Talking innovation with smart city pioneers

Centralized versus decentralized? Top down or bottom up?

The search continues for the perfect form-factor for the most efficient and agile, smart and resilient city model. As with any enterprise, there will be no clear answer. Many factors have little to do with matrixes and everything to do with the personalities and skills sets of urban leadership. Oh, and lest we forget, there’s a thing called “politics” and “elections” that cities must manage, wild cards even the most tumultuous private businesses don’t experience.

Despite these variables, we asked two pioneers in the smart city movement for their thoughts on key factors that contribute to smart city strategy: innovation and procurement


Pundits have long debated whether the city center or periphery should be the place to stimulate and deploy innovative programs. The question boils down to whether there should be a coordinated innovation blueprint driven by City Hall, or whether innovation should happen organically and closer to the customer-taxpayer.

I posed the question to Brett Goldstein, who broke new ground in open data after being appointed CIO and chief data officer for Chicago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011.

Goldstein has roots in the lean and agile style of the startup world, having been a member of the launch team that took OpenTable public. As CIO for Chicago (a position he left in 2013), he led a group responsible for driving technology innovation across the city.

Goldstein feels that the innovation engine needs to be finely balanced between directed and organic actions. Since many city departments operate in innovation isolation, he sees a need for some form of “mission control” to determine how  innovations can leverage additional data or supply incremental data to other departments. For example, an app related to bus or train schedules could prove to be very useful to the emergency preparedness department.


Many urban leaders have expressed frustration about how their procurement departments have essentially killed innovation by excessively scrutinizing startup companies in the buying process.

I asked Nigel Jacob, founder of the groundbreaking Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, about this trend. Jacob’s technology innovation incubator has now been expanded to “franchises” in Philadelphia and Utah.

So have procurement hurdles stifled the ability of startup to be come a key element in smart city creativity and innovation in Boston?

Without hesitation Jacob says, “Absolutely not. To the contrary, we’re probably a case study in how startups play on a level playing field with the large vendors.”

Jacob claims that Boston was able to offer innovation egalitarianism by keeping the procurement process within the New Urban Mechanics group (a civic innovation group), instead of central services. The strategy required spending hours with city attorneys to assure that New Urban Mechanics offered the same contractual scrutiny as the formal procurement division.

The fact that contracts for cutting-edge civic technology were being reviewed by people with an intimate knowledge of those technologies could not be underestimated.

Common to both successful innovation and procurement strategies is proximity to the citizen. Jacob and Goldstein emphasize the perils of technology deployments for the sake of technology, and the disastrous effects of disconnects at the city, neighborhood and individual level.





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