in the innovation economy. One growing emphasis is ensuring that public school curriculum develops 21st century skills by offering computer science classes in high schools. And even more radical approaches to immersing students in 21st century skills are emerging. A terrific example is The Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a New York City public high school that uses design thinking and innovation tools to teach lessons in an accessible, hands-on way and provides students opportunities to participate in the professional world.
With the national focus on common core curriculum and standardized testing, it is increasingly important for cities to provide opportunities for young people to develop critical skills outside of traditional educational settings. The San Francisco Public Library recently opened The Mix, an innovative, youth-designed, 21st century teen learning space equipped so that 13-18 year olds can explore, create, and develop digital media and computer skills. Programs like this are essential to bringing opportunities for hands-on learning to students from every community in the city.
Equally important is bringing opportunities and access to older potential entrepreneurs and innovators who are no longer in the formal educational system. Seattle is piloting a “library to business” program at the main branch of the Seattle Public Library. The program centers on making the “information services” function of traditional libraries available to help start-ups do market analysis and find partners, customers, and resources for loans and support. The program is designed to enable people from a wide variety of communities start their own businesses. In partnership with Microsoft, the library will offer Skype vouchers to allow participants to establish a professional phone presence easily and cheaply.
The most farsighted cities, however, are directly seeding participation in the innovation economy at the neighborhood level–bringing incubators, accelerators, and entrepreneurship programs to historically underserved neighborhoods. A little over a year ago Smarter in the City launched a high tech accelerator/entrepreneurship program in Roxbury, a historically disadvantaged community at the geographic center of Boston. The program matches startups with mentors and provides professional skills training as well as pro bono PR, marketing, and legal services through local partners. It has already mentored and graduated two cohorts of companies and is about to bring on a third.
And the City of Boston is also directly getting into the act: the new Roxbury Innovation Center is the City’s effort to apply learning from its highly successful Seaport Innovation District to Roxbury. Describing itself as “a civic experiment,” the Roxbury Innovation Center opens this fall with a wide range of programming to support local economic development by encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.
In Chicago, this spring Englewood Blue launched an accelerator program in the heart of the historically disadvantaged Englewood neighborhood. In addition to working with start-ups, Englewood Blue will provide training, employment assistance and an internship program.
All these approaches are made possible by people who understand the neighborhoods, the social constraints, and the points of intervention, and design programs to help narrow the innovation gap. Nearly ubiquitous computing helps empower such visions and makes them more affordable and scalable. While there is still much work to be done, cities are harnessing technology and civic engagement to strengthen their communities and create greater access and opportunities for all. It’s a promising glimpse what the 21st century could bring.
Annmarie Levins is a speaker at Techonomy Detroit September 15 at Wayne State University.