Prototyping is a critical tool for effective public problem solving, but it's only part of the equation. In addition to adopting new tools and techniques, the best public problem solvers are also driven by a change in mindset that often inspires a culture shift in City Hall. Such a culture change is evident in a number of ways across the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Champion Cities.
Champion Cities built multi-disciplinary teams. They reached out to universities, NGOs, private industry, and other partners to bring in a broad range of expertise – from behavioral science to crowdfunding to drone technology. Not only do colleagues from these new disciplines fill knowledge gaps on city teams, they also contribute new ways of working, encouraging a new culture to emerge. Teams can more readily work in new ways because there is no set way of doing things.
The prototyping process also exposed teams to approaches from the field of design. And, because many of these skills – such as graphic and communication design, product design, or digital design – take years to master, many cities brought in additional expertise when required.
In Ithaca, NY, where drug overdose rates have increased 1,000 percent over the past 10 years, overdose victims are too often swept into the criminal justice system, despite research showing that community-based programs produce better outcomes. Ithaca's idea was to develop a one-stop shop where people who use drugs can access coordinated services – ranging from harm-reducing treatment and a supervised injection facility to medical services and job training. The team hired an architect with experience in designing safe-consumption spaces to help build 3D renderings of what the one-stop shop would look like. This mock-up allowed the team to think about elements of the physical space that they may otherwise have overlooked. For example, they learned that individuals who are unstably housed often travel with all their possessions. Therefore, the City needed to include individual storage spaces in the design.
North Carolina has seen an 800 percent increase in lethal overdoses from opioids over the past decade, but lack of timely data is inhibiting public health efforts to solve the crisis. Cary, N.C.'s idea was to generate geo-localized opioid consumption data by measuring concentration of opioid metabolites in sewage to enable proactive interventions. The team comprised a project manager and data manager from the Town Hall, a public health director from the County, and a technology partner from the private sector, who was responsible for helping with the geolocalized wastewater sampling.
Like many coastal cities, Coral Gables, FL's, ability to provide emergency services can be impacted when natural disasters occur. The City's idea was to make its critical infrastructure more resilient by integrating smart solar-powered micro-grids that can prioritize power distribution during emergencies, allowing for operations such as public safety services to continue. The core project team includes representatives from University of Miami's Simulation Laboratory, who helped develop the smart micro grid technology in partnership with the City of Coral Gables' Information Technology Department and Public Works Department, with assistance from contractors.
The violent crime rate in Chelsea, MA, which is third highest in the state, is largely driven by gangs and drug-related incidents. The City's idea was to scale the proven "Hub" crime prevention strategy – where a team of community and government agencies meet weekly to identify individuals or families facing elevated levels of risk for crime – and create a customized plan for immediate services. One of the Chelsea team members is Jason Owens, assistant director of Roca, a local organization that disrupts the cycle of incarceration by preventing recidivism among young offenders. Jason was, himself, incarcerated for a time before joining the Roca staff more than a decade ago. His expertise has added invaluable dimension to the teams' thinking.
Vallejo, CA, has identified a need for $1 billion in underground infrastructure repairs, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to identify broken pipes. The City planned to leverage ground-penetrating radar, autonomous vehicles, and a combination of sensors to identify broken pipes more effectively and efficiently. Along the way, the team has come to see collaboration as a driving force behind their city-wide infrastructure project. The project now has four primary partners: the City's Water Department, residents and water customers, a research team from the University of Vermont, and technology firm Civic Foundry. This multidisciplinary group play different, but crucial roles, from supplying technical know-how on artificial intelligence, to crowd sourcing information from residents.
Beth Simone Noveck directs the Governance Lab (GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She is a Professor in Technology, Culture, and Society at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering and a Fellow at NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy appointed her as the state's first Chief Innovation Officer in 2018. Previously, Beth served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative under President Obama. UK Prime Minister David Cameron appointed her senior advisor for Open Government. Beth was named one of the "World's 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government 2018" by Apolitical. Previously, she was selected as one of the "Foreign Policy 100″ by Foreign Policy as well as one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company and "Top Women in Technology" by Huffington Post.
Why is it important for City Halls to be open to new ideas?
