Challenges of Today, Ideas for Tomorrow

By Sara Draper-Zivetz & Ronda Jackson • February 25, 2014

This post originally appeared on Living Cities.

Last month, Living Cities and the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School hosted the eleventh convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI) in Cambridge, MA. More than twenty five of the country’s largest and most creative cities came together to share best practices and explore some of the most pressing challenges in city government today. The group of cities represented a diversity of geography, population, and tenure in the network, with several first-time city representatives and chiefs of staff for newly-elected mayors in attendance.

PMI members played both teacher and student, presenting models for innovation and best practices in one session, and then learning about a challenge peers tackled in other cities in the next session. Cities had the opportunity to dig deeper into five of their priority areas and most pressing challenges for 2014.

1. Growing Innovation in City Government

There is more than one model for driving innovation in the public sector and PMI cities are experimenting with several creative approaches. Tackling inefficient and dated operations of city government can be achieved by innovating around systems and technology. In Chicago and Austin, for example, they are investing heavily in data and analytics to improve government performance and metrics. A culture shift can also spark the change. In Denver, employees are the drivers of innovation and are being trained to identify and seize opportunities for improvement. In both approaches, the goals are better, faster, and cheaper results for city residents that create more systemic change in cities. In the conversation, city leaders recognized that these approaches are not mutually exclusive and that innovation must be custom-built. Only by tailoring an innovation delivery model to fit the unique needs, priorities, and existing structures in their city will leaders see transformative change and lasting results.

2. Building Cross-sector Partnerships to Disrupt Inequality in Cities

As the divide between rich and poor grow in cities, how is the philanthropic community partnering with the public sector to disrupt inequality? Representatives from several foundations and city governments shared promising models for cross-sector partnership. They reflected on the unique assets and challenges that each sector brings, discussed the opportunities and barriers to establishing a shared vision for addressing inequality, and explored what the possibilities might be for increased collaboration. A few key elements of effective partnerships emerged: 1) appropriately distributing and assuming risk among players from different sectors is challenging but critical; 2) ensuring mayoral alignment on particular goals is key to the sustainability of an effort; and 3) identifying and defining metrics of progress is central to propelling the partnership forward. These learnings mirror much of what we’re learning about the role of the public sector in othercollective impact efforts.

3. Addressing Blight and Vacant Properties

From Detroit to Baltimore, from Denver to Atlanta, blighted and vacant properties plague many neighborhoods and cities in the PMI network. The effect of vacancy goes far beyond unsightly buildings. Blight results in unsafe structures, increased rates of crime, lower property values for adjacent and nearby home and property owners, and a dramatic loss of revenue for city government. In discussing different cities’ approaches to addressing this issue, key themes included: 1) the need for improved information sharing and collaboration across city departments, including those departments that deal with code enforcement, tax collection, land banking, public health and safety, and land planning; 2) the central importance of community engagement, which is a source of both information and creative problem-solving; and 3) the potential for data and technology tools to intervene in these complex challenges.

4. Weighing and Exploring Regulatory Reform

Regulations ensure an orderly, predictable, and accountable system for a city’s marketplace. However, the regulation process - which includes permitting and licensing, compliance and monitoring - can often be unduly burdensome and have adverse effects on the individuals and businesses it may be designed to protect or support. As new business models (such as Airbnb, Uber, and others) emerge and spread, they are fundamentally reshaping the business landscape. Cities from New Orleans to New York are experimenting with and exploring typologies for how to approach reforms to regulation that encourage business growth and job creation, but protect consumers and cities - a challenging balance to strike.

5. Financing Downtown Revitalization

The vibrancy of America’s “main streets” continues to be a hot topic of discussion for politicians and citizens alike. Figuring out how to promote thriving downtown area is a high priority for cities in the PMI network. While a combination of the above challenges have left some cities with decaying and under-invested city centers, others are experiencing major development booms. What models for development are working and what are the right financing tools to apply to these models? Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Indianapolis, among others, discussed their experimentation, weighed the pros and cons of financing models including Tax Increment Financing (TIFs), and assessed the value proposition and return on investments of their different approaches.

While these are just brief highlights from the convening, they provide a taste for the range and depth of substance and analysis explored in two short days. As we enter our sixth year with this vibrant and esteemed network, Living Cities and the Ash Center will continue to activate the Project on Municipal Innovation as a catalyst for change in cities. We are committed to experimenting with ways to leverage PMI’s unique platform to sustain honest dialogue and a healthy sense of competition among cities, help close the gap between innovative ideas and practical implementation, and bring innovation to the people and places that need it most. Stay tuned for more highlights and learnings from this convening, and please get in touch ( with any questions, thoughts, or to continue to the conversation about the Project on Municipal Innovation.

About the Author

Sara Draper-Zivetz

Sara Draper-Zivetz is Program Assistant, Public Sector Innovation for Living Cities.

About the Author

Ronda Jackson

Ronda Jackson is Assistant Director of Public Sector Innovation for Living Cities.