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50 Conversations to Transform the Way Cities Work

By Katie Appel Duda, Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team

How can City Halls go beyond business as usual? It can start with a conversation. Having frank discussions with cities facing similar challenges is one of the best ways local governments can share ideas and spread their most innovative practices.

This month, I joined dozens of city leaders on the front lines of innovation for the second-annual Summit on Government Performance and Innovation in Louisville, and had the pleasure of hosting “50 Conversations,” an interactive, fast-paced exercise to connect and learn from innovators who grapple with many of the same challenges.

Innovation Speed Dating

To disrupt the traditional conference panel format, we recruited 20 innovation leaders from around the world – many of them i-team directors participating in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program – for a round of discussion, speed dating style, on five topics. That meant 50 conversations in just under an hour, covering how to define problems, how to best design solutions, and the joys and pitfalls of trying new things. In each round, innovation leaders were seated at tables in pairs for their “dates.” Summit attendees got to be voyeurs, listening in on the conversations of their choice to learn how they could bring innovation to their cities.

Here are some highlights:

Innovators do not start with solutions. Responsive solutions only follow from a deep and thorough understanding of the problem at hand. We asked the daters how they work to understand the problems they’re tackling: 

  • “We question everything. We don’t accept ‘this is how it’s done’ as an answer.” Sharone April, Innovation Team Director, Jerusalem, Israel 
  • “Curiosity is key – asking questions of everyone from senior leadership to frontline staff helps to unearth insights that build our understanding of problems we want to solve.” Tina Walha, Innovation Team Director, Seattle, Washington
  • “The most valuable sharing happens after the meetings, in the hallways. You have to plan for the unexpected as part of your process.” Santiago Garces, Chief Innovation Officer, South Bend, Indiana

Innovators are willing to take risks – to try new approaches and challenge existing assumptions. They iterate and test ideas quickly so that when failure happens, it happens fast, and they can refine and try again. We asked the daters what they’ve learned from failure:

  • “Don’t go where they don’t want you.” Brian Elms, Director of Peak Academy and Analytics, Denver, Colorado
  • “We attempted to do the right thing and we had the data, but we failed to tell the story and engage the people.” Justin Bruce, Director of Innovation & Performance, Jackson, Mississippi
  • “The key stakeholder hadn’t actually bought in – we were being stalled. We need real milestones where the partners deliver something to show that they have skin in the game.” Justin Entzminger, Director, Innovate Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee

 Innovators look outward. Their task is not to talk only to themselves and come up with something new and smart. Innovation teams look outside of city government – residents and community organizations have important insights to share that can both shape the definition of problems and strengthen the solutions. Innovation teams look outside of their city – other cities around the world may have wrestled with similar challenges and already developed solutions. We asked the daters how they engage with residents and peers:

 “By any means possible… For us, data is the foundation, but it doesn’t move people to action. Creative storytelling is how you get people engaged.” Nigel Jacob, Co-Director, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston, Massachusetts

  • “Find unexpected ways to engage. We’re taking city hall to the grocery store, the dry cleaners, the bar.” Julie Rusk, Assistant Director for Community & Cultural Services, Santa Monica, California
  • “It isn’t about social media. It’s about one on one engagement, in person…true engagement requires a back and forth and human interaction.” Daniel Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, Maryland
  • “Make room for yourself to travel and visit to watch and learn. Don’t feel guilty about it.” Nicole Pollock, Chief Policy and Innovation Officer, Providence, Rhode Island

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program began with five cities in the United States, and has grown to nearly 20 cities around the world. We’re excited to bring these lessons from the front lines to even more cities as the program continues to grow.