Making Government Work

For the Global Good, Mayors Move to the Spotlight

August 28, 2017
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For the Global Good, Mayors Move to the Spotlight
How tech-centric cities are boosting civic engagement.

City leaders are thinking globally, even as they act locally. More than 300 mayors brought local government to the international stage in June when they promised to uphold the Paris climate accord. “We can’t wait for governments to act on climate change. For solutions, look to cities,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Twitter.

This is part of a larger trend of cities embracing their power to change the world by activating their residents. Set against a backdrop of population growth that predicts that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2030, cities are seeding interest in civic engagement and local government with citizens who are eager to create more inclusive communities. “Inequality — in access and quality of services, and therefore, opportunity — is one of the single largest threats our society faces today,” says Jeff Senne, corporate responsibility operations leader and senior director at PwC. “Cities possess the highest levels of inequality and consequently provide the greater opportunity to address the root drivers of this issue.”

Global players appear to be taking notice. At this year’s Social Innovation Summit in Chicago, representatives from city offices around the globe met with business and philanthropy leaders to discuss insights and innovations related to local and global issues.  

Unlike their larger counterparts, local initiatives benefit from their scale and speed. City governments are smaller and more nimble than state and national governments. “At the city level, we can quickly impact and change residents’ lives,” says summit speaker Sharone April, director of the Jerusalem Innovation Team.

Technology also plays a role in a city’s ability to act quickly and agilely while serving its public. New online platforms, aimed at information exchanges between residents and local governments, have allowed cities to promote two-way conversations and civic engagement. In Philadelphia, a mobile lab called PHL Participatory Design Lab travels around town to give residents a chance to voice their thoughts on ways to improve their city. The city of Charlotte, N.C., plans to start a weekly podcast called Your Move, featuring city officials conversing with Millennials.

Members of the Minneapolis Innovation Team, one of about 20 innovation teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, discussed their web portal for small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. The portal offers resources to fledgling entrepreneurs, such as starter guides for common business types and information on how to navigate regulatory processes.

“It’s all in response to what communities said they want,” says Brian K. Smith, director of the Minneapolis Innovation Team. “When we make it easier for small businesses and minority and immigrant entrepreneurs to access the knowledge, financial and social capital they need to be successful, we not only help the business owners at the margins. We also make everybody’s lives easier.”

A similar online platform has gained popularity in Los Angeles. In September 2016, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Innovation Team introduced a program that helps small business owners cut through red tape. The open-source platform offers step-by-step guidance to overcome hurdles such as finding a location, negotiating a lease and getting a business loan. “We worked with city leaders and residents to design and test the portal and are consistently sharing the process and tools we used with other cities so that they can start with what we did and hopefully launch something even better that we can take from in the future,” says Amanda Daflos, director of the Innovation Team in the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation.

That spirit of collaboration could be felt in another city, halfway around the world: An app called Coming Soon, based in Jerusalem, Israel, allows locals to name the types of businesses their neighborhoods lack. Coming Soon shares that information with entrepreneurs to help them target, refine and optimize their new ventures. “It provides powerful data for business owners so that they can open the right business in the right location,” April says. That data is especially powerful in a city where half of new businesses shutter within five years.

“Residents will be able to influence what is happening in their neighborhoods,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said in a statement. “This will impact the city through enhanced quality of life for residents and advance the business sector—a win-win for all involved.”

The focus is specific, but the ambition is broad. By creating hyper-local initiatives that encourage an engaged public, city and industry leaders hope to affect quality of life across diverse sectors, including climate, economy, technology and opportunity. Local mayors to the world: Perhaps there’s also room to act globally, but think locally.  

Presented by Social Innovation Summit. NationSwell and PwC are Social Innovation Summit partners.

Social Innovation Summit is an annual global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers. In June 2017, more than 1,400 Fortune 500 corporate executives, venture capitalists, CSR and foundation heads, government leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists, emerging market investors and nonprofit heads convened in Chicago to investigate solutions and catalyze inspired partnerships that are disrupting history.

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