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What Civic Innovation Looks Like Today and Tomorrow

Philadelphia has hired its first ever Director of Civic Technology. San Francisco, Boston and New York already have them. But what exactly do they do? And what about cities that can’t afford to have their own Civic Innovation Officers or Innovation hubs?

Alissa Black is the Director of the California Innovation Project at the New America Foundation. She has launched a new white paper, The 2050 City, What Civic Innovation Looks Like Today and Tomorrow.

Black told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that she realized there were so many different actors within the field of innovation, actors that weren’t talking to each other at all.


No one definition of civic innovation:

“I would say civic innovation is anything that improves the lives of residents and changing the relationship between residents and government. I include government as a central role not just a player in this arena.”

Does Government Get in the Way?

“We find that most when the term civic innovation gets hijacked by the civic technology. Often times local government is uncomfortable with that technology piece so they prevent it by being very risk averse. They don’t always have the skills in place to use the new tech, so they create roadblocks. When you can extract technology of of that definition it is an easier sell.”

Why do we need civic innovation?

“Our cities are facing huge challenges, not just financial but also demographic and as our cities become more diverse and the budgets continue to struggle their needs have to shift. Part of the opportunity here is that we can connect with these other groups. We talk about silos a bunch in and out of government, here we have community groups, foundations, governments and technologists that are all operating and driving their own civic innovations without any coordination.”

Role of the Chief Innovation Officer

“The role in large part depends on the size and type of city. Part of the argument about not needing Chief Innovation Officers stems from towns from where your city manager is also your volunteer fire chief. So in those cases it might never be feasible, but there is still a lot that can be done.”

Embed the Innovation

“The innovation officer in Boston is a great example. They have embedded innovation within City Hall, so they aren’t acting like a separate R&D arm. If innovation offices become another silo it just exacerbates the problem.

Examples of Success:

  • San Jose: They used the platform Next Door to create a social network for a specific neighborhood.
  • Vallejo: Participatory budgeting. The city allowed it’s residents to choose how $3.2 million was allocated.

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