April 3, 2019

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Michael Nutter, Jerry Hultin, Nilda Mesa, Kendal Stewart, and André Corrêa d’Almeida discussed innovations in urban government.
Michael Nutter, Jerry Hultin, Nilda Mesa, Kendal Stewart, and André Corrêa d’Almeida discussed innovations in urban government.
Fear—specifically, the fear of doing something new and failing—is what keeps people in city governments from innovating. That was the consensus at a recent panel discussion at SIPA devoted to “Smarter New York City: How City Agencies Innovate.”
 

Participants included Michael Nutter, who moderated; Nilda Mesa, a onetime director of the NYC Mayor's Office of Sustainability who last year joined Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development; Jerry Hultin, president and chairman of Global Futures Group; André Corrêa d’Almeida, an adjunct professor who is also the assistant director of SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice program; and Kendal Stewart, practice manager of the MPA-DP program.

The March 27 event was organized by the Technology and Innovation Student Association and planned around Corrêa d’Almeida’s 2018 book of the same name, which features essays by 27 scholars from nine universities.

Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and president of the United States Conference of Mayors, gave opening remarks via videolink.

“Cities are incubators of innovation,” Benjamin underscored.

Indeed, what Smarter New York City (the book) set out to find was how cities innovate and ways to support that process. It followed 12 case studies across 30 agencies to examine what drives innovation—focusing not just on technology and data, but also on processes and networks.

At the end, Corrêa d’Almeida’s book arrives at 13 main innovation lessons to apply to any city around the world. Panelists, each of whom contributed to the book, offered insights to address some of those lessons.

It's not that cities don’t innovate, some suggested, it’s that officials fear failing and, worse, failing and losing money contributed by taxpayers.

“It’s a fear of losing face that a lot of people have and that can stymie people’s willingness to verbalize how innovative they can be,” said Mesa.

When Mesa worked for New York, she said, she worked around this roadblock by holding anonymous roundtable discussions with city agencies.

“It seemed to free people to jump-start the whole process,” she said. “Literally thousands of ideas came forth after breaking down barriers.”

“It’s a fear of doing something that hasn’t been done before,” Hultin added. 

Drawing on his eight years of experience as Philadelphia’s mayor, Nutter suggested archly that “Mayors love being the first to do something—as long as someone has done it before them and proven that it works.”

Starting with small programs and then building on them is one way to be the first to do something after it has already been proven. Stewart cited as examples pilot programs and neighborhood innovation labs, which can offer an additional benefit of having the people who will use the program help design the program.

“They will point out things you haven’t seen before,” said Mesa.

While getting input from as many stakeholders as possible is sometimes seen as prolonging a the process unnecessarily, Mesa said it’s actually a good strategy to mitigate against risk. When multiple agencies collaborate to pursue a common goal, she explained, it provides a sense of collective agreement — safety in numbers — that reduces anxiety and creates opportunities for innovation in the process.

What’s the timeline for innovation? Hultin recommended working within the four-year election cycle, because politicians want to be able to take advantage of successful programs. Seeing the effects of a project 10 years down the road, he said, doesn’t help generate support and approval in the present.

The panel concluded with a discussion of helping data flow efficiency throughout city agencies. Agencies have to share and integrate and administrations have to break silos between departments.

Overall, the message was that innovation that already exists in city agencies needs to be unleashed, not just through technology, but through an examination of processes and management.

— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19