By now it is a commonplace to say that the smartest people work for someone else. Nowhere is this more true than in our own communities, where the greatest asset of our cities is the intelligence -- lived experience, professional know-how, and street smarts -- of our residents. Both in order to understand a problem such as noise or traffic or flooding and how people experience it, as well as to come up with innovative solutions to such challenges quickly, those who govern need to develop the skillset and the mindset of being open to diverse thinking to the end of solving public problems.
What do you see as some of the biggest barriers to new and innovative ways of working in local governments? How can we overcome these?
We are fast learning that by using both data and collective intelligence -- getting smart from sensors and from people -- we can tackle problems more effectively and legitimately. But few of us are trained either in data analytical thinking and strategies for using data to solve problems, or in people-led innovation and methods, including human-centered design, for efficiently tapping the intelligence and expertise of those outside of government. Thus, I believe, that training is paramount for developing the necessary skills for governing better.
What do you see as the key differences between the public servant of tomorrow as compared to the public servant of days gone by?
The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the rise of the professions - medicine, law, social sciences -- and civil service. As a reaction to the cronyism of the past, professional civil servants were meant to be the best and brightest, managing at arm's length from the people. But the public servant of the future understands that to serve the public well, she has to be open: open to using data, open to using collective intelligence, open to trying new things, open to innovation and agility while holding fast to the values of the public interest.
Fueled by a combination of inspiration and practical need, Champion Cities built physical spaces for prototyping and collaborating with residents. The spaces also helped to tear down silos within City Hall.
City staff from the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Champion Cities have gained new skills and embraced attitudes and mindsets associated with innovation. These city innovators are curious about new ideas, want to know what residents think, and are open to learning from expertise that comes from outside their offices.
The work flexibly – responding creatively to both setbacks and successes – and shared powerful stories of personal growth and learning during the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge testing phase.
Channelling Creative Skills Toward Problem Solving
Ashley Zafaranlou, Project Manager, Office of the Mayor, Phoenix, AZ
Increasing urban heat threatens the health and well-being of vulnerable residents in Phoenix – the hottest major city in the U.S – as well as the City's long-term economic viability. Yet Phoenix lacks a cohesive strategy to address this major risk. Its 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge idea was to create a first-of-its-kind HeatReady program (like programs developed for storms) to enable local governments to holistically manage how they identify, prepare for, mitigate, track, and respond to the dangers of urban heat.
"Throughout my life, I have consistently found myself at the intersection of art and science. I began my collegiate years as a bright-eyed fine-arts student, with dreams of directing documentaries for social change by day, and painting in a studio by night. After watching one too many documentaries, I became fascinated by the complex social and environmental problems that scientists confront, so I decided to pursue a career in sustainability.
When I began working for the City of Phoenix, my focus was to increase citizen engagement around sustainability and resilience projects for the City Manager's Office. When Phoenix was named a Champion City in the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, it was my first opportunity to combine my artistic background with my work as a sustainability professional in City Hall. I had never considered that designers could have a place within government. When Phoenix began brainstorming potential solutions to urban heat and its impact on residents, it became clear that we needed creative ways to communicate between City leaders, climate researchers, and the community.
Prototyping became the bread and butter of the HeatReady City project. One of our most effective prototypes was a simple storyboard illustration I designed for the Mayor's monthly community breakfast. Our team wanted to learn if older adults, who are most susceptible to indoor heat-related illness, would agree to installing temperature sensors in their homes to prevent heat mortality.
The storyboard illustration depicted potential benefits of in-home temperature data being monitored in a way that was easy to understand. Residents came back with critical questions and suggestions that helped our team rethink the solution. Using design to create HeatReady has transformed my outlook on problem solving for governments, and I am continuing to refine my skills as a designer so I can co-create solutions for complex public sector problems."
Valuing Communication — in Both Directions
Kathy Gilwit, Assistant to the City Manager and Communications and Marketing Manager, New Rochelle, NY
"I joined New Rochelle in 2007 as their Communications and Marketing Manager after working as a local reporter for seven years, and in 2015 became Assistant to the City Manager. My office oversees the City's press, website, social media and cable TV station. I was brought onboard New Rochelle's 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge team to provide strategic communications guidance for outreach on the sprints along with editorial and photo/video support.
