For Cities, Creativity and Convergence Need to Be the Norm

Congress Avenue in Austin

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Connecting state and local government leaders

According to the former mayors of Albuquerque and Philadelphia: “It’s our job to make SXSW live on all year long. Here’s why.”

Thousands of people are descending on Austin right now for SXSW, many of whom are hoping to leave with the next best idea and all of whom are expecting to leave inspired. That includes 30 forward-thinking mayors who are participating in the Mayors Summit and Civic I/O. As always, SXSW this year is an excellent illustration of the power of breaking down conventional boundaries, and how creative, collaborative thinking can help to solve tough problems.

SXSW calls this convergence.

Our time as the mayors of Philadelphia and Albuquerque—and our time as advisors to The Atlas and What Works Cities since leaving office—have convinced us that convergence cannot live only at events like SXSW. As local government leaders, it is our duty to deliver the very best solutions to our communities. Which means it’s on us to breakdown silos, look to our peers for guidance, and ask our partners from every sector for new ideas—every time it could be beneficial, not just when it’s convenient. It’s our job to make SXSW live on all year long. Here’s why.

The benefits of cross-sector collaboration are well proven. Many cities across the country have already embraced this idea of convergence to great success. Take, for example, the one-hundred What Works Cities that have embraced ideas from non-profits and companies to implement data-driven decision making—a tactic used for decades in the private sector to great success.

Cities today are expected to do more with less. Cities of every size, regardless of financial circumstances, are on the front lines of nearly every major issue—including issues like the opioid crisis, homelessness, reentry, infrastructure, immigration and education. They’re expected to tackle these challenges without new, big, or additional money coming out of Washington, D.C., without wrecking annual budgets, and without raising taxes or rates.

To successfully address these looming challenges in such complicated financial circumstances, cities require the best and the brightest: the best talent, the best ideas, the best technologies, the best processes. Cities must look both to each other, and outside of government—to the private sector, universities and NGOs—to source the best and brightest.

While in office, one way we both ensured our cities had access to the best and brightest was by creating cultures of open-mindedness and transparency. By empowering and incentivizing our teams to try new things, pursue different ideas and work with new partners, we were able to lower unsheltered homelessness in Albuquerque by 80 percent and reduce Philadelphia’s municipal energy use by 7 percent setting the city on a path to save citizens and local businesses millions of dollars. By encouraging our teams to talk about our successes, and be honest about our occasional failures, we helped our colleagues in other cities learn from our experiences and leapfrog to new solutions.

And we’re clearly not alone. There are lots of examples of cities that are getting creative and leveraging the experiences of other sectors to deliver more value to their communities:

  • Local governments like San Francisco and Alachua County, Florida, learned from their colleagues in the private sector to embrace cloud computing, which resulted in not only reduced costs but increased ability to access important emergency management data in real time from cell phones.
  • Simple process improvements like online form submission and payment (something that we’ve expected in our daily lives for years!) have been implemented with a lot of buzz in cities like Pittsburgh. Similarly, modernizing their building permitting system has helped Pittsburgh go from hundreds to thousands of inspections each year, supporting economic growth.
  • Cities like Kirkland, Washington used cooperative procurement to learn from their peers, create savings and reduce acquisition time. Similarly, other governments are adopting eProcurement—a technology solution used ubiquitously by large companies but used by only 39 percent of local government agencies.

And those are just some examples we’ve been thinking about lately. When you look at the pace of innovation, there are clearly many more solutions proven in other sectors that have not yet fully translated to government: there are wastewater to energy technologies deployed at scale in the agricultural sector that have the potential to save a city from having to build another treatment plant. There are voice-controlled systems like Amazon’s Alexa that are being tested to see if they can make it easier for citizens to engage with their governments.

Of course, it won’t be easy for SXSW to live on all year long in our nation’s local governments. Sourcing new solutions and new partners takes a tremendous amount of staff time and capacity, both of which local governments are in constant short supply.

Tailoring solutions proven in other sectors so that they will work for a different community and their local challenges can be a serious undertaking; just because something worked somewhere else does not mean it will work in another community with another set of local challenges. And regulations can be a serious barrier to doing things differently, even if the current way of doing things isn’t working for citizens.

These are all legitimate issues, and we’re certainly not suggesting that cities should always seek to do things differently or to do things differently just for the sake of trying something new. Sayings like “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” “leave well enough alone,” and “never change a running system” all doubly apply to local government, where the stakes are extremely high. Unfortunately, there are many instances where things are broken, where things are not well enough and where systems are arguably not running.

These are the instances in which it may be beneficial for cities to look outside of themselves—to universities, NGOs and the private sector—to source new solutions.

The good news is that sourcing the best ideas and solutions, from both inside and outside government, is becoming easier with cross-sector events like SXSW and new platforms like The Atlas, that leverages its online community to help cities accelerate the replication of proven solutions.

Cities will be at the forefront of solving the world’s greatest challenges. That is why we’re calling on all of the folks at SXSW, and everyone living in cities across the country: Let’s keep SXSW going all year long.

The results are bound to be good, and we’ll have a pretty good soundtrack too.

ALSO from Route Fifty’s coverage from SXSW 2018:

Richard J. Berry is the former mayor of Albuquerque and Michael A. Nutter is the former mayor of Philadelphia.

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