Columnist: New City Rx: High-Tech Innovation Merged With a Role for Citizens

April 16, 2012
by Neal Peirce

In our age of acronyms, you'll be excused if you can't define SFpark, SFStartup, SmartSF, EngageSF. They're all part of SFGov - or, to be more precise, San Francisco city government's leap into a world of far-ranging innovations.

Jay Nath, appointed in January by Mayor Edwin Lee to serve as San Francisco's chief innovation officer, is at the cutting edge of a new brand of urban governance: looking to citizen and business innovators to work with City Hall in devising ways for local government to function - and interact - in more efficient, economical, user-friendly ways.

Largely (but not exclusively), the new approach is driven by cutting-edge technology - apps on citizens' computers and mobile phones, fiber-optic connections, ubiquitous sensors spread around town, and ever-speedier computing. But it's also competitive economics: ways for city government to make itself an ever-more desirable place to be.

So consider SFpark. It's an app that provides a real-time inventory of available parking spots for residents and tourists. The goal is to reduce circling and double parking. Result: less congestion, cleaner air, safer streets and a clearer path for public transit. Drivers are encouraged to park in underused areas and garages. Prices on the installed meters (currently 25 cents to $4.75 an hour) are regularly adjusted to keep one or two spaces available on any block. 

Then there are "parklets" - a StartupSF feature to reclaim and "green" public space, first conceived by a local studio, Rebar Art, that mixes art, design and activism. The simple idea: If you put quarters into a parking meter, in effect renting street space from the city, why not rent the space for another purpose? So parklets, built out into parking lanes, are suddenly creating space that can be reprogrammed for people to relax, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the urban scene. Business owners, expected to be chief adversaries, are now spending significant dollars to rent parklet space beside their cafes and restaurants.

The basic idea, says Nath, "is to engage the community, make sure it has information and can share ideas with us." So San Francisco has been encouraging "hackathons" - a type of public consultation at which citizens and businesses are invited to suggest and think through designs to address problems the city faces.

Why go to all this trouble? Nath explains that it is to address "pain points" the city is experiencing. The new tech-cures range all the way from new software to tame the city government's labyrinthine obstacles in licensing new businesses to improving the notorious mismatch of would-be riders and taxi cabs on San Francisco streets.

Why address "pain points?" In a way, it's classic city marketing - to enhance, Nath says, San Francisco/Silicon Valley's reputation as a business startup capital, and then to retain the new businesses with superior city environment and quality of life. And to keep the tourists coming.

But expectations are running dramatically higher - especially among today's app-friendly, data-addicted youth. Advanced data centers and networks are key. But the technology needs to include, and build on, intentional outreach to citizens and companies - and ways for city governments to become more transparent and citizen-responsive than ever before.

San Francisco is not alone in the scramble for cutting-edge innovations. New York, Boston and Chicago are also leaders, and often exchange information with San Francisco. And Philadelphia is the only other city with a direct counterpart to Nath - Adel Ebeid, recently appointed chief innovation officer by Mayor Michael Nutter.

One expects more and more cities will be taking the same step, especially in an era when cities are more than ever neglected by state and national governments and "on their own" to compete in fiercely competitive times.

But San Francisco's proclaimed ambition to be the "innovation capital of the world" has received a major boost from Nath. In varied San Francisco roles since 2006, he's authored or led a range of technology breakthroughs, starting with software to manage over 10 million "331" non-emergency calls, to create SFData, which now has 60 apps in its showcase, and 2010 "Open Data" legislation which is requiring city agencies, the police included, to open up over 200 datasets to public view and analysis.

Gordon Feller, director of urban innovations for Cisco, is likely right in speculating that Nath will be seen in future years as a key driver of the open data revolution now building in world cities.

Feller is co-founder and leader of a yearly "Meeting of the Minds" that's scheduled for this October. Its focus, says Feller: to examine "San Francisco's secret sauce" of open source technology, citizen access and participation. Urban leaders from more than a dozen countries are expected. 

The timing couldn't be riper.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.