Our 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge idea was to employ the use of technology to allow city planners and residents to visualize the development plans for buildings and public spaces. The team carried out in-person, hands-on tests with augmented-reality and virtual-reality technologies at a variety of public venues. This methodology contrasted with the more traditional methods for resident feedback that my office promotes, such as public notices, public hearings, and outreach meetings – most of which are in formalized, large-group settings.
The 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge has been transformational for me in shifting how I personally view resident communications. During the project, my communications team began to review the City's current channels for resident input, aware of how one-sided our communications "push" can be. We've started to research new technology and tools that are available to amplify and enhance engagement and feedback, ranging from media monitoring to resident collaboration and engagement platforms. We are currently undergoing a website design upgrade to reflect this new thinking. While I'm in the role of putting out communications, the project is showing there's the complimentary side of engagement, and that's something I'm looking to make steps towards including in the future."
A Test and Learn Disciple
Jackson Daly, Assistant to the City Manager, Georgetown, TX
When I first heard the "2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Champion City coaches' advice on implementing new ideas it seemed so simple and obvious. Of course, we would test an idea and take what we learned to improve the concept. But when I stopped to think about it, this approach is actually counter to how I sometimes operate. I'll be the first to admit that I charge forward with what I feel is the good idea, without soliciting feedback or being open to changes.
However, the process and ultimate outcome of our testing has made me a prototyping disciple! Our original concept, the virtual power plant, improved quite dramatically once we let the community take control over refining the idea.
Georgetown is currently updating our comprehensive plan. I am very excited to be helping with the update and have personally pushed to make sure we use innovation techniques throughout the process – including going out and speaking to the community and iteratively building on our learnings.
Likewise, the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge experience has pushed me to begin collecting community input early in the process, even if an idea or program is not fully refined or defined. The success we experienced with our project this year gave the team and me the confidence to use resources to test ideas in this way. City staff and Council now also recognize the value of allowing the community to put their fingerprints on projects early and often."
For many of the 35 Champion Cities, participation in the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge marked the beginning of a journey into a new way of working. For others, it was part of an ongoing process and investment in innovation. Just under a decade ago, Boston made a significant investment in innovation, and launched an innovation team. Here is their advice to other cities who are just starting out on the journey:
Our team was started as an attempt to bring the ethos and spirit of "human-centered design" work into municipal government at a time when "design thinking" and "human-centered design" were less common than they are today. Initially, we weren't given a specific mandate of what issues to work on from our then-Mayor, Mayor Tom Menino. We were able to explore broadly and deeply in collaboration with City departments who were trying to think differently about government services.
When Mayor Walsh came into office in 2014, he saw an opportunity to expand the team and bring this model to more departments in the City. Although we have grown in size and scope, the focus is still largely the same as it was then: to improve the relationship between citizens and government, and focus on projects that have potential to prototype, scale, and have a positive impact on the community.
We are in a privileged space where, as a team that has been given permission to fail, we can go to residents with ideas that are very early stage, without promising that we're going to take up a new service or design a new offering. We're able to get input, feedback, ideas, and guidance.
In doing our work, we always partner with another City department. Some of the culture shift in Boston has come about because we "run with" our partner departments – whether it's a ride-along with a public works employee or donning a hairnet and getting behind the cafeteria line with a Food and Nutrition Services employee at one of Boston's Public Schools. We do our best to make understanding their business, our business. Of course, there are challenges that come with the territory – from turnover in our partner departments, meaning that we lose a champion, or 'innovation fatigue' and deep-seated resistance to change. Finding a way past those challenges is part of the work.
During the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge we worked with 16 different departments, agencies, and community groups (in addition to 1,200 residents who provided input). It really benefited the project to have such a wide variety of perspectives. It also helped us continue to evolve the way we work with departments and spread that approach throughout City Hall.
Over the past 10 years of trying to embed a culture of innovation, we have learned many lessons. What advice would we give to other cities that are pursuing this work? Take the time to build relationships. Listen to people, and make connections between departments and with partners outside of government. A core part of "the work" is not just about pumping out reports, and policies (though you'll probably have to do some of that, too) – it's about building and maintaining relationships with purpose. And, when it comes to your engagement with residents focus on building trust. If you listen well and then build things that people want and need, it pays dividends for all of government.
—Boston, MA 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Team