Meet a Changemaker: Danielle J. Harris at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
The San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation is kicking off a new series called “Meet a Changemaker” to highlight and celebrate innovators who apply creative approaches to civic challenges and help build a culture of innovation in the public sector. Meet Danielle J. Harris, Innovation Strategist at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).
Can you briefly describe your role?
My role in the SFMTA Office of Innovation is ever-evolving. Initially, my role was to figure out how to address street impacts caused by emerging mobility like ridehail services, autonomous vehicles, and dockless bikeshare. While working on those challenges, I quickly realized that there are some adaptations that need to happen within SFMTA in order to maintain its role as the steward of ground transportation and primary provider of public transit. And that’s the other hat I wear — working with teams in the Agency to figure out what their challenges are and how we can address those while also being relevant to the changing mobility landscape.
What does civic innovation mean to you?
Civic innovation is a renewed commitment to solving big problems, especially social and public challenges that usually fall into the “tragedy of the commons” category. It’s a decision to not just pacify these big problems, but to really address and solve the root cause.
Civic innovation also means taking an unconventional approach by bringing more people to the table. For me, what you get from people is always going to be richer than what you get from data. So I talk with the station agents, parking control officers, transit operators, etc. who give me such a richness of what the problems are on the street and their day-to-day, to help provide a 360 degree view on the issues that inform our strategies.
What are some important projects you’re working on and how are you applying innovative approaches?
Creating an innovative runway. In order to be more flexible and make quick decisions, I’m adapting existing internal functions at SFMTA to create an innovative runway for my office’s (sometimes) harebrained ideas to take flight. This means sitting in on existing meetings to build knowledge and trust around our strategy proposals. To build a cultural adoption of innovation, we’re also working to formalize an incubator where colleagues can live in our office for a short stint to work on specific problems and create scalable solutions.
Designing an alternative to disruptive disruption. This is in response to the fire drill we’re forced to do when a new “toy” deploys on our streets as well as the public and company frustrations around our mobility permits. I think it’s great that mobility companies are trying new things and want to put transportation devices out there to see if it’s viable. However rather than quickly deploying something on our streets, whether it’s pogo sticks or hoverboards, SFMTA wants to be at the companies’ product design table to learn and gather insights in order to create more informed policies, especially in terms of mobility permits.
Leading a courier network services study. We want to be proactive, not reactive. This study is to understand the potential and impact of the courier services network, especially restaurant delivery apps. This is so that we can be prepared and look for reasonable ways to reduce potential negative impacts, like traffic congestion on the transportation network, while ensuring we cultivate a new means of economic vitality for restaurants in our diverse neighborhood commercial districts.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced?
It can be difficult to convince different departments to invest in innovative approaches to tackle civic challenges in a rapidly changing world. So a lot of what we do is work with other City staff and build them as champions to preach our gospel to city leadership.
Another challenge is reaching across the aisle to garner political support for civic innovation. Civic innovation is not something that’s easy to make the political argument for, so I’m forever grateful to the late Mayor Lee for pushing forward innovative initiatives in SFMTA, like US Department of Transportation Smart Cities Challenges, pilots with Uber and Lyft, and partnerships with the World Economic Forum.
Civic innovation requires success in order to maintain budgetary buy-in. We have to demonstrate measurable progress towards solving goals. But it also requires a willingness to be wrong and make mistakes because that’s how we learn. Balancing these two polarities is a top priority. You have to be able to pivot, be resilient, stay optimistic, and maintain team morale. It’s not only a lot of technical work, but a lot of emotional work as well.
Any advice for civic innovators?
It’s always about people. A lot of people think innovation is about technology, but technology is a tool. People are the keys to your solution and your ability to connect the dots of a broad diversity of people is what’s going to formulize the solution. You can’t offer solutions to people unless you’re willing to listen and understand their problems.
Be solution-oriented. It’s easy to focus on the problem that’s right in front of you, but I channel Maxine Waters or Olivia Pope and always ask “What do you want?” I need people to be able to define their desired outcomes because that’s the first step in finding a solution. I need to know what we are aiming for.
Be curious about everything. My intern is always laughing at me because I’m talking about Esther Perel’s “State of Affairs” while talking about the movie, Minority Report, while talking about what’s happening on the Senate floor — I’m inter-relating all of these things all the time. Innovation is often about things that have never been done before, so you have to draw examples from other places. And really, the more diverse they are, the better your strategies will be.
Measure, measure, measure. Use KPIs. We may not have gotten everything solved, but did we demonstrate progress towards the objective?
All civic innovators need self-care plans. Take care of yourself first. Part of that is finding your fellow innovators. Whenever I see my fellow SF civic innovators, I’m always so happy and we’re like, “Yes! You understand!” They give me a renewed energy and a ton of great ideas and experiences to draw from.
About the Office of Innovation in San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
The Office of Innovation develops the agency’s forward-looking approach to emerging mobility services and technologies.
The role of the Office of Innovation is to facilitate alignment between emerging mobility and San Francisco’s goal for a safe, equitable and sustainable transportation system. The subdivision builds relationships with the private sector to address emerging mobility impacts and to explore opportunities for collaboration.
San Francisco has long been the center of innovation and the early adoption of new modes of mobility. The SFMTA’s Office of Innovation is responsible for laying the groundwork to ensure that San Francisco can appropriately respond to and prepare for new mobility services and technologies.
Since the group’s formation in 2015, it has helped develop and establish multiple pilot, permits and programs, sharing San Francisco’s experience with other cities internationally. Read more here.