Change doesn’t have to happen from the top down. Even as shifts in Washington, D.C., fuel uncertainty, people in communities across the country are taking it upon themselves to chip away at the challenges in front of them, coming up with innovative solutions that can have nationwide significance. Here, we highlight some of the most promising projects, initiatives, and companies that are springing up in every state of the union. Together, they present a portrait of the country today—its concerns and responses, and its enduring capacity for progress.
An entrepreneurial food hall
Downtown Birmingham’s new Pizitz Food Hall is helping to ensure the area’s urban revitalization by supporting the next generation of restaurateurs. Along with spaces for established eateries, it includes an area where a rotating group of up-and-comers can test their concepts with the public for four to six months, rent-free.
A push for faster classrooms
The state’s effort to bring high-speed internet to all K–12 schools will be complete by summer. For Arkansas’s 600,000 students, that means additional devices in the classrooms and a more STEM-focused curriculum. The state is now exploring putting Wi-Fi on school buses to allow students to complete homework on the road.
A statewide embrace of blockchain
With last year’s Delaware Blockchain Initiative, the state became the first to adopt distributed-ledger technology, to underpin its public archives. Now it’s working to allow corporations to use blockchain for financial filings; Delaware hopes to soon use it to issue shares, making trades instantaneous.
A private take on public transit
The Brightline, the country’s first privately funded passenger-railway service in 100 years, begins rolling from West Palm Beach to Miami this summer, and will eventually extend north to Orlando. New transportation hubs along the route are expected to add more than $6 billion to Florida’s economy and reinvigorate the state’s urban centers.
A living lab for the highway of the future
Highways have always had one job: get drivers from point A to point B. But soon, “we won’t regard the single-function road as a good investment,” says Allie Kelly, executive director of the Ray, an 18-mile stretch of I-85 an hour outside Atlanta that serves as a testing ground for new technologies. “We’re going to want a road that can multitask,” she says, by generating energy and communicating with drivers and even the cars themselves. That’s what Kelly is developing at the Ray. Since 2015, the roadway has debuted a rollover tire-monitoring system that texts drivers their tire pressure and tread depth, plant-filled ditches that clean runoff water from the road, and pavement with built-in solar technology, turning highways into sources of renewable energy. It’s all being done in partnership with the Georgia and U.S. departments of transportation. “What we are learning here is applicable to any highway in the world,” Kelly says.
A green scheme in coal country
This month, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development will begin hiring displaced coal workers as paid interns. They will be taught to use existing skills (many are already trained electricians) to become energy-efficiency auditors and energy contractors for the state, providing a boost to Kentucky’s post-coal economy.
A multitasking coastal barrier
Louisiana has turned to unconventional methods to restore and protect its eroding coast. The Living Shoreline Demonstration Project has been planting concrete and metal structures offshore that are designed to combat erosion and stimulate oyster-bed growth. Over time, the efforts will mold a more natural shoreline.
A fresh take on urban blight
Like many Rust Belt cities, Baltimore has struggled with housing vacancy. Instead of simply junking the city’s 17,000 empty buildings, a pair of social enterprises are creating job opportunities by working together to dismantle the structures mindfully. Details Deconstruction hires people facing barriers to employment—incarceration, a history of addiction, or lack of education—and puts them to work taking apart houses and preserving materials. Brick + Board transforms the salvaged hardware and reclaimed wood and brick into covetable products to sell to designers, architects, and homeowners. Their goods can be found trimming Exelon’s $160 million headquarters in downtown Baltimore and in the city’s new Open Works makerspace. “Our philosophy is that any solution to these vacancy issues has to begin with a job,” says Brick + Board director Max Pollock.
A resurgent manufacturing zone
Joe Max Higgins Jr., CEO of the Columbus-based regional economic development organization GTR LINK, has helped generate more than 6,000 jobs in one of America’s poorest regions by persuading companies, including a helicopter maker and a steel mill, to set up plants in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle.
A guilt-free to-go container
Durham’s restaurant scene is exploding—as are its landfills. Don’t Waste Durham recently debuted GreenToGo, a reusable and returnable takeout-container program that, for as low as $25 annually, allows diners to pick up boxes at participating restaurants (more than 40, and growing) and drop them off throughout the city.
