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Former Transportation Director Shares Lessons on Community Innovation

A leader in urban innovation in both the public and private sectors, Gabe Klein offers lessons for local leaders around the country.

In his new book Start-Up City, Gabe Klein distills the lessons he’s learned about urban innovation in the public and private sectors. He draws on his experience leading the city transportation departments of Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and as an executive at the private rideshare company Zipcar and at a food truck venture. Klein spoke with sister publication Governing about his book, and the lessons for local leaders around the country. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

In the book, you talk a lot about not just getting projects done, but getting them done in a hurry. Why is that so important?

There are so many plans that get shelved because of political issues, because of lack of funding, because of a poor roll-out to the community. One of the things that was surprising to me, coming out of the private sector, was the amount of back and forth. Often, you have a shrill minority that would fight a project, and the politicians would capitulate. I think the more time you let something sit, the more opposition gathers.

I try to really inspire people and say, “Look, it can be done.” Government can be more efficient. Government can say yes instead of no. It can empower people within the government and outside of government to make positive change on our streets.

You worked for two dynamic mayors. What can other political leaders learn from Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago?

These two mayors, like me, were a bit entrepreneurial and they didn’t instantly say no to new ideas. They would listen. They didn’t have a lot preconceived notions of what was good and bad. Some of that was that they were more open to collaboration with lots of stakeholders, including the private sector.

They also both delegated. They did not micromanage. That’s important if you want good people to work for you.

Both of these guys were very open to experimentation. They were OK if you fell down. I was able to help to prove that the public is open to piloting and to experimentation, too.

How do you instill that approach within agencies if you’re a day-to-day manager and not the mayor or the director of transportation?

Success breeds success. It doesn’t matter how big the issue is or how big your department is if you’re able to experiment and try new things, and then show success.

I tried to break some of the management theory stuff into easy, doable stuff. It’s really about repetition and embedding some of these management basics in your day to day.

If you do that, you basically collaborate with your staff. You’re open to their ideas. You try their ideas. You work together as a team to improve upon the ideas that don’t work until you get to a process or program or service that really works. You remove ego from the situation by saying we’re all going to make sure this gets better. It’s not disparaging anybody to say we always have to be improving this service.

You mention Uber quite a bit in the book. You also praise “social entrepreneurs” that promote social good along with their own profits. Do you think Uber is a good model of a “social entrepreneur”?

No. I respect Uber from the standpoint of the ability to make change and their “won’t take no” attitude. The innovation is impressive. Where I dock them a lot of points is their ability to work for the greater good, and their ability to partner with government.

Where I think Uber is really important, though, is in sending a message to government that you can’t work at this glacial pace. You have to be more open to change.

You’ve predicted that autonomous vehicles will be the biggest change to cities in the next 50 years. How should cities prepare?

The first thing is to educate themselves as to what’s coming, how soon and the potential effect on cities. This is going to happen. This is going to displace the need for car ownership, which is positive. It’s going to negate the need for a lot of parking in cities. There’s opportunities to forge different priorities. We remade our cities around the automobile. [Now] we’re talking about reallocating space back to people and away from cars. We’re also talking about the opportunity to make our streets safer. 

Read an excerpt of Gabe Klein’s new book at article was originally published on Governing.