CityLab innovators to watch

Starting from the top row, from left to right: Shireen Santosham, Dan Hymowitz, Justine Simons, Matt Klein, Amanda Daflos, Terrance Smith, Danielle DuMerer

This week, more than 500 city leaders, innovators, and changemakers are in Detroit for CityLab. The global cities summit, now in its sixth year, is a forum for some of the world’s brightest minds to exchange ideas on urban innovation. Three dozen mayors from three continents are in attendance, along with business leaders, urban experts, artists, and activists.

This year’s crowd also includes a strong showing of senior staff from local governments, who are on the front lines of building a more innovative culture in their cities. Here are a handful to keep an eye on.

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Shireen Santosham, Chief Innovation Officer, San Jose, Calif.

As chief innovation officer in the Silicon Valley’s largest city, Shireen Santosham is keen to help industry make the switch to autonomous vehicles, or AVs. But rather than jump at the first opportunity to pilot the technology, she made sure the public’s interests were part of any tests. That’s why she organized a pair of roundtables for Mayor Sam Liccardo to meet with AV companies and other stakeholders. This gave the city a way to make sure that its goals, such as reducing traffic-related injuries and deaths, and making sure that AVs serve low-income and vulnerable residents, were prioritized in AV pilots. Now, Santosham is working to strike agreements with companies to ensure that the city gets access to data on the impact of the pilots. “Having that clear framework is important,” she told the National League of Cities. “In the absence of that, the city won’t be able to understand what it needs to get out of the public private partnership.”

Dan Hymowitz, Director, Mayor’s Office of Innovation, Baltimore

As head of Baltimore’s innovation team, Dan Hymowitz is leading an effort to address one of the city’s biggest challenges: police recruitment and hiring. For years, Baltimore’s police force has lost more officers than it’s gained — there are now 500 fewer sworn officers than in 2012. Hymowitz and his team, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, are working with the department and other partners on a number of initiatives to recruit and hire a new generation of officers for the city. Creating an online application form immediately boosted the number of candidates four-fold. The i-team also is working on breaking down barriers that have kept out otherwise qualified candidates. For example, after finding that more than half of women who apply to be officers fail the required fitness test, they helped build a bootcamp called “Fit to Serve” to help them pass. “This is something you can get better at,” Hymowitz told the Baltimore Sun. “You can train to pass the physical agility test.”

Justine Simons, Deputy Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries, London

London is already one of the world’s leading cultural capitals. Justine Simons’ job is not just to keep it that way — and help grow the $60 billion industry — but also to have London’s residents be a bigger part of the action. It’s a tough job in a city where rising rents are forcing out artists, music clubs, and even pubs, and some worry about a Brexit-induced brain drain. Simons is leading work on an ambitious culture strategy to build long-term support for arts institutions, creative industries, museums, nightclubs, community festivals, and more. At the same time, she’s building up cultural infrastructure in London’s neighborhoods with microgrants for grassroots projects and creating a competition among wards of the city to become London Borough of Culture.

Terrance Smith, Director, Mayor’s Innovation Team, Mobile, Ala.

Mobile’s innovation team came up with an innovative way to address blight when they began using Instagram’s photography and geo-tagging features to map crumbling and vacant properties. Now, under Terrance Smith’s leadership, they’re tackling the flip side of the issue: making it easier to build and renovate homes and businesses in the city. The city’s permitting process is so broken, Smith said, that it turns contractors away from taking jobs in Mobile. The i-team has been collaborating with staff in the different departments that play a role in the permitting process. After working through 13 versions of a new “process map,” they’re all on the same page about who does what and when. Now that the back-end systems are working better, the next step will be to make the streamlined permitting process more visible to the public. “Our hope is that by fixing blight and the permitting issues, it will lead to more businesses and homes being built in the city,” Smith said. “At the heart of it all, if you’re going to grow your city and have better services, you need to build a better foundation to stand on.”

Danielle DuMerer, Chief Information Officer, Chicago

Danielle DuMerer is not your usual City Hall technologist. She went to grad school for library science. But since joining the city of Chicago 10 years ago as an IT project manager and working her way up the ranks, her librarian’s orientation toward helping people find what they’re looking for has come in handy. That’s most visible in her quest to modernize the city’s 311 customer-service system. Although Chicago pioneered 311 back in the 1990s, its system now runs on antiquated technology. DuMerer is overhauling it to put it back Chicago back on the leading edge. Residents will be able to interact with the city via text messages, social media, mobile app, or voice, and also track the status of their requests and rate their satisfaction with the city’s response. “311 is really the point of entry for our residents, businesses, and visitors, to find information or request services from city government,” she said. “We’re going to build the system with Chicagoans for Chicagoans.”

Matt Klein, Executive Director, Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, New York City

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has set an ambitious goal of pulling 800,000 residents out of poverty by 2025. It’s Matt Klein’s job to work across city agencies and sectors to innovate around new strategies to do it, evaluate existing ones, and scale up programs that work. For example, the city doubled down on a community college program started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg when Klein’s team found that it had doubled graduation rates. Klein’s evidence-based approach works the other way, too. Another program, intended to boost educational outcomes for young adults in the criminal justice system, was ended when an evaluation by Klein’s office showed it wasn’t producing the desired results. “Too much of what we try we don’t know for sure if it works,” Klein said recently on the Champions for Social Good podcast. “We want to invest more in what does work and less in what doesn’t.”

Amanda Daflos, Director, Mayor’s Innovation Team, Los Angeles

When you look at how many projects Amanda Daflos and her innovation team have taken on in just three years, it’s enough to make your head spin. Their deep dive into the issue of housing and homelessness led to multiple initiatives, including an education campaign around tenants’ rights and a push to make it easier for homeowners to build backyard dwellings. Their exploration into recruiting a more diverse police force produced a cutting-edge social media campaign, a successful program to get more youth into the recruitment pipeline, and a chatbot to answer potential recruits’ questions online. The team also built an online portal to simplify the process of starting a business in the city, and put together an assembly to elevate opportunities for young women, among other projects.

Supporting all of it is a thorough and collaborative approach to researching problems and ideating and delivering solutions that Daflos and her team have honed over time. “We become intimately familiar with a process and its users from start to finish,” Daflos said. “And we build partnerships in departments and with the community to learn, listen, and hear from people who are experts. Then, we work together to launch solutions that are responsive to the subtle needs of users that we might not otherwise learn if we don’t listen.”