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How San Francisco Does Innovation: 5 Tips Your City Can Use

Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Shannon Spanhake shared some advice based on the San Francisco experience to a rapt crowd at the California CIO Academy.

by , / February 26, 2014
Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Shannon Spanhake YouTube

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Hundreds of tech leaders from California and beyond gathered in Sacramento Feb. 25 and 26 at the California Public Sector CIO Academy for a series of panels offering practical advice for the IT leaders of today and tomorrow.

Keynoting the event lunch on day two of the conference was San Francisco's Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Shannon Spanhake, who works alongside Jay Nath in Mayor Ed Lee's Civic Innovation Office. Spanhake offered some tips based on San Francisco's path to its current position as, according to Spanhake, the most innovative city in the world.

There's more to it than technology

Champion new ideas and new approaches – not just new tools. The Civic Innovation Office certainly promotes the use of new technologies, but that’s not its only mission. Ultimately the goal is to surface ideas that make San Francisco city government more accountable, accessible and responsive.

“Innovation isn’t just about tech,” Spanhake said. “It’s about finding new ways to solve old problems.

Throw out the master plan

You can’t “master plan” innovation. Instead, Spanhake recommends an agile and iterative approach to launching innovative initiatives. Don’t expect to figure everything out on the first try, she said. “Invest a little bit, see what happens and correct.”

Turn your data into jobs

San Francisco is creating new companies and new employment through an aggressive open data campaign. The city has opened more than 500 government data sets, which have spawned more than 100 apps, along with new businesses built around them.

“We’re creating jobs in San Francisco just by opening up data that used to be sitting in file cabinets,” Spanhake said. “If pink is the new black, then data is the new gold.”

Rethink your hackathon

Early San Francisco hackathons often produced a lot of "solutions looking for problems," Spanhake told the crowd, where well-meaning developers produced cool apps with limited applications for everyday citizens.

The city has since evolved its hackathon strategy, and is getting better results. Start your event by having government stakeholders frame the civic problem, in all its complexity. This approach, deployed at a "unhackathon" event focused on transportation, gave San Francisco some apps it could use.

Put the people in partnerships

What may be missing from traditional public-private partnerships is people, which Spanhake suggests should be the fourth "p" in the equation. She pointed to San Francisco's Living Innovation Zones project as evidence of the city's commitment to engaging the people with dynamic public installations that inspire exploration, innovation and play.

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Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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