A park paid for with pennies
Oklahoma City recently unveiled a $777 million public-works initiative called MAPS 3 that is entirely funded by a one-cent sales tax. The project includes multiple senior health centers, new convention facilities, fairground improvements, trails, a modern streetcar system, and a 70-acre park that will begin opening next year.
A bond for babies
When states need money for public welfare programs, some turn to taxpayers. But South Carolina took the creative step of using social impact bonds in an effort to help its disproportionate number of young, low-income mothers. The funds bolster the Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides nurses to educate and support first-time moms.
A new industry for tobacco farmers
There’s a dirty secret behind denim: the toxic, resource-intensive process that creates the synthetic indigo color used by most manufacturers. Sarah Bellos’s quest to overhaul this part of denim manufacturing with her five-year-old natural-dye processor, Stony Creek Colors, led her to Robertson County, a former tobacco-farming stronghold in Tennessee. With tobacco in retreat, Bellos offers farmers an alternative: Grow the indigo plants that Stony Creek Colors uses to produce its blue dye. “We bring high-value crops to farmers,” she says, “while changing their practices to be more sustainable.” Her indigo is used in high-end jeans from brands such as J.Crew and Nudie. After opening a new plant (in a former tobacco processor), Bellos is scaling production and signing more farmers and clothing brands. But indigo is just the first step. Stony Creek is creating an entire palette of colors, all made in Tennessee and Kentucky, from either high-yield crops that Bellos breeds or agricultural waste from industries such as sawmills. “We’re applying the principles of plant breeding and chemical engineering to replace the insane use of textile dyes across the industry,” Bellos says.
Related Video: This Tennessee Company Is Bringing An All-Natural Approach To Clothing Dyes
A green city in a red state
After announcing plans in 2015 to move to 100% renewables, the 60,000-person city of Georgetown is on track to achieve its goal. Next year, its municipality-owned utilities will become one of the largest to supply customers exclusively with solar and wind power. And fixed-rate contracts mean that what’s great for the environment is also smart business.
A technology employer for all
Richmond’s Maxx Potential is a five-year-old tech company whose workers are paid (starting at $12 an hour) to learn on the job. With little technical experience, they work alongside more-seasoned colleagues to build websites and apps for Fortune 500 companies and local nonprofits alike. Some stay for years, developing nuanced skills and training newcomers.
A grassroots cure for PTSD
The Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program helps vets, who account for an estimated 9% of West Virginia’s population, transition into civilian life and contribute to the state’s growing farming economy. With new funding from the statehouse, the program plans to offer veterans training, employment, and even help securing land.
A help desk for citizens
New Haven resident Ben Berkowitz created the SeeClickFix app to allow locals to quickly report nonemergency issues (broken meters and streetlights, potholes, and even excessive noise from ice-cream trucks). Officials can track, manage, and reply within the app. It has since expanded to some 300 municipalities across the country.
A pipeline for local food
To bolster regional growers, Portland entrepreneur David Stone launched Forager, a platform that digitizes interactions between farmers and retailers. The approximately 100 producers who have signed up can use Forager to connect with sellers, list their inventory, and fast-track payments. Stone is planning a national expansion.
A leg up for aspiring politicians
New Politics founder and AmeriCorps veteran Emily Cherniack wants to reinvigorate the political system by helping civic-minded national service alumni and military veterans seek office. Her nonpartisan, four-year-old organization has nurtured 23 rising politicians, helping them hire and build teams, develop strategy, and fundraise.
A bridge with a mind of its own
Portsmouth’s Memorial Bridge can now let state officials know when it needs maintenance. Engineers at the University of New Hampshire have installed sensors along the span that gather data on everything from structural soundness and traffic patterns to the effect of the bridge on the marine life below.
