Engines of Civic Entrepreneurship

Clever ways cities are turning civic enthusiasm into meaningful civic action and entrepreneurship

abhi nemani
Feb 4, 2016 · 7 min read

It was the French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, that noted that in our American democracy our imagined lines between private and public lives were too crude, too strict, for reality. What he saw when he documented the early days of our young republic was a society, structured around small towns and bristling with associations of all kinds: political, civic, social, etc. Where there had been fires, a volunteer brigade was congealed to respond to future disasters; where bridges needed to be built, teams of people came together to get to work. Associative — or community — life in America was everywhere, and it was not one defined by ego or fancy; instead, by common need and collective resolve.

America was, in its own way, entrepreneurial.

While much has changed since then — fire departments are no longer volunteer run, and Public Works maintains our roads and bridges — the core idea remains. In a democracy, when people come together, they can do great things, inside government and out. In the past, citizens stepped up where government had not. Now, thanks to new tools and technologies, we are seeing a deeper level of collaboration. We are seeing citizens and their public representatives work together to find the best way to meet the needs of their community, to strengthen them, and to define a new kind of entrepreneurship for the 21st century: one that is decidedly civic, and biased towards innovation.

7 Tactics for Fostering 21st Century Civic Life

Taking a look across the country, you can see a wide range of tactics and approaches to tapping into this new opportunity for innovation. A few, though, common themes have emerged. Below is a working list of some tactics (I repeat: some — this is very much something I hope to continue to add to) clever cities and the communities within them have proven to be effective:

“This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” — Steven B. Johnson

The civic technology space stands apart from other sectors in a meaningful way: more often than not, it’s not zero sum. Cities are not competitive with each other, and usually, civic organizations, entrepreneurs, or startups in a city are not either. Collaboration, thus, is not only acceptable, but encouraged. For that collaboration to happen, density, and the random connections it enables, is crucial. Good people need good places to come together.

  1. Co-working / Maker Spaces: 1871 (Chicago), Civic Hall (NYC), Ctrl Collective (LA)
  2. Meetups: 1 Million Cups (Kansas City)
  3. Hackathons / Weekly Hack Nights: Chicago, LA, SF, etc

“Silicon Valley has evolved a critical mass of engineers and venture capitalists and all the support structure — the law firms, the real estate, all that — that are all actually geared toward being accepting of startups.” — Elon Musk

But increasingly, it’s not just Silicon Valley that has that support structure. Cities across the country are leveraging their unique assets, be it their local industry, historic philanthropic base, or even young angel investors, to amass capital resources for new entrepreneurs. And even going beyond writing checks by supporting homegrown startups with advice, mentorship, and connections.

  1. VC / Institutional Funding: Arch Angels (STL); Goldhirsh Foundation (LA); Awesome Foundation, GovTech Fund (various cities)
  2. Private sponsorship: Socrata (Seattle), Azavea (Philadelphia)
  3. Local Accelerators / Incubators: Impact Hub (various cities), 1776 (DC), Smart Chicago Collaborative, TechStars (various cities)
  4. New (crowdsourced) models of local financing: Neighborly

“The major fault line in the 21st century is not between right or left, but between open or closed.” — Alec J. Ross [my emphasis]

A different kind of “revolving door” is emerging in cities across the country: instead of city officials leaving City Hall permanently for private sector employment, they are stepping out for a few hours to attend a local meet-up, or inviting civic innovators inside to get a real look at civic challenges.

  1. Connections to city hall: Active Chief Innovation/Technology Officers, FastFWD (Philadelphia), Entrepreneur-in-Residence (SF, Boston & LA)
  2. Civic Internships / Fellowships: Mayor’s Innovation Fellowship (SF), Code for America Fellowship (various cities)

“…what I see cities and metropolitan areas doing now is beginning to focus on the fundamentalsdo you have the skilled workers and collaboration between universities and companies and entrepreneurs and labor unions so that you can really compete and prosper…?” — Bruce Katz

“If you build it, they will come,” the saying goes. Not exactly. Hackerspaces and fellowship programs are only as good as the people you get inside them. That’s why cities are investing deeply in their local intellectual “capital” — fostering talented entrepreneurs and then encouraging them to stay and use their talents in their city.

  1. Local universities, community colleges, or schools: Cornell Tech (NYC), CUSP (NYC), Harris School of Public Policy (Chicago)
  2. Tech trainings / skill shares: Girls Who Code, RailsBridge, Library digital literacy programs (all in multiple cities)

Speculating on motivations can be a dicey game, particularly when you start to intermingle civic and commercial interests. It’s easy to think that entrepreneurs getting into the civic space are motivated by cash, and cash alone. But as so many cities have shown, there are ways to engage, encourage, and mobilize entreprenuers without putting dollars up. Let them know that the city is behind them, that the city supports them, and that they are helping their city. Leverage the city’s voice as capital, its bully pulpit.

  1. Media: Technical.ly (Philadelphia, DC, etc)
  2. Contests: NYC Big Apps, LA2050, OpenDataRace (Philadelphia)
  3. Mayoral / Celebrity recognition: Hack for LA & I.am.Angel Foundation, Mayor’s participation in hackathons (multiple cities)

You see, greatness for a state doesn’t require some huge monument for all to see. It is not a journey to a particular destination — but a commitment to follow a course of constant and never-ending improvement.” — Sonny Perdue

Before there were town halls and public parks where citizens would congregate; those still exist, to be sure, but the conversation has moved. Online. (In large part.) What’s needed then is investment in new kinds of civic infrastructure to facilitate participation — both big and small — in our digital age.

  1. Civic Apps with Community Engagement: City Answers & Write-a-thons; LocalWiki; Textizen; Remix; Madison by OpenGov Foundation
  2. Open data

“…government of the people, by the people, and for the people..” — Lincoln

As new tools and interfaces emerge in the civic space, there’s always the tendency towards the new and shiny. This not only undermines the value of established groups and institutions, but misses the point entirely of the purpose of civic life — to be of and by the people. That’s why we’re seeing really smart cities build for inclusion, be it through relying on billboards or bus stops to get the word out, or knocking on doors to get user feedback, or connecting to existing networks of citizens and empowering them with new means for their central goals. These clever cities are connecting the digital and the analog to get the job done.

  1. On-the-ground, continuous feedback: Civic User Testing Group (Chicago)
  2. Ongoing outreach / user engagement: NYC311 (physical ads), City Hall to Go (Boston)
  3. Existing community organizations: LISC (Chicago), Neighborhood Councils (LA), CfA Brigades

As stated, this is a working list of themes and tactics (which is arguably a bit dated, given the pace of change in the field, and certainly biased towards the cities I’ve worked with). Please share your ideas, comments, or edits. — AN

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Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones, Botham Jean

abhi nemani

Written by

tech optimist and political phil nerd. hacker, writer & maker: http://EthosLabs.us. fmr CDO, @lamayorsoffice; @google; @codeforamerica. http://abhinemani.com


Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones, Botham Jean

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