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7 Tactics for 21st-Century Cities

Seven ways for modern cities to innovate.

Be it the burden placed on them by shrinking federal support, or the opportunity presented by modern technology, 21st-century cities are finding new ways to do things. For four years, Code for America has worked with dozens of cities, each finding creative ways to solve neighborhood problems, build local capacity and steward a national network. These aren’t one-offs. Cities are championing fundamental, institutional reforms to commit to an ongoing innovation agenda.

Here are a few of the ways how:

1. Create a space to experiment.

Cities should commit to innovation by creating offices or departments dedicated to trying things differently and making it safe for others to do so. Such risk aggregators are the first step toward reinvigorating a culture of experimentation within city hall.

Action item: Create an office of new urban mechanics or appoint a chief innovation officer.

2. Use good data for better decisions.

Governments — especially cities — steward much data, and government officials can use it to make better decisions on resource allocation, performance improvement and even policies. But remember that not all data is created equally, and data gains meaning with context.

Action item:  Appoint a chief data officer or create an office of performance management/enhancement.

3. Design for/with citizens.

In many ways, governments are like any other business: They need tools for customers (citizens) to interact with them. But governments can’t slice their customers into demographic groups, targeting some and excluding others: Government serves us all. Through user-driven design, ongoing feedback, and rigorous testing and iterations, government websites can continually connect with more citizens, more effectively.

Action item:  Adopt the Gov.UK Design Principles, and require plain, human language on every interface.

4. Don’t be an island.

Our 21st-century public institutions were created with an 18th-century notion of technology. With no national communication infrastructure, we built cities as silos, each operating within a geographical proximity of its own as an autonomous, distinct unit, though they were tasked with essentially the same mandate. Things have changed. Cities can now work together to pool resources and share best practices.

Action item:  Share open source technology with a sister city or change procurement rules to make it easier to redeploy civic tech.

5. Tap into the community’s capacity.

Technologists are helping write websites and build new tools in their free time; teenagers are texting in their input to city plans as they walk down the street; volunteers are coordinating emergency response with smartphones; and neighbors are hosting Meetups for community watch groups and cleanups.

Action item:  Work with the local civic tech community and engage citizens for their feedback on city policy through events, tech and existing forums.

6. Bias toward open.

Closed systems tend toward control, while open ones tend toward innovation. Open systems begin with the belief that the best idea won’t always come from the people in the room, or in this case, city hall. Instead, as the Internet has evidenced time and time again, opening up access to data and opportunities leads to wildly emergent, amazing and valuable outcomes.

Action item:  Create an open data policy and adopt open data specifications.

7. Take tech seriously.

Technology no longer lives in the IT department. Each element of a government — trucks, buildings, pipes, services — has a technology component, and more often, Web-based and citizen-facing apps. That demands rethinking of how each of those very services could be delivered via technology. Thus, new skills and perspective must seep into city hall via fellowships, volunteers, trainings or hiring.

Action item:  Attract tech talent into city leadership, and create training opportunities citywide to level up the tech literacy for city staff. 

Abhi Nemani is co-director of Code for America.