A rising food revolution
Inside a converted steel warehouse in Newark, thousands of trays stacked 36 feet high house seeds that will soon become baby arugula, kale, and bok choy—all without the help of sunlight, soil, or even a whole lot of water. The nearly 70,000-square-foot site, among the world’s most productive vertical farms, is the new headquarters of AeroFarms and a demonstration of what cofounder David Rosenberg thinks could be the solution to food shortages. The Newark space, which will ultimately farm up to 2 million pounds of sustainable produce per year via a high-tech aeroponic growing system, has been transformative for Newark. The company’s greens are sold in area grocery stores, and AeroFarms hires local talent to run its facilities, a practice Rosenberg plans to continue as he expands. His goal is to continue opening farms around the country, and eventually the world. “We want to feed mass populations,” he says.
A big-city tech-talent pipeline
This fall, the first batch of graduate students will take up residence at the Cornell Tech campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. The campus, which will open in stages until it covers 12 acres and accommodates about 2,500 people, is the city’s bid to create a vital magnet for tech talent. The school’s curriculum, which has been developed for the past few years at Cornell Tech’s temporary residence in Manhattan, steeps students in digital product development and entrepreneurial thinking while giving them an appreciation for the real-world needs of society. “Given the pace of innovation today, [schools] need to have closer ties to government and private industries,” says founding dean Daniel Huttenlocher. The campus reflects this ethos: In addition to student housing and classrooms, it’s also home to the Bridge, a 230,000-foot mixed-use building that includes classrooms, as well as an R&D outpost of the Two Sigma investment firm, a coworking space, and offices for both Cornell Tech and outside companies. Though the project, to be completed in 2043, has been dubbed “Silicon Island” by some, Huttenlocher has a distinctly local vision. “We don’t want to lose [New York’s] diversity of people and ideas,” he says. “One of the things we [emphasize] is building things that matter. And that’s something New York is great at.”
A matchmaker for craftsmen
Pittsburgh’s Craft Business Accelerator helps both traditional artisans (glassblowers, woodworkers) and modern makers with advanced manufacturing know-how grow into small-business owners by facilitating interactions with real estate developers, interior designers, architects, and restaurateurs who might buy their products.
A fresh look at old industry
The Rhode Island School of Design is piloting an executive education program called Design for Manufacturing Innovation to help working professionals transform and accelerate their industry. Classes include seminars on design thinking, workshops on 3-D printing and prototyping, and courses on how to assess and work with new materials.
A healthier health care model
Beginning this year, Vermont is phasing out the traditional “fee for service” system of health care with a “pay for performance” model that aims to reduce unnecessary tests and expenses by reimbursing medical practitioners based on their overall care of a patient. Vermont hopes to transition the entire state to the plan by 2022.
A solar spark for farmers
Founded by a husband-and-wife team of Purdue University professors (and funded in part by USAID), JUA Technologies has developed an affordable machine that harnesses the sun to create high-yield dehydrated crops—and give farmers a steady source of electricity. It’s being tested on organic farms in Indiana, as well as in Kenya and Senegal.
A more deliberative courtroom
Judges hearing bond cases have to make rapid-fire, highly consequential decisions all day long. To help them focus, the CannonDesign team in
Chicago devised a new courtroom, opening later this year, that improves acoustics, minimizes distraction, and displays sign-age that better explains the process to defendants.
A school for next-gen entrepreneurs
Rather than enrolling students in the usual science, English, and math courses, administrators at Iowa Big, a five-year-old public high school housed in a Cedar Rapids coworking space, ask them to pick a project from a pool of ideas and bring it to life. There are no grades or classes at this initiative-based school, where students typically stay for about two years while also taking courses at their traditional high school; instead, teachers weave academics into the projects, which include everything from constructing a sustainable aquaponics farm and modeling ideas for new recreation spaces to creating an inclusive fashion line. Iowa Big, which is funded in part by a local media company and the school district to foster regional innovation, emphasizes community involvement by pairing students with a businessperson who acts as a mentor. Cofounder Shawn Cornally says the school has hundreds of students on a waiting list. It is planning a second campus, thanks to a recent $1 million grant. “[Many] public schools are trying to teach kids what they need to know and get them out,” says Cornally. “We’re interested in joy and efficacy, and in students who think of themselves as entrepreneurs.”
