3 Urban Innovations NYC’s New Mayor Should Steal

Data, openness, and happiness–coast to coast.

3 Urban Innovations NYC’s New Mayor Should Steal
Chicago, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica all can teach New York City a thing or three. [Images: Flickr users Cherrylet, Dave Rosenblum, and Dennis Lam]

After 12 years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s replacement has now been chosen. Some of Bloomberg’s brightest ideas, like Citibike, 311, and the ban on smoking, will certainly live on. More controversial introductions, like stop-and-frisk policing and the position of Chief Digital Officer, may be on their way out. But the billionaire himself is continuing his legacy of championing urban innovation through his private Bloomberg Philanthropies, which sponsors an annual Mayors Challenge, awarding cash to cities with the best proposals for making life better. Last year, the contest drew 300 American entrants and the prize was a million dollars; this year it’s open to European cities and the prize is a million pounds. The deadline is November 11th.


Fast Company spoke to representatives of three winners of the 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge, who are just now getting their projects underway. Here are their thoughts about how their ideas could work in New York City.

Chicago: Be Data Driven.

Chicago is building SmartData, a predictive analytics platform to relate the data collected by various city agencies in a spatial framework. The entire thing will be open source, so any city can use it.

“The city has information spread across many systems, and it’s changing every day,” says Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman. “Predictive analytics can put into the hands of someone with two years experience the capability of someone who has 20 years experience. It can be used to help target any city resource better.”

Three potential use cases for the platform are to better target emergency services during winter storms, to reduce pedestrian fatalities by tracking traffic in real time, and to figure out where to focus pest control efforts in advance, instead of relying on citizens to call in complaints.

Currently, for example, Chicago has traffic cameras at hundreds of intersections. The platform will coordinate their input to suggest detours in case of an accident, deploy officers to direct traffic if a light is down, or adjust the timing of stoplights to optimize flow.

The full system will take three years to complete, but Chicago used the beta version to help deal with crowds and cleanup for their marathon last month.


Chicago’s advice for New York City: “As long as you stay focused on the challenges and needs of your residents you’ll be on the right track.”

Philadelphia: Incentivize and accelerate social innovation.

Applications opened last week for FastFWD, a project of the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, itself a newly created city office.

Story Bellows describes the office’s mission this way: “We’re not the only people innovating, but we’re the only people whose boss told us that if we didn’t fail we weren’t trying hard enough.”

When a city wants, say, an office renovated, they issue an Request for Proposals or RFP, specifying the details of the project in advance, including deadlines and other deliverables, from top to bottom. But what if they want to draw on the wisdom of the private and nonprofit sector to tackle a risky, undefined challenge, like public safety, for example? The Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership is a modification of the RFP.

“We’re basically trying to make sure that we’re sourcing new solutions,” says Bellows. “The program we announced will enable us to direct the energy of entrepreneurs to solving some really deep challenges in areas where they have not had access to the deep understanding of that problem.” In partnership with the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Good Company Ventures, a social venture incubator, the city is creating an innovation challenge around public safety, giving small amounts of money to a larger circle of organizations to pilot very different visions for change, and sharing its insights into the problem in a series of public forums without being too prescriptive.

“We’re talking about the need for new solutions to help with recidivism, or how we share data across different agencies, or how some people with mental health challenges end up in the prison system or taking up the police’s time,” says Bellows. “We want to offer these as descriptive opportunities for some of the challenges, but we don’t think those are exhaustive. We want to leave space for something really unexpected.”


Philly’s advice for New York City: “Make sure to make the space and time for innovation. Dedicate staff to innovative approaches to problem-solving inside city government.”

Santa Monica: Measure and Manage Citizens’ Well-Being.

With a population of just 90,000, the City of Santa Monica was the smallest winner of the Mayors Challenge, and they did it with an idea that sounds very Southern California: a health and happiness indicator.

The Wellbeing Project is one of the first attempts in the U.S. to create an official city index in a wide range of areas including economics, education, health, social connectedness, and physical environment, to be used when the city makes decisions and allocates funds. Like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, it’s an attempt to capture citizens’ well-being in a form that is multidimensional, empirical, and actionable. “We’ve done a number of deep dive interviews with a range of experts–[psychologist] Martin Seligman and his team, the New Economic Foundation in the U.K., Rand, Gallup, folks in the tech sector, data analysts,” says Julie Rusk, assistant director of Santa Monica’s Community and Cultural Services.

Santa Monica’s advice for New York City: “Traditionally cities are pretty siloed. We’re hoping to become part of a global network of cities that are trying this refocusing of measurement around human well-being.”


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation