Innovation and Cities – Reframing the Dialogue

March 5, 2012
by Chris Hoene

This is the first installment in blog series that will be posted at www.CitiesSpeak.org

These are tough times for cities, economically and politically. Our own research points to a period of managed retrenchment where city leaders are confronted with undesirable choices - cuts in vital services, laying off personnel, delaying needed infrastructure investments, to name a few. But, times like these often open opportunities for innovation, to rethink the roles and structures of cities. "Never waste a crisis," as the oft-cited saying goes. 

But what is innovation? An idea? An invention of a new practice? The word is overused and usually lacks definition. At NLC's Center for Research and Innovation, our definition is that innovation is a process by which new ideas are generated, implemented in practice and widely adopted. 

Unfortunately, innovation in cities is challenged by a national malaise about the role of government or by advocates who present city leaders with trendy or fad-ish options, rather than guidance for addressing issues most likely to improve the success of cities in the future. 

Not wasting the current crisis and fostering innovation in cities requires that we reframe much of the current dialogue about the forces shaping our communities. The paragraphs below briefly suggest reframing conversations and debates about a number of issues in order to provide a platform for the future success of cities. 

· Education and talent are oft-cited cures for economic ills in cities, but too much attention is focused on attracting talent - stealing educated and skilled people from other places, rather than improving systems and growing talent in our own communities. Too much emphasis is also placed on the notion that everyone needs a college education to be successful, when in fact there is a high demand for skilled workers with different types of advanced or technical training. 

• Nowhere is the disconnect between national dialogue and local reality more stark than around the topic of infrastructure investment. Local leaders across the country know that there is a huge backlog of infrastructure maintenance and investment waiting to be leveraged for economic development and competitiveness. Yet, national action is confounded by experts and politicians refuting the economic benefits of improving the nation's infrastructure. 

• Some of the recent popular writing about cities offers compelling, but limited, formulas for future success, suggesting certain types of cities will win or succeed more than others. But if this country's population grows anywhere near projections, cities of all types will be better positioned for success by offering a diversity of choices, in local economies, housing and amenities. 

• An increasing amount of confusion and misinformation surrounds the word "sustainability." The confusion often comes from efforts to define sustainability as encompassing pretty much everything. The misinformation is more recent - going so far as to suggest diabolical international conspiracies (a notion pretty laughable to anyone who's attended an international meeting). But, at its core, sustainability is about cities and other actors improving stewardship of their resources - hardly an objectionable aspiration. 

• Recent dialogue about improving governance has focused on transparency, but has been too focused on efforts to make government data available on websites. More openly available data is a small piece of improving governance. Instead, we need to focus on strengthening local democracy and civic capacity by actually engaging the public in the process of governing. 

• Local governments are increasingly turning to interlocal and regional approaches to service delivery as a means of gaining efficiencies and cutting costs. But, as with previous movements in "regionalism," we need to heed the words of NLC's Bill Barnes: "regionalism is the question, not the answer." City leaders should ask when and how regional approaches will help them solve problems. 

• Much of the attention to the public sector is negative - unfavorable comparisons with private sector benefits, reports of golden retirement packages and collective bargaining battles. We need to reframe this debate around creating a vital public sector. The demographics of the public sector point to a coming brain drain and many government systems are structured to chase away talent rather than attract the best and the brightest to public service. 

• Not surprisingly, fiscal difficulties facing local governments are fostering debates about whether tax and spending levels are too high or too low. We need to reframe this debate, in the words of University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Mike Pagano, around creating "a new social compact" that marries realistic expectations about government capacities with citizen preferences. Long-held notions of "core services" might, when challenged, reveal new or different preferences. 

Much more could, and will be, written or said about any of the debates outlined in brief here. My colleagues and I at the Center for Research and Innovation will be doing just that and we welcome your input, suggestions and opinions. 

Chris Hoene is director of NLC's Center for Research and Innovation.