A lifeline for rural hospitals
Internist and pediatrician Elisha Yaghmai cofounded Wichita-based Vigilias, a tech platform that connects remote clinics with primary and specialty care from bigger facilities, eliminating the need for long drives or costly transfers. The startup serves 28 Kansas hospitals and is expanding into Nebraska and New Mexico.
An illuminating plan in Detroit
Just a few years ago, nearly half of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights were out of commission. But after a three-year, $185 million effort that concluded this past December, the city’s Public Lighting Authority replaced old fixtures with 65,000 LED streetlights, making Detroit the largest U.S. city to have entirely energy-efficient streetlighting.
A high-speed hookup for rural residents
More of Minnesota will soon have access to what’s become a necessity: reliable, affordable high-speed internet. In January, the state announced its latest Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant to expand service to some 16,000 households and 2,000 businesses in underserved areas.
A database for smart cities
With free public Wi-Fi, smart traffic signals, and 125 interactive information kiosks, Kansas City is one of the country’s smartest cities. Even more intelligent: It has opened its data to residents so that they can access traffic patterns and find available parking spots. It’s also sharing its information with other cities to help them develop best practices.
A digital connection for seniors and their families
When a relative is in a nursing home, health updates are often delivered to the family only after a visit to the doctor. But that doesn’t tell the complete story: If a resident stops attending bingo night or meeting friends for a daily walk, it could be a sign that she needs a higher level of care. After experiencing a gap in communication with staff caring for her own relatives, Amy Johnson cofounded LifeLoop, a web-based platform that connects employees at senior-care facilities directly with residents’ families. The LifeLoop site offers relatives real-time updates on their loved ones’ daily activities, along with the ability to send messages to staff. And by digitizing the onerous task of charting patients’ actions on paper, the platform gives staff more time to focus on the residents themselves. “We’ve eliminated an hour of work per day for [facilities’] lifestyle directors,” says Johnson, “and told a story about [the patient’s] pattern of behavior.” The service, which Johnson developed at an Omaha-based incubator, launched in the Midwest in 2015 and has spread to nine states. Johnson says the senior-care industry has become increasingly open to such innovation: “We’re on the cusp of some great advances.”
An open sky just for drones
North Dakota is home to the country’s first space strictly for flying drones: the Grand Sky park, a 217-acre expanse in rural Grand Forks County. There, companies (along with the military) can test and research unmanned aircraft in rugged conditions and away from commercial airspace before releasing products on the market and into the wild.
A holistic approach to opioid abuse prevention
The Inject Hope Regional Collaborative brings together community leaders across public health, education, family services, drug prevention, and rehab sectors to address the region’s growing opiate epidemic. It launched an ad campaign last year to humanize and raise awareness of the issue.
A platform to break addiction
Sioux Falls’s Face It Together is battling drug and alcohol abuse with a portfolio of data-driven tech products that enable heath care providers to offer more holistic, long-term solutions and help communities better focus their public-health resources. The organization’s technology, piloted in South Dakota, is now being used in four states.
A water sensor that can see underground
Hiring experts to regularly measure the health of a well is expensive but important: Millions of Americans depend on well water. Wellntel, founded in Milwaukee, makes a series of solar-powered sensors that turns any well into a smart one, allowing owners to check on current levels and recovery time (how long it takes a well to refill after pumping) via an app. It also aggregates long-term data on a well’s water levels and can compare its performance to neighboring wells—information that’s especially useful for people in drought-weary states who can’t rely on rainwater. Cofounder Nicholas Hayes says the tracker and data-sharing system compiles more groundwater information than government agencies do. After taking orders from customers in 26 states, he’s planning an international expansion. “We developed a system that puts the information in the hands of the people who use it,” he says.
A national brand built on local values
Last fall, a pair of snacks began appearing in Whole Foods and other stores throughout the Pacific Northwest and West Coast: sleek packages of wild Alaskan salmon jerky and jars of smoked sockeye, under the label Dear North. The comestibles company is a subsidiary of the Huna Totem Corporation, which benefits its Alaska Native shareholders and the southeastern Alaskan community of Hoonah (population: 750). For years, Huna Totem has run a thriving cruise-ship port that celebrates the area’s Tlingit heritage. In an effort to create year-round revenue and jobs for locals, it launched Dear North, designed to export Alaskan products—and Hoonah’s values—to the rest of the country. “We wanted to share a piece of Alaska,” says CEO Russell Dick, “but also who we are and how we connect to the land.” The company is already planning to expand into other foods.
