5 ideas from Silicon Valley on making your city more innovative

By Kevin Ebi, Smart Cities Council

Most cities want to become more innovative, but how do you create an environment where that actually happens?

Silicon Valley is known for its spirit of innovation. Home to many of the world’s leading technology companies, the drive to innovate runs in the region’s veins. Leaders of five enterprising cities in the region offered tips to replicate their success.

1. Ping pong tables aren’t innovation
Too often when people try to replicate the culture of innovation that they see in start-ups, they focus on the superficial. They try to replicate the appearance of the work environment, but don’t actually change the way that work is done.

Joy Bonaguro, San Francisco’s chief data officer, says you can’t micromanage your people to creative solutions.

“It’s can’t just be, ‘We’ve got ping pong tables. We’re like a start-up now!’” she said. “You will not be like a start-up if you don’t actually empower people, give them the right tools and remove the blockers. You can’t have the trappings of a start-up but not the actual empowerment.”

2. Inspire departments to demonstrate leadership
Bonaguro had another valuable piece of advice for cities: Don’t take data solutions to your city departments. Let your city departments ask for data help. It’s a mindset shift that delivers much stronger results.

“We used to go to departments and say, `Oh, there is so much opportunity to work with your data,’” she said. The burden was then on her data team to deliver results.

Not anymore. San Francisco now makes its departments apply to work with data scientists. The application process makes the departments much more ready to receive the help, making better overall use of everyone’s time and resources.

3. Be a leader yourself
You may also need to adjust the mindset surrounding what it truly means to run a city’s IT department. Hint: to be innovative, the job is about more than just keeping the computers running.

“The role is not to run IT,” said Shireen Santosham, San Jose’s chief innovation officer. “The role is to be a public leader for technology.”

It wasn’t long ago that only 3% of her city had access to high-quality fiber networks. Many low-income families with children didn’t even have high-speed internet. If that kind of gap is holding your city back, don’t be afraid to advocate.

4. Make it easy for others to innovate
Lily Mei, the mayor of Fremont, CA, says for maximum impact, you want to create an “innovation ecosystem.” And that means looking beyond the walls of city hall.

How is it for people to do business with your city? How easy is it for businesses to get the permits or data they need?

It all matters. Mei says too often we look at what we can do quickly to attract business without thinking about what can be done to create a long-term innovation environment throughout your city.

5. Set the bar higher
Innovation isn’t about taking tiny steps. It’s about finding a way to make giant leaps.

Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer, says if you’re finding that your city isn’t innovative, you may not be dreaming big enough. He says too often we completely underestimate the level of change we need to make.

“Our ideas have to be bigger. Our ideas have to be bolder. Our ideas have to be riskier.”


Kevin Ebi is the global managing editor of the Smart Cities Council, which helps cities to become more livable, workable and sustainable. Register for the Smart Cities Week, October 2-4 in Washington, D.C.

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