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New Orleans Promotes Entrepreneurship at First Civic Innovation Summit

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu inaugurates the event, asking the tech sector to connect innovation with an understanding of regulations and local needs.

NEW ORLEANS — Rattling off the city’s long series of hardships, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recalled the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina and its successors Rita, Ike and Gustav. He referred to the Great Recession’s effects on unemployment and the BP oil spill’s lasting damage to the city’s coasts. Then he underscored current challenges before offering the opinion that there might not be another place in the world that’s been hit as hard or as much as the city of New Orleans.

“But near-death experiences clarify your thinking very, very quickly,” Landrieu added, “when you not only have to save yourself, but turn yourself around."

It was on this thought of reversal and rebuilding that on March 15 the mayor opened the city’s first Civic Innovation Summit, an event meant not only to revitalize the beleaguered city but also, with the help of civic technology and entrepreneurs, re-imagine how it solves long-standing challenges. The inaugural summit, part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) from March 11-18, brought in thought leadership from across the private and nonprofit worlds for input on latest practices.

New Orleans officials detailed their efforts to answer resilience problems with an eye on analytics and data. They put innovative city projects under the spotlight and underscored potential opportunities for the startup and tech community to help drive progress via Resilient NOLA, the city’s 2050 strategic plan to answer its most pressing issues.

Landrieu has aggressively pursued tech sector solutions throughout his administration. A few of these initiatives have included a measure that reduced the city’s notoriously high murder rate by applying predictive analytics to criminal networks, launching the data-driven performance program Nolalytics, and reaching out to the civic tech group Code for America to create a blight tracking app.

In an interview with Government Technology, Landrieu laid out a few of his thoughts about technology’s impacts and what benefits he hopes the advancements will bring the Crescent City as it heads into its 300th anniversary on May 7, 2018.

Government Technology: In light of this being the city's first entrepreneur week, if you had a wish list, what would you ask of the tech sector and civic tech community in general?

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu: You know for some reason, some in Silicon Valley have fallen into this notion that you can only do tech in one geographic location in the country, and clearly that's not true. And it's especially not true in the creative economy that's developed all across America. It clearly doesn't matter where you are, and New Orleans has demonstrated in the last 10 years that we can become a hub for innovation and technology as well. A lot of the tax credits we have on the state level incentivize that, and one of the things I want people to do is to grow their companies here.

You know there is economic growth and there's economic development. All mayors and governors want to go hustle companies to move to where they are, and that's important, but I also want them to help people from New Orleans learn how to innovate right here. Because we have great raw material, we have great raw talent, we have great intellectual capital and we need to learn how to take those things and add value to them here. We can become the manufacturer of those products.

GT: Along those lines, how do you join those two communities — the rising tech sector and the city’s current industries — when the tech sector can prompt issues in affordable and gentrified neighborhoods?

Mayor Landrieu: A couple days ago a  reporter from another publication asked me the same thing, saying to me "You know, affordable housing is getting to be a real issue" and I said, "Yes, it is and it's a serious issue," and I don't mean to minimize it, but when you're a city like us — and you oppose Katrina — the bigger issue was everybody leaving, there was blighted housing nobody wants to live in and no jobs. That is a much worse problem to solve than where are you going to put all the people that want to live in your space and that’s something that we know a lot about.

Now, there are a lot of different ways that you can handle [affordable housing] — and I do think that it's important for cities to stand up and have policies, and at least the aspiration, that we want everybody to live here irrespective of race, creed, color or socio-economic status. There are a couple of different ways government can influence that — as opposed to control it. You can go on one side and have rent control like they have in New York, you can try the private-sector model where people just get shut out, or you can try to do something in between with tax subsidies and tax incentives, where, through your zoning codes you incentivize people who are building housing to make sure that it includes diverse opportunities for people. That's the approach we're taking here.

In New Orleans, we have redeveloped all of our public housing projects into communities that have affordable housing in them. We've worked with government subsidies to create soft second mortgages to help people who couldn't normally afford those down payments. We're working really, really hard as we rebuild neighborhoods from a zoning perspective to make sure it's mixed use, and we want to continue to encourage people who are living in neighborhoods to live not in exclusive neighborhoods that have gates around them, but to live in communities. We help create bike paths, we help create ways that just incentivize people to live together.