Related Video: How An Alaskan Cruise Business Ventured Into The Snack Industry
A boost for veteran founders
Former U.S. Air Force officer Phillip Potter is behind the year-old Armory, a Phoenix-based incubator offering mentorship and resources to veteran-led startups, which Potter says benefit from their founders’ backgrounds. A half-dozen city leaders throughout the country have already asked him to open outposts in their areas.
A college degree for free
In the fall, San Francisco will become the first city to offer tuition-free community college to residents. It’s an idea other cities have toyed with—and former President Barack Obama supported—but San Francisco is the only one that has committed to absorbing all expenses, regardless of income.
A marketplace for adventure
Denver-based Utivity applies the peer-to-peer model to skills instruction by inviting ski coaches, yoga experts, musicians, and more to list their services on its app and find eager clients. The app, which has developed a robust community with more than 1,000 experiences in the Denver area, is setting its sights on nationwide expansion.
A sustainable tech fund
The Honolulu-based Energy Excelerator is securing the islands’ finite natural resources by investing in more than 50 energy, agriculture, and mobility startups that champion sustainable, clean-tech solutions. The nonprofit program provides up to $1 million per company and helps them deploy with partners both in Hawaii and worldwide.
A new lens for nature lovers
Boise’s Travis Leslie and Prince McClinton turned their popular Art of Visuals Instagram account, full of Idaho nature photography, into an online platform that provides emerging shutterbugs with a million-person community and tools to perfect and sell their work, including online photo tutorials and preset Lightroom-editing filters.
A canine conservation team
Working Dogs for Conservation employs dogs’ impeccable sense of smell to protect the environment. Initially, a handful of dogs tracked threatened wildlife, such as grizzly bears; today, 30 dogs monitor aquatic contaminants, detect invasive species (such as zebra mussels), and sniff out diseases affecting livestock.
A drone-based cure for drought
A partnership between Las Vegas’s Desert Research Institute, manufacturer Drone America, and aerial-services provider Avisight recently launched a fleet of drones for cloud seeding (a process that releases silver iodide to generate rain from clouds). The group plans to deploy in other regions early next year.
A new perspective on the world
Founded by researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Descartes Labs uses AI to analyze satellite imagery for industries, academia, the government—and, now, everyone. The lab’s new online GeoVisual Search tool uses geospatial analysis to let people look for objects (runways, wind turbines, orchards, etc.) across the globe.
A housing service that doesn’t discriminate
Tyrone Poole became homeless after he injured his leg in an accident. He qualified for government assistance but struggled to find a building in Portland that would approve him. Landlords had unique requirements for prospective tenants, and finding out what they were meant paying a nonrefundable fee—money Poole didn’t have. To simplify the process, he started NoAppFee.com, a platform that runs a background check on applicants and returns a list of buildings guaranteed to approve them. Currently available in Portland and Atlanta, the site charges users a one-time $35 fee, which is knocked off the first month’s rent or moving expenses. Cities around the country are now contacting Poole about building custom versions of the platform for their own low-income housing inventory. “I want to make access to housing instantaneous,” says Poole.
An entrepreneurial dorm
Last August, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, unveiled a 400-person dorm that functions like an incubator. Open to students of any major, the building is housing meets work space: It supports aspiring entrepreneurs with workshops, lectures, networking events, and business-plan competitions.
A second chance for food waste
A Redmond-based biotech startup is giving leftover food back to the earth. WISErg installs its Harvester machines outside grocery stores and restaurants to collect and preserve food scraps until they can be transported to a nearby WISErg facility. There, they are processed into an organic, nutrient-dense liquid fertilizer and shipped to farms.
A map of the natural world
Founded by twins Brandon and Brian Reavis, the Cody-based Natural Atlas is an interactive mapping system that encourages outdoor enthusiasts to contribute on-the-ground info and photos of the state’s trails. The founders are expanding the platform to trails nationwide and are looking for users to add their perspectives.