5 Things Digital Cities Get Right

Katherine Oliver
May 21, 2015 · 6 min read

Last Friday I had the chance to participate in a conversation looking at how local government can support the tech sector at the Digital Beltway conference, hosted by Mashable & the UN Foundation, at the Newseum in Washington DC. I was joined by colleagues in the field: Ashley Hand, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Kansas City, MO, & Peter Marx, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Los Angeles, CA. I walked away with a stronger conviction than ever that cities have the opportunity to harness technology to better serve citizens, support local innovation and economic development. As I see it there are 5 principles, many of them prevailing wisdom borrowed from the private sector, behind the successes we’re seeing in digital cities across the country and the globe.

1. Work Like a Start-up

Today’s tech start-ups are built on the premise that they can identify problems and design solutions in a nimble and adaptive way. Innovation is in their DNA. Digital cities bring that approach to City Hall.

Peter Marx’s hometown of Los Angeles (and where he currently serves as the city’s CTO)– is perhaps best known for its sunny weather, Hollywood and its car culture. The technology of Waze provides a new set of tools for longstanding challenges. To address street congestion, Mayor Garcetti recently announced a new data-sharing agreement between the city & WAZE, Google’s traffic and navigation app. The city will provide data on road closures, construction, safety hazards and blocked streets to the app to help residents better navigate the streets. With the WAZE partnership, the City of Los Angeles identified an existing technology being used by citizens and figured out a way to use it to create real time solutions to make it easier to get from point A to point B.

2. Think Like a Business — Don’t Underestimate Customer Service and Marketing

Running a government is quite similar to running a business in certain respects: the tenets of customer service and the ability to market and promote your brand are fundamental to success in both instances.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City was run like a business: focused on customer service, efficiencies in government and ways to attract and retain business and support local residents. In my capacity as Commissioner of Media & Entertainment our approach was also about marketing and promoting the city’s strengths in new ways. And by 2011 this meant celebrating the city’s growing tech sector.

Through the “We are Made in NY” branding campaign (an expansion of the Made in NY program), we created a brand for the community to embrace and a way for people to connect with resources at all levels of the digital ecosystem. We created an interactive map that pinpointed where start-ups were located across the city and highlighted the companies actively hiring, underscoring the economic impact of this growing sector.

Our demonstrated commitment to the tech sector helped foster public-private partnerships designed to create a sustainable tech ecosystem with the talent to fuel a growing digital city. Cornell Tech, a new applied sciences graduate school to be built on Roosevelt Island and the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, an incubator and co-working space based in Brooklyn are prime examples of this approach.

By getting to know our customers, or constituents, as we think of them in government, developing strategies to foster new business, and telling our story in a clear and compelling way, we applied business best practices to government. And the results are in the numbers, by the end of the Bloomberg administration, over 250,000 New Yorkers were employed in the tech industries.

3. See Government as a Platform for Entrepreneurship

Civic participation is key to fostering more livable, sustainable, inclusive and vibrant cities. A digital city creates a welcoming environment for citizen engagement.

Like the LA/WAZE example mentioned above, digital cities today are opening up their data — literally — for use by the public and private sector to improve the lives of residents. Open data platforms and city supported hackathons invite a city’s creative and tech savvy community to come up with solutions for a city’s most pressing challenges.

Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad embodies these ideals perfectly as they function, in their own words, as “the city’s space for rethinking, reimagining, and reinventing the way citizens and government can work together towards a more open, more livable and more imaginative city.” Their recent Hack CDMX drew over 500 technologists, entrepreneurs, data experts and city leaders together for a weekend of civic innovation, app development and thoughtful conversation about how the government and civil society can partner to further support innovation.

4. Know That Innovation Doesn’t Require a lot of Resources

The old adage rings true — less can indeed be more. And as change and innovation increasingly takes root at the local level, it’s essential for cities to find low cost ways to foster innovation with existing resources. Cities that accept this and adapt will excel. Digital cities go one step further — and put an increased focus on using digital tools to improve government.

Ashley Hand (Chief Innovation Officer, City of Kansas City) spoke candidly about the need to work with limited resources to drive the innovation strategy for Kansas City, and she’s found real and practical ways to do this.

This past February, Ashley’s team worked with her colleagues on the city’s communications team to organize the first ever KC Digital Lab, a half-day digital communications summit for city employees and partner organizations to share best practices, highlight recent successes and learn from industry partners. The event was a tremendous success leading to the launch of Kansas City’s SMART (Social Media Advisory & Research Taskforce), the creation of an online social media intranet hub for city communications staff and the launch of Kansas City’s first Digital Roadmap.

By creating forums for inter-agency collaboration and digital learning from the city’s own social media leaders, the city is leveraging existing resources to ensure a cohesive and strategic citywide approach to digital communications.

5. Hire “Techies”

80% of the expense structure for start-ups goes to talent. There’s a reason for that. When you’re looking to be a leader in innovation and create new ways of doing things, you need to invest in talent. The same goes for infusing innovation, developing new platforms and crafting a digital strategy for a city. Start by attracting talent to work with your city.

While government employment can’t compete with the salaries of the private sector, government service offers the potential to make lasting change, positively impact people’s lives and give back to your city in tangible ways. And that’s a compelling argument.

We need techies to help us build digital cities from the inside out. It’s with this in mind that Megan Smith, White House CTO, made an appeal to the tech community: “Techies should join government.” In addition to advising President Obama on his technology policy, Megan promotes and encourages “techie” talent to join the United States Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. In a recent interview with WIRED, Megan asks “if we’re the country that makes Amazon and Facebook and Twitter, why can’t the federal government have websites and digital services that are awesome?”

It’s a question worth asking at all levels of government. I think we’ll increasingly see the answers can be found in the digital cities who are leading the way.

Article a creative collaboration with Shaina Horowitz

About the Author: Driven by the potential for media and technology to redefine the way we communicate and approach economic development for cities, citizens, and businesses, Katherine’s ideas are guided by decades of experience in the private and public sector. Based in New York, she currently serves as a principal ofBloomberg Associates.

Katherine Oliver

Written by

Principal at Bloomberg Associates, former Commissioner of NYC’s Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment, Executive Producer, & host at Bloomberg Radio

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