But having said that, it is better to have housing values going up rather than down and have more people moving in. It's just a challenge that we're going to have to work with over time.

GT: How does the constant push for civic innovation programs and methodologies improve city management in tangible ways?

Mayor Landrieu: You know this might sound really simplistic, but the more you do it the better you get at it and the more people come to assist. It gains traction, it attracts like-minded people and they come to the table. I've tried to create in the city of New Orleans, to the extent that you can, an entrepreneurial mindset to where you can redesign systems. You don't have to do something just because that's the way we did it before. I've tried to create a place where [the city and entrepreneurs] can find the barriers to what's stopping us from being creative and then break them down.

Eventually, the idea of government doesn't become this old tired debate about should government be big or should government be small. Whatever size it is, it should be innovative, it should be responsive, it should be entrepreneurial, it should be flexible and it should deliver really good services in whatever it chooses to deliver. In some instances [applying civic innovation] is almost a mechanical view about how the 'the car' is supposed to work. After the car works well, we can get into these philosophical discussions about how big it ought to be or how small it ought to be, but the car should just work really, really well. And it ought to work in partnership with the private sector and not against it. That doesn't mean it should be laissez-faire and lackadaisical. If you have regulations, they should be smart and they ought to be directly attuned to what the private sector needs. And the private sector ought to be respectful of what the public sector needs so you create that environment where that discussion can take place, while creating something that works.

GT: Speaking of cars, this is the ride-sharing company Lyft's first month operating in New Orleans, and Uber is also a fairly recent addition with the city council allowing operations last year. Is this balance what you’re referring to with the emerging ride-sharing companies in New Orleans? 

Mayor Landrieu: To a certain extent. I've been on record as saying technology is going to drive new ways of delivering old services. So the sharing economy, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber are all coming, but I have been critical, for example, of the owners of Uber because I think they've been disrespectful and overly aggressive and not showing the least bit of concern for who they're going to leave out of work. They’ve been reactionary and purposefully antagonistic to laws. That's not the right thing.

When you want to come in and disrupt a regulatory system, you have to do so respectfully, and like every other American citizen you have to submit to the democratic form of government. So you have city councils, and legislators, and governors who have to work through all of this stuff. And sometimes it takes a little more time than what billionaires like, so they have to be patient, respectful and thoughtful.

Eventually it will happen, but it ought to happen in a way where they aren't the only ones benefiting from [regulatory changes] but in a way everybody benefits. At the end of the day, customers are going to want to get to places quickly and cheaply — and to the extent that technology helps us do that — that's the way technology is going to move, but you don't have to roll over other people to do so. Early on that's what Uber did and I think they're learning a little bit more now and I think they're getting a little bit better, but I think they need to get better fast.

GT: What's the next big technology push for New Orleans, whether it's related to infrastructure or city services?

Mayor Landrieu: I don't think there's one big push; I think the idea is to make sure that the city of New Orleans — in whatever it’s doing — is working with cutting-edge technology to help it solve old problems in new ways. For example, we're refitting all of the pipes underneath the city because we're bleeding about 40 percent of our water with pipes that were cracked as a result of Katrina. We need to fix that, which means we need to dig up our streets, and if we're doing that, we ought to be thinking about fiber-optic cable.

In another example, when we're working through how communities communicate with the Mayor's Office, we should be looking into technology that can do that. So I'm asking my guys to look all over the country at the most innovative uses of technology that cities are using or things that we might just be able to adopt from the private sector. Palantir, for example, has been one of our partners in fighting crime that by using data helps us predict where crime is going to occur. All of this type of technology is really informative.

It shouldn't just be the private sector that's on the cutting edge of technology. Governments ought to do it too. A lot of times it's a matter of cost, because it is expensive to rebuild infrastructure, but if you do it right — and you're thoughtful — you'll save people a lot of money and you'll deliver a better product to people.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.