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Connecting Talent with Purpose: Why Cities Must Collaborate with Academia on Gov Tech Innovation

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Harvard's Stephen Goldsmith shared their insights and experiences at the MetroLab Network Summit in Atlanta on Dec. 13.

ATLANTA – South Bend, Ind., a city of slightly more than 100,000 residents where blighted buildings have long been a struggle, has deployed a smart sewer system that could save $500 million in government costs related to overflows. And at the MetroLab Network Annual Summit at Georgia Tech Dec. 13, Mayor Pete Buttigieg pointed to the project as an example of what cities have to gain from collaborating with academia.

South Bend’s sewer system now generates 16 million data points, making it “the most densely sensored sewer system in the world,” said Buttigieg, noting that info from the sensors helped reduce overflows by 70 percent. The $500 million in potential savings would be massive for any city, but is especially significant for a town like South Bend where per capita income is less than $20,000.

South Bend made this happen in large part by collaborating with the University of Notre Dame and other local institutions to attract talented young technologists and foster a culture of innovation in its city hall.

This sort of work is foundational to MetroLab and its summit. The network of dozens of cities and universities nationwide was started in 2015 as part of the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative. It works to pair city policymakers with academic resources in order to foster projects that can be deployed to improve infrastructure, public service and environmental sustainability. Day one of the MetroLab Summit saw key policymakers involved with the network discuss the past, present and future of civic innovation’s relationship with higher ed.

In addition to Buttigieg’s keynote speech about innovation blossoming in South Bend, the first half of the two-day event also included a panel that featured Buttigieg, former Baltimore mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, deputy mayor of New York City and current director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Throughout Buttigieg’s speech and the subsequent panel, a three-tiered picture of the relationship between college towns and universities within them emerged — College Town 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.

College Town 1.0, they said, was essentially limited to a city and school working together on relatively basic things like sponsorships and practical questions about neighborhoods. College Town 2.0 seeks to accelerate cooperation and ensure towns are better for having universities in them and universities are better for being located in the towns.

College Town 3.0, O’Malley said, means reaching a point “where the university and city are integrated into a very inclusive, repeatable process for innovation.” To do this, mayors must regularly convene those involved, he continued, giving internal context and meaning to the work. Productive relationships between mayors and university presidents, or representatives of the two, are also vital.

Goldsmith emphasized the importance of taking a broader view of relationships between cities and institutions, one that supersedes arbitrary obstacles such as geography. He noted that during his time as deputy mayor of New York City, there was a problem with child welfare in his jurisdiction, but a foremost researcher on the subject was doing his work in Chicago and the issues there. Coincidence presents another challenge.

“Too often these relationships have been dominated by the coincidence of whether the research agenda of the university professor matches the priorities of the mayor,” Goldsmith said. Moving forward, Goldsmith suggested that better organization of urban challenges and the academic research related to them would benefit both cities and researchers.

Another obstacle discussed by the panel was creating innovation programs that can survive politics, entrenching them in government so they aren’t later disowned when a new administration sweeps into city hall or the state house and supports only the initiatives and programs created under its watch. The speakers agreed that transparency with the public can demonstrate value in a way that embeds innovation in culture, creating public expectations for it to continue that ultimately protect it from the fickle winds of politics.

When asked how cities without access to prestigious universities like Notre Dame could follow suit, Buttigieg noted that basically every city in the country has a community college system nearby, and that those schools are perhaps just as important as academic powerhouses because they provide access to underserved students. These students, he explained, often have firsthand experience with problems academia and government technologists are trying to address from afar. This knowledge leads to more nuanced, deeper and authentic perspectives, as well as urgency to solve challenges.

Working with students at those schools, Buttigieg said, also ties into a larger benefit of these sort of collaborations — specifically the recruitment aspect. It directs talented people into gov tech who likely would not otherwise find their ways into the sector. Once there, they can do meaningful work that benefits the community and gives them a sense of purpose. There is, Buttigieg said, a larger existential crisis that could potentially be lessened.

“Even more than the crisis of politics,” Buttigieg said, “I think we can offer something when it comes to the current American crisis of purpose.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.