Progress and Possibility: What City Innovation is Showing Us Today
November 6, 2023
Progress and Possibility: What City Innovation is Showing Us Today
November 6, 2023

Across the globe, cities are showing us new light and building on the strong legacy of public innovation as we celebrate two years of impact at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins

By Amanda Daflos, Executive Director

Every city leader knows the moments of deep frustration – whether created by systemic silos, budget challenges, or the inevitable intersection where the passion for public service and the limits of time, space, and complex needs meet.

What we all also know is that when we lean into these tensions, when we leverage data to support our ambition, and when we learn from each other as a rich worldwide network, we can make incredible progress happen for people.

Whether you are on a team like Mexico City’s, which is increasing access to digital services to more than 4 million people; working in a place like Salt Lake City, which is expanding and institutionalizing its civic engagement; or having an experience similar to Reykjavík, Iceland, which is reimagining its support for school-aged children and families through a complete redesign of its services – each city and public servant is showing that the power to impact people is enormous and available when we leverage innovation to unlock opportunity. 

This week we marked two years of our journey at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins – building on the legacy of the Bloomberg Philanthropies and others who have helped chart the course.

Every day in our work at the Center, city leaders, volunteers, and community members are showing us an array of not just what is possible, but also how to leverage inspiration and evidence to expand that possibility to every local government.

As I’ve experienced this new seat – moving from delivering in city hall to supporting city halls in a new way – these are a few insights I have witnessed that are providing inspiration in cities and in our continued work to support city halls as they expand into cutting-edge, ambitious, creative centers for their people. 

The most effective innovations are deeply human 

When something great happens once, it is easy to attribute the success to an individual or anomaly. When that greatness permeates and replicates across cultures and regions and with varying contributors, it is a sign that something deeper is happening. 

This summer in four cities, five early-career students from Johns Hopkins trained on innovation methods and government at our Center and then headed across the country and seas to serve in City Halls. While, by design, we anticipated they would make an impact and learn, we could not have known what they would teach. 

In Bogotá, Colombia, Emma Miner worked to support the work of El Laboratorio de Innovación Pública de Bogotá, known as iBO, the city’s Public Innovation Lab, on the Care Blocks project. By the time she returned to campus, she’d helped strengthen and expand women’s access to social, educational, and entrepreneurial services.

Her work, like that of all the Summer Scholars, centered on a basic understanding of human-centered design and public innovation, helped bring together and demonstrate something great – public servants are collectively focused on working together to center the lives of residents and deliver. As Miner shared, “Communities have the most knowledge, and you need to speak with communities to fully understand the problem before you start to think about solutions. If you’re not speaking with the communities, you’re not developing something that’s impactful.”

This insight and the experiences of our five summer scholars represents part of the core reason we engage in our work at BCPI – that public service is still the best opportunity to impact the lives of people, and when we approach the work centering humans and focusing on data and research, we, together with city halls and residents, can accomplish amazing things. 

Connection is a requirement, not an option for our field 

This year, BCPI’s two-year anniversary coincided with one of our biggest opportunities to unite innovation leaders in person. At the City Innovation Studio during the 10th Year Anniversary of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ CityLab, more than 125 innovators who work on innovation teams, infrastructure projects, and data teams connected in person and began a new wave of connection we know will expand the capacity of the field.

We are excited to support this work, led by our partners at Bloomberg Philanthropies, who create the critical connections among practitioners through programming that includes CityLab, the Bloomberg Cities Network Hub, the Local Infrastructure Hub, and many other initiatives that advance the field and public innovation work in cities.

In the words of one innovator who recently attended programming supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and our Center, “I love hearing about the amazing work other cities are doing. It is truly inspirational as I work to grow my team and scope of services [in our city].”

As another shared, “the tools and resources provided will be incredible tools for my community to utilize in our endeavor to increase the level of community engagement and to help us hear the voices of those [who are] underserved…I love all the information that the Bloomberg Cities Network provides its members and am looking forward to continuing to learn and grow.”

Trust and partnerships are key to sustaining impact  

Lastly, as I reflect on the progress from our first two years, I am inspired by the 35 cities that have participated in research led by our inaugural Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellows at Johns Hopkins, Tommi Laitio and Terrance Smith. 

As fellows, they have the special opportunity to research, reflect, and develop ideas for the field to reflect upon and advance. Tommi and Terrance’s important work has helped elevate and bring new light to how we think about and ignite work around partnerships, trust, and how these concepts impact cities, quality of life, and our ability to deliver on big aspirations each day. 

As I read about the conversations and exciting sharing to come, I deeply understand that the forces of partnerships and trust are at work in all we do – and sustaining the good for the future. 

Tommi often reflects that “innovative partnerships happen somewhere between harmony and open conflict. Recognizing friction as a precondition for innovation requires cultural change. Successful public institutions commit to continued practice, convening with partners for learning, disciplined real-world experimentation, and turning their lessons into predictable yet responsive policy.”

As Terrance has observed, “Trust is a dynamic to be managed. All city governments must embed it into their organizational infrastructure. Once trustworthiness is established, opportunities for innovating and improving peoples’ lives expand.

Together, as we continue in this work, we are excited to serve at the forefront of a growing effort to embed public innovation into every city, every department, and every job description in public service. Together with city leaders, we are moving closer to advancing  innovation into every government project and towards a comprehensive, all-of-government way of working. Your partnership as city leaders, volunteers, and partners continues to power creative ideas and deliver ambitious efforts to improve the lives of people. We are doing this through prioritizing resident experience. We are doing this through data-informed decisioning. And, we are doing this because we have bold partners who drive systems change, create more trustworthy governments, and lead innovation where it’s at its best – when it is making a difference for people.

Thank you for your support during these past two years and for the many more to come. 

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