10 Creative Ideas For Thriving Cities Of The Future

From handing families $50 to start college savings plans to creating open platforms for citizen participation, here are the best examples of innovation worth spreading that are coming from local government.

While Washington, D.C. continues to fight with itself, cities around the country are carrying on innovating. We’ve said it before: If you want to feel good–or at least better–about government, look to the metro areas, not the capital. Washington is only likely to depress you.


The Center for an Urban Future, a New York think tank, and NYU Wagner, a public policy school, have identified “proven and scalable reforms that can improve, and possibly transform, the city.” Their Innovation and the City report, based on interviews with 200 policy experts, is framed as a document for New York’s next mayor, who will be elected this November. But in reality, the 15 ideas apply to many cities, and perhaps a few towns as well. Below, a selection of 10 of the ideas.

1: 311

Chicago and Boston have created open platforms that let citizens report issues, which are then tracked by local governments. For example, you can go to Chicago’s 311 Service Tracker (Boston’s equivalent is called Citizen’s Connect), and report graffiti or a fallen tree limb. You can then see that the relevant department has received the request, and get notified when something is (or isn’t) done about it. The openness is important (you can see anyone’s complaint), as it enables residents to work together, and for third-party developers to re-use the information.


San Francisco has a “Kindergarten to College” program aimed at incentivizing young people to go to college (not that this is the silver bullet it used to be). Every kid in public kindergarten gets $50 in seed money, and then private groups match deposits as families add to the account. The report says the idea not only improves college affordability, but also gives the “under-banked” access to financial services.



Chicago has a “modern-day suggestion box” for city employees. If anyone in the bureaucracy has an idea for improving a public service, they can write up a short proposal for seed money. The city stipulates only that the proposal pays for itself in five years (funding is dropped if it doesn’t) and does not involve adding staff to the payroll.


Denver identified a key problem with institutional change: bureaucratic inertia. As one official puts it: “culture will eat strategy for lunch every time.” To get around this, it has launched the Peak Academy, which trains lower-level staff in new techniques.


London has developed a consistent method, called Project Oracle, for evaluating the impact of nonprofits that it funds. Previously, the city didn’t know which nonprofits were leading or lagging as they offered social services. “The new system will for the first time enable the city to gauge and compare the relative progress made by publicly funded entities who work with disadvantaged teens and families,” the report says.



Spacehive, a London-based crowdfunding platform, wasn’t created by the city, but it helps local governments to get a sense of what the community wants, and ensures that no more debt is added to the books. Anyone from the community can pitch a project, and in many cases matching funds are available once proposals hit certain thresholds. Sites like, and Citizinvestor (which we’ve written about) do something similar here, though Spacehive claims it came up with the idea first.


San Francisco is a leader in waste management. Between 1990 and 2010, the city raised its recycling rate from 20% to 77%. By 2020, it wants to go “zero waste”–that is, send nothing at all to landfill. (By contrast, New York recycles only 15%). “This achievement is not simply the product of Pacific Northwest progressive culture, but of strategic, multidimensional, and long-term planning,” the report says.


Philadelphia, Chicago, and Providence have introduced “digital badging,” allowing students to earn credentials outside traditional education settings–for example, by attending workshops in libraries or museums. The schemes give credit to skills and talents that “too often go unrecognized in the K-12 school system and other institutional contexts.”



Seattle, Vancouver, and Santa Cruz have introduced measures designed to allow more elderly people to “age in place”–normally with their families–rather than go off to nursing or assisted living homes. For example, Vancouver relaxed building codes to let homeowners convert basements to “accessory dwelling units”. Seattle lets families extend buildings on their lots. The idea caters to changing demographics, provides more affordable housing, and increases social cohesion.


To increase use of public transit and cut road congestion, San Francisco requires companies employing more than 20 people to offer tax-free travel benefits. The report says the pretax deduction, worth up to $245 per month, has raised transit commuting rates and cut greenhouse gas emissions.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.