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Five Tips for City Innovators

By Tommy Pacello, Director, Mayor’s Innovation Team, Memphis

Innovation at the city level is vital for long-term growth and stability, but developing bold solutions to big urban challenges requires a devotion to process and partnership and strong leadership that is willing to try something new. I didn’t fully understand the difficulty of this until I had the opportunity to serve on a team dedicated to taking on tough city issues using a new approach.

As one of five pilot cities in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program, the Memphis i-team was one of the first groups tasked with injecting the innovation process into how local government made decisions and delivered services.  Using the Innovation Delivery approach, the i-team provided management and engagement strategies to help Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. address important issues that cross multiple departments and overcome silos. We used this approach to develop and implement targeted, effective programs that addressed two of Memphis’s toughest challenges: reducing gun violence and revitalizing economically-depressed neighborhoods.

This week, I had the pleasure of joining 14 incoming Innovation Team directors for a meeting in New York City to kick off their efforts to tackle each city’s biggest challenges.  Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a timely $45 million expansion to the program – added support to city managers inside and outside of the U.S. who are curious about how innovation can impact their communities.

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With the Innovation Teams program ramping up again, I’ve started reflecting on what I have learned as a city innovator. Here are five tips for those working to break down barriers, create real change and deliver measurable results.

  1. Activate the community
    Residents are the experts on their neighborhood. Ignoring them deprives you of a critical partner in both idea generation and adoption. We saw firsthand the tremendous pride Memphians have in their communities and their strong ideas on how to revitalize neighborhoods. MemFix, an Innovation Team initiative, was created to provide a way for local government to support and learn from resident-led efforts to transform their neighborhoods.
  2. Numbers are your friend
    When faced with limited time and resources, city innovators must find ways to work smarter. Conducting a deep dive into the data ensures your efforts are accurately focused and targeting the right areas.  In Memphis, we used data to help advocate for smarter crime prevention efforts like Memphis Gun Down. Instead of blindly demanding more police without an actionable goal, we were able to point to statistics and research that made the case for us.
  3. Break down the silos
    City Halls, community groups, and NGOs can be extremely siloed – employees are often focused on the issues directly in front of them. An open process for sharing ideation, progress, information, and data is extremely important to bringing disparate, but vitally important partners together on issues that require cooperation. One of the five pillars of Memphis Gun Down, Community Mobilization, hinged on our ability to mobilize police officers, gang-prevention team members, faith-based leaders and others to advance the dialogue on gun violence and share the message with the community.
  4. Don’t forget the importance of project management
    One of the underrated factors to success for any city innovator is effective project management. Operating within a structured, open environment that allows wide involvement but also ensures accountability means that deadlines will be met and progress will be made. The Innovation Delivery approach provides structured tools and techniques for working with partners to manage projects and deliver results. Check out the Innovation Team Playbook to learn more.
  5. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel
    Memphis is just one of numerous cities providing a blueprint of how to tackle civic issues head on, and the resulting network of knowledge and best practices is expanding daily. If the innovation process is new to you, seek out partners. In Memphis we worked with the FedEx Innovation Team as coaches, and they provided valuable insight early in our tenure. From Bloomberg Philanthropies to NESTA to Google, i-teams should explore and tap into insights generated around the world!

Innovation in city hall can seem daunting at the start. But armed with the right approach and tools, the commitment of your mayor and the focus of delivering better results for your residents, city innovators can achieve success.