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Elle Hempen

Co-Founder of The Atlas. I’m big on cities, infrastructure, reducing inefficiency, helping urban innovators succeed & the Michigan Wolverines.

Created: Thursday, February 7, 2019 | Updated: Monday, April 8, 2019

Buzzword Bingo: Why Cities and Govtech Startups Talk Past Each Other

The Setting:

The expo floor of a smart cities conference in a U.S. city with a lively tech scene.

The Cast:

A govtech startup CEO in his late-20s; trained in computer science and mechanical engineering, successful stints in management consulting in Boston and San Francisco; little or no prior experience in government.

A city official in his mid-fifties; trained in civil engineering and project management; has held leadership positions in several mid-sized Midwestern municipalities over the last 25 years.

The Conversation:

City Official: In your presentation earlier you mentioned your TAM. I’m pretty sure you weren’t talking about a Time & Materials contract. [Laughs]

CEO: Oh, I was talking about our total accessible market.

City Official: So, what is it that your company does exactly?

CEO: We have a cloud-computing platform that collects big data….everything is displayed in a dashboard to help you make smarter decisions about everything and save you lots of time and money in the long run.

[Long pause]

City Official: I wish we were playing buzzword bingo. Because if we were, I would’ve just won!

We dare you. Print it out and bring it to your next conference. Let us know if you win!
We dare you. Print it out and bring it to your next conference. Let us know if you win!

Buzzwords. To start-ups and their investors, they represent billion-dollar markets. But to city officials trying to figure out how to decrease commute times or make sure citizens can afford their water bills, they represent confusion and frustration.

This conversation (fictional, but based off of hundreds of real conversations we’ve witnessed) exemplifies so many of the divides between cities and govtech companies that make it difficult for them to work together to solve problems — geography, academic discipline, age, and experience.

A technology that comes off as cutting edge and exciting to an average person likely sounds risky and expensive to local government staff. When a company offers to revenue-share with a city, they think it sounds like a no-brainer. But a city employee immediately thinks about the time and energy it will take to get that type of contract approved by their city council and lawyers.

Cities and startups talking past each other would be funny in a “Who’s on First?” kind of way, if the consequences of miscommunication weren’t so severe. With aging and failing infrastructure systems in dire need of repair, a changing climate, and citizens demanding governments deliver services with businesslike efficiency, cities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make big improvements. Many city officials have recognized that, and are actively looking for new solutions, new business models and new partners.

But even with political momentum on their side, most cities are still buying the same old stuff they know, designed and built by the same old, big firms they’ve always worked with, rather than leapfrogging to the modern infrastructure and social service solutions innovators and entrepreneurs are developing every day.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and we, as taxpayers and residents, can’t afford for things to be this way much longer. We need the world’s best and brightest working collaboratively to solve the toughest problems facing our cities.

Govtech companies have to get past their own buzzwords and instead, communicate the value they provide to citizens. It’s only then that they’ll break into prized municipal markets. On the flip side, cities need to break out of outdated processes and instead, seek ways to pursue new ideas, technologies and partnerships. It’s only then that they’ll be the kinds of places that people want to live, work, learn, commute, engage, build and play.

So, we’re calling all city officials and corporate innovators, policymakers and entrepreneurs, wonks and nerds: help us build The Atlas!

The Atlas is a (free!) online community for city officials to share their success stories, learn about what’s working in other cities and build relationships with partners. The Atlas is accelerating the exchange of ideas about all of the things that make urban innovation a reality — design, policy, community engagement, internal process management, funding and financing, procurement, public-private partnerships, social entrepreneurship, and using technology to improve city services.

Cool new way your neighborhood is using food waste to generate sustainable energy? We want to hear about it. Just launched a collaboration between your city and local startup to improve transit access? Send it our way. Did your college roommate just become a social entrepreneur? Introduce us.

There are two main ground rules on The Atlas:

  1. Use only plain language. Anything jargon or buzzword heavy is not allowed.
  2. Keep an eye on outcomes, replicability and scalability. We want to know how other cities and govtech companies can recreate the successes — or avoid the pitfalls — you’re describing.

Real innovation doesn’t need buzzwords. Technocrats, bureaucrats, and anyone with a bold idea for changing the way cities and govtech companies can work together to modernize our cities is welcome. Come and join our jargon free zone!