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Ellory Monks

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

Created: Thursday, February 21, 2019 | Updated: Monday, April 8, 2019

Harvard Innovation Accelerator Takeaways

Last week, I participated in the Harvard University’s Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator in our hometown of San Diego. Twenty-seven cities participated alongside a small group of handpicked experts. The goal of the Harvard Innovation Accelerator was to help participating cities jumpstart action in adopting new technologies and new practices that drive awesome outcomes for their communities. Over the course of two days, we had a series of moderated table discussions that ranged from specific smart streetlight installations (check out San Diego’s here) to the organizational structures and roles of cities’ Chief Innovation Officers. In the spirit of sharing lessons learned efficiently and with the biggest audience possible, this post includes what resonated most with me.

Dr. David Ricketts (Harvard University) and David Graham (City of San Diego) kicking off the Harvard Innovation Accelerator in one of San Diego’s innovation spaces, Quartyard. PC: Alyssa Muto via Twitter.
Dr. David Ricketts (Harvard University) and David Graham (City of San Diego) kicking off the Harvard Innovation Accelerator in one of San Diego’s innovation spaces, Quartyard. PC: Alyssa Muto via Twitter.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

This is a famous saying in The United States Marine Corps (semper fi!). It came up over and over again throughout the two days of the Accelerator. In my mind, “keep the main thing the main thing” is a shorthand way of saying: Be clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and make sure that your actions always drive towards the goal you’ve set for yourself. This is so, so relevant to smart cities efforts, given that competing priorities and sometimes disparate interests can increase the risk of getting sidetracked. Defining “the main thing,” whether that’s always improving citizen engagement, making data-driven decisions, or reducing costs is the easy part for most cities. But ensuring all subsequent actions are in pursuit of that main thing can be much harder, as it requires tons of honesty, transparency, and the ability to sometimes say “no.”

Kip Harkness posted this photo from the Harvard Innovation Accelerator with this caption on Linkedin: “Smart Cities are powered by PEOPLE.” That’s my smiling face with Dolan Beckel (City of San Jose), by the way. PC: Kip Harkness.
Kip Harkness posted this photo from the Harvard Innovation Accelerator with this caption on Linkedin: “Smart Cities are powered by PEOPLE.” That’s my smiling face with Dolan Beckel (City of San Jose), by the way. PC: Kip Harkness.

 

Lead with the need.

This phrase initially came up during one of the very first working sessions, but it was woven throughout pretty much all conversations had at the Accelerator. We discussed how citizen-facing smart cities efforts — especially Internet of Things (IoT) efforts — should be bottom-up, not top-down. Ideally, all smart cities efforts begin with asking residents, in one way or another: what are the most significant problems in your day to day life that the city can improve by better use of data and technology? There was consensus that this phrase, “lead with the need,” and the upfront and ongoing, meaningful community engagement it reflects, is absolutely critical to ensuring that smart cities efforts are inclusive.

Never mind all of the insightful things written on the page, check out the view from the top floor of San Diego’s new library!
Never mind all of the insightful things written on the page, check out the view from the top floor of San Diego’s new library!

Cities should R&D (Rip-off & Duplicate).

Sadly, this phrase didn’t come up until the very last session of the Harvard Innovation Accelerator. I say sadly, because if it had come up earlier, I would have had time to make T-shirts that feature this phrase prominently. Missed opportunity.

Helping cities R&D (Rip-off & Duplicate) awesome projects is literally *the* reason we started The Atlas. Cities don’t have to be the first to be innovative — and they certainly don’t have to be first to drive incredible outcomes for citizens.

Cities must stop losing time recreating the wheel. There’s no reason to start from zero with every dockless bikeshare pilot or every water pipe leak detection installation. We must do a better job of sharing intangible things like lessons learned and practical things like RFPs and financing details too. And while solutions will always have to be tailored to local contexts — communities are all different, after all! — there are so many efficiencies to be had in R&D (Ripping-off & Duplicating).

Best ideas contest! This is Amie Thao from the City of Seattle presenting. No reason why cities shouldn’t R&D (rip-off & duplicate) the best ideas. PC: Kate Garman via Twitter.
Best ideas contest! This is Amie Thao from the City of Seattle presenting. No reason why cities shouldn’t R&D (rip-off & duplicate) the best ideas. PC: Kate Garman via Twitter.

Those are all specific takeaways, but here’s my main feeling coming out of last week: gratitude.

Gratitude that these government officials show up every day with an unwavering commitment to do things better for the citizens they serve. Gratitude that I frequently have the opportunity to meaningfully engage with those government officials…some of the smartest, most creative and most dedicated civil servants in the world. Gratitude that I have a job I love, where I have the chance to help so many of those same government officials replicate and scale proven urban innovations.