In January 2016 I published the post “Putting meaningful innovation on the fast track” after comparing into the speed of deployment of market driven urban innovations like Airbnb and Uber vs the adoption of innovations that match actual city priorities. I concluded that the prime indicator in how fast an innovation would spread was not its meaning, e.g. whether it solved an urgent community need or the potential financial benefit it might deliver. Instead, the prime determinant appeared to be how closely it needed to work with city halls, i.e. their dependence on partnering, regulation, or procurement.
Speed of adoption of urban innovations in 2016
I looked that post up again when I reflected on my own quote in the recent Future of U.S. Cities Report:
“Cities are beginning to realize that it is no longer them setting the agenda for change. The ones building the technology are moving so quickly that cities must be partners.”
I paused to reflect on this observation. For context, this quote referred to a trend in which cities are no longer planning against tech progress or companies, but are inviting them into the planning process by opening traditional planning, engineering and consulting assignments to technology companies. [Denver, Tulsa, Santa Monica]
Intentionally or not, I think that this trend further formalizes and accelerates the two-track innovation model I wrote about in 2016.
Technological change is accelerating, and yes, many of the solutions promise to be better than the status quo. But three years on I am still asking myself: What about the navigation system for the blind. What about solutions to tackle chronic homelessness. What about inequality in opportunity, health and education. Again we are accelerating what the market gives us, instead of where we want to go.
Urban innovation should, in my mind, not only mean technological progress. It should be a meaningful way to improve our cities. Starting with the priorities that matter and hurt us today. And here is where I do not see civic and social entrepreneurs invited to bid for or win RFPs to design our future care or education systems in the same way that we are inviting tech companies to plan our communities.
A case for public and social innovation
It is not for lack of innovation or grand ideas. In fact, the pipeline of proven social innovations is more tested, more viable and tangible than many of the technologies we speculate about. They tend to have withstood harder scrutiny and presented better evidence to become viable. And they are commonly designed from the most vulnerable upwards, quite unlike technologies like Uber and Airbnb.
It also opens a vastly more diverse community of entrepreneurs. Look for example at the more than 3,500 social entrepreneurs in the past 30 years that were awarded Ashoka Fellowships, one of the most rigorous selection processes in the field. Women-founded VC funded startups made up just 2.5% in 2018. Women awarded Ashoka Fellowships make up 38%. Many leading social entrepreneurs come out of poverty and related social hardships that inspired their journey to create a fix.
Many cities already listen to more diverse voices and open to partnerships with various forms of social entrepreneurship. But too many times, social innovation flourishes not with the help of government, but despite it.
I can easily envision a future where we pay as much attention to the rapid innovation coming out of social entrepreneurship as we do to technology.
How about 1:1 to start with?
A simple way forward may be for Mayors and City Leaders to commit to a 1:1 engagement with technology and social entrepreneurs. This could guarantee that we are not building a lopsided future and also force our governments to pay attention to the vast creativity and innovation brought by social entrepreneurs.
Citymart data shows that the current ratio of government contracts open to new ideas in tech versus social innovation is about 10:1 (20:1 in the US). Instead of reducing the adoption of tech, we should up on social innovation, reporting regularly on progress in both arenas.
Making a 1:1 commitment would raise the game on innovation and help cities get closer to a goal of opening 25% of their procurements and $500bn a year to new ideas and small business. It would accelerate the creation of new markets for social innovations and transform the diversity of who cities do business with.
Isn't this what a win-win looks like?