It’s taken me a long time to write this because it’s been hard to say goodbye. I began this letter on my last day, three-weeks ago, as Deputy Innovation Officer and it made me remember my first day. I wore a black suit with black heels and nervously walked into City Hall. Once inside, I had an internal debate about if I should, or was even allowed, to walk up the grand staircase. I did and with each step, I considered all the possible reasons why I deserved to feel so proud.
When Jay and I founded the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, we were a team of two without a budget, we would joke that we were a startup within government—but the reality was, we were. Our constrained resources forced us to look towards bringing startup methods into government—we iterated policymaking, integrated users into the feedback loop, and fought hard to disrupt incumbents.
These tactics helped us achieve great outcomes, an Open Data program that has inspired public and private sectors from cities around the world, hacking our streets with Living Innovation Zones, opposition to SOPA/PIPA, an Entrepreneurship-In-Residence program, and most recently, efforts to make micro-entrepreneurship accessible to low-income communities.
Making government agile and able to take risks was a bold idea and luckily we weren’t alone—we had great partners such as Code for America and SF.CITI, along with other cities such as Boston, Philly, and Chicago. The White House and the President’s Innovation Fellows were pushing at the Federal level, people wanted to be engaged, and startups were learning how to navigate the complicated government procurement process. All signs pointed to a movement—Civic Innovation is what it came to be called, and how exciting it was to be a part of it.
The Civic Innovation movement requires the public sector, the private sector and the “people sector” to work together in new ways—and we have demonstrated that there is market demand and opportunity for it. The “people sector” refers to people being producers of solutions, rather than only consumers. I am not suggesting that this work is done, in fact, it’s only beginning, but we have built a strong foundation for this movement to grow.
It is fitting that San Francisco play such a big role in the civic innovation movement—this is what our city does, it breeds entrepreneurs who ask different questions about the world. From Levi Strauss, the City’s pioneer entrepreneur, who during the gold rush didn’t seek gold in mines, but rather, in the goldminers themselves by clothing them, to today’s sharing economy, which doesn’t ask how to make a faster, smaller, cheaper car, but rather, how to transform a car from a product into a service. This is innovation at its finest, the transformative kind that creates new users, new markets, and new ways of believing. The kind that demands we ask different questions to get different answers.
I don’t pretend to know the truth about San Francisco. But there are the facts and then there are the experiences—sometimes these experiences are told as stories, and some of these stories become legends—and, on a rare and special occasion, these legends, as Salmon Rushdie says, “become more useful than facts.” This is how I have come to understand San Francisco, as a legend that sits somewhere behind reality and in front of real-life—an illogical city, where the impossible happens on a regular basis.
This is why people come here, because even while cities around the world are homogenized through globalization, San Francisco city government fights hard to maintain it’s special blend of madness and optimism because these are the magic materials of change, and Mayor Lee creating a place for innovation in his administration reminds us of our city’s commitment to this.
Working for city government during the federal government shutdown in 2013, and a year before, in 2012, when the deadline for a revised Kyoto treaty wasn’t met, highlighted the power and potential for City government to lead when other levels of government were failing. Cities are the laboratories of societal-scale change.
Cities are where human achievement shines brightest—the petri dishes of our dreams, and the incubators of social and economic mobility—cities are always remaking themselves and are the triumph of human ingenuity.
While it’s true that all cities are always changing and adapting, San Francisco is exceptional because it doesn’t just adapt, instead it pushes us, sometimes beyond our comfort zones, to find new ways to live, work, learn and play—remember when the Mayor adapted the entire City to the dream of a 5-year old boy who wanted to be Batman?
I had the privilege of pursuing my life project, to decentralize power by enabling communities with tools and knowledge, as the Deputy Innovation Officer of this amazing City. Little could have pulled me away from this, but I was offered an opportunity to scale this work with Planet Labs, a local space tech startup, yes really, SPACE! and I could only, excitedly, accept. Having a platform to empower communities on a planetary scale cannot be denied as anything short of an awesome next step to pursue this mission! More on this later…
To Jay, my team, my colleagues, and everyone I had the opportunity to work with and serve, I have learned a lot and have been inspired every single day.
It has been an honor. Thank you.
Goodbye for now, though I won’t be far away, I will continue pushing the Civic Innovation movement forward, just from the private and people sectors now.