Back to Library » Smart City » Cities, AKA laboratories of innovation
Ellory Monks

Co-Founder of @TheAtlas4Cities. Yes: infrastructure, cities, environment. Also: USMC, real food, women engineers, Rice University. No thanks: running.

Created: Wednesday, January 23, 2019 | Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Cities, AKA laboratories of innovation

When Mayor Roberts from Charlotte, North Carolina said today, “let cities be cities…the laboratories of innovation!” we almost jumped out of our seats cheering. Cities are creatively addressing our nation’s most important problems: inequality, mobility, climate change. This is especially impressive when you consider that cities don’t have much—if any—room to fail, and experts agree that ability to experiment is a key driver of innovation. Can you imagine a mayor explaining to her constituents that a day-long disruption of an important city service, say a mass-transit line, was because the city was experimenting with a new technology to streamline payment and collect ridership data? Of course not. That’s because all day and every day, cities provide essential services like clean water, efficient transportation, and emergency services, and citizens are rightfully outraged when there’s a disruption or degradation of one of these city services that impacts their daily lives.

For many cities, it’s a challenge to balance the need to consistently deliver essential services with fostering a culture of experimentation, improvement and innovation.

Cities are balancing essential needs of citizens with the desire for innovation.
Cities are balancing essential needs of citizens with the desire for innovation.

Today, as a part of Infrastructure Week, Bloomberg Live brought together mayors from six cities in the United States that are truly leading the way towards making our cities smarter, stronger and more sustainable. In each of their cities, they’ve figured out ways to foster cultures of innovation, despite not having much room for failure. Their wide-ranging conversation included a discussion of innovation and the role of experimentation in their cities. Here are some of the thoughts we found particularly insightful:

  • Mayor Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.) stressed that citizens—especially millennials—want to live in cities that are constantly improving and changing for the better.
  • Mayor Jon Mitchell (New Bedford, MA) explained that they are creating an “ethos of innovation.” He explained that as a historically industrial city, it is especially important to be seen as a test bed for new ideas and technologies.
  • Mayor Andrew Ginther (Columbus, OH) pointed to the importance of partnering with local universities and discussed their successful partnership with Ohio State University on neighborhood revitalization efforts.
  • Mayor Jennifer Roberts (Charlotte, NC) had the group laughing when she jokingly suggested calling everything a “pilot.” In all seriousness though, she explained the importance of using pilot projects to help avoid the fear of rapid change, and of making sure not to leave low-income neighborhoods out if they want to participate.
  • Mayor Michael Hancock (Denver, CO) discussed the importance of smart cities data and how that data can be used to understand project impacts and communicate those impacts to communities.
  • Mayor Megan Barry (Nashville, TN) flipped an old saying on its head when she said she’s fostering a culture of “Yes in My Backyard.” She stressed how important it is to get to yes – whether that’s for mixed income neighborhoods or diverse schools.

These mayors lead cities that are shining examples of the power technology has to address some of the toughest, most complicated problems out there, and we can’t wait to learn more from them about specific ways cities can encourage innovation as Infrastructure Week continues.

For those of you who work for or with cities:

Do you think cities need the ability to experiment in order to creatively solve problems? How can we make sure that cities are learning from the cities that are the first (or second, third) to experiment with a particular solution?

In our minds, streamlining city-to-city learning is key to scaling and replicating the best, most innovative solutions.