As the concept of smart cities evolves and technology penetrates deeper into the inner workings of government, cities have gone through a series of modernization phases. In his 2014 inaugural address to the US Conference of Mayors, Kevin Johnson, Mayor of Sacramento, said “We are entering into a new era of cities that I call Cities 3.0. […] In this era, the city is a hub of innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. It’s paperless, wireless and cashless. In 3.0 cities we have more cell phones than landlines, more tablets than desktops, more smart devices than toothbrushes. This truly represents a new era of the American city”.

This was the underlying theme of the first edition of City Innovate Summit, held in San Francisco on June 17-18, 2015. During this two-day event, the Summit brought together representatives from around the world, including Mayors from Bay Area cities, Japan, Europe and Israel, as well as civic entrepreneurs, large corporations, and non-profits such as Tumml and Code for America. The event was divided into 8 tracks addressing Urban Planning & Design, Digital Infrastructure, Small Businesses, Mobility, Civic Innovation, Maker Cities, and Open Data Privacy & Security.

The importance of cross-sectoral problem solving and citizen engagement

With the diversity of players present at this event and conversations that were had, it was evident that inter-disciplinary collaboration is the key to solving many urban challenges. The city of San Francisco launched an Entrepreneurship in Residence program, inviting several entrepreneurs to collaborate with City departments and explore innovative solutions to civic challenges. The City also has a one-year fellowship program focusing on cross-sectoral leadership, allowing people from different sectors to work together. The goal for bringing in start-ups to government is to tackle issues with a technology perspective and start by doing, instead of long-term planning; emphasized Jen Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director of Code for America.

Understanding the value of combining efforts and a diverse group of people to innovate in a city can also be seen through the lens of the Maker City. As described by Peter Hirshberg, Chairman of the Summit, maker cities are jazz cities. The problem is that until now, urban renewal was done to people and not by its users. With the Maker City movement, we are seeing the city as a platform to engage citizens and many solutions arising from the bottom-up. It is a very exciting time and many cities are addressing these civic challenges with local talent and innovation. The City of Tel Aviv, for example, has an Office of Young Adults and has made an effort to go out and meet its constituents on their turf, in bars and other social gatherings. Involving citizens, engaging them and bringing them into the process, is crucial for designing a vision for a better city

Digital Infrastructure and Privacy Concerns

One of the other main challenges that cities are faced with is re-purposing legacy infrastructure and laying down the foundation for universal communication. For cities such as San Jose and San Francisco, digital infrastructure and connectivity is important for equity. Also, as more devices get connected, they will need ubiquitous systems in order to act in real-time and communicate with one another. To do this, cities are rethinking their partnerships with vendors and providers and how they are delivering services.

While more cities are opening up their doors and launching open data portals and more civic-focused apps are emerging, the usefulness of open data hinges on visualization and the ability to prove its value. The City of Los Angeles launched their open data portal last year and has also signed a partnership with Waze in order to share traffic data and other road condition information. As Peter Marx, CTO of Los Angeles said, data is only useful if it leads to action and you can derive a direct response for meaningful impact. 7,000 police officers in LA are now equipped with body cameras. Although this raises concerns over privacy, as is the partnership with Waze, these are all issues that are being figured out right now in order to reach the end goal of providing better services.

Where do we go from now?

It seems that we are facing a renewal of civic engagement and that overall, small companies and individuals are excited about participating in solving urban challenges. Startups are more nimble and even though technology can provide faster solutions, collaborating with the city is essential in ensuring these solutions address real needs, reach as many people as possible, and are compliant with regulation. We look forward to seeing more public-private partnerships, entrepreneurs in residence programs, innovation hubs and civic accelerators around the world, and which takeaways from this year’s conference were implemented and applied.