2024 Gala

- July 2013

Innovation and the City


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Innovation and the City | Center for an Urban Future (CUF)
2024 Gala
Innovation and the City

Report - June 2013

Innovation and the City

New York’s next mayor will need to address a number of critical challenges facing the city. This report spotlights 15 innovative policies from cities across the U.S. and around the globe that could serve as a model.

by Neil Kleiman, Adam Forman, Jae Ko, David Giles and Jonathan Bowles

Tags: economic growth economic opportunity workforce development human capital tech low income youth small business transportation immigrants entrepreneurship housing

Philadelphia, Providence & Chicago   •  Creating an Alternative Assessment System for Out-of-School Programs

Philadelphia, Chicago and Providence have all begun to introduce digital badging initiatives that allow students both inside the K-12 system and outside to earn credentials for skills they learn in a wide variety of educational settings, from digital tools workshops at public libraries to art classes at museums.


  • A system of badges designating recognized programs or skills
  • A digital portfolio, or “backpack,” that the student can control and curate like a resume
  • The development of curricula at schools, workforce development agencies and even community colleges that recognize and build off the badge system


  • Provides an alternative assessment system that recognizes progress outside of traditional institutional learning
  • Incentivizes the development of talents and skills that too often go unrecognized in the K-12 school system and other institutional contexts

Digital badging is already an established credentialing method in the tech sector. A wide variety of badges issued by event organizers, online learning environments (so-called Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs), and other educational providers are widely recognized by employers in the industry. In fact, according to many industry insiders, a Khan Academy badge designating proficiency in a coding language like Python will carry even more weight with Google and other tech companies than traditional four-year computer science degrees. Philadelphia, Chicago and Providence have all recently unveiled initiatives that apply this model in different ways to out-of-school learning for youth.

Philadelphia’s badging system, called Digital On-Ramps, is being implemented by the Philadelphia Academies in conjunction with the city’s primary youth development agency, the Philadelphia Youth Network. It already includes several online courses and will eventually grow to include face-to-face programming in both the youth development and adult education systems. By contrast, Providence’s badging system is being implemented primarily through that city’s school district, as a way of broadening and standardizing afterschool programs. Chicago, meanwhile, is unveiling a program this summer called the Summer of Learning that uses badges as a way of incentivizing youth to participate in summer programs at a wide variety of providers, including city libraries, schools and museums.

Though new and still untested outside the rarefied world of tech, using a badge system to recognize accomplishments outside of school could be a powerful way to encourage passions in kids even when they are struggling in school or have dropped out altogether. Chris Lawrence, director of the Hive Learning Network in NYC, which provides programming in the digital arts to kids in afterschool programs and issues badges to participants who achieve milestones, says that many of the kids he sees who excel in Hive programs are often failing in school. The badges give them something to strive for, and they legitimize accomplishments in settings that don’t feel like school, he says. But they could also be so much more than that if they were more widely recognized by educational providers and employers. A more established “marketplace” for badging, says Lawrence, would open up opportunities for kids to take their learning to the next level with another educational provider or even an internship.

Cities have a huge role to play in creating this larger marketplace, but they don’t have to define all the parameters from the top down in doing so. A school district or youth development agency shouldn’t necessarily create its own system of badges, which could result in a walled garden, but encourage a wide variety of third parties to begin issuing badges and then choose how to honor them in school and city-sponsored development programs. The digital portfolios, or “backpacks,” should also utilize open source software that kids can take ownership of and even curate to show off skills and accomplishments that they want to market. 

City agencies like the Department of Youth and Community Development could also work with employers like Google, IBM, Con Ed, Verizon and Time Warner to develop standards for which badges they will accept in internship and job applications (perhaps as a part of the city’s Summer Youth Employment program). And the city’s community college system could lend even more legitimacy to certain badges by developing curricula, even in remedial classes, around kids’ accomplishments in areas like digital media, technology and the arts.

With over 172,000 disconnected youth and one of the lowest GED attainment rates in the country, digital badging could prove to be a powerful tool in New York. It could help the city better leverage all the educational programming happening among community-based organizations and other nonprofits (libraries, museums, etc.) and ultimately increase the effectiveness of its own youth development efforts.


Chicago   •  Private Firms Develop Mass Budget Savings

A coalition of Chicago’s top corporate consulting and law firms crafted a $100-million budget-savings plan for the incoming mayor—at no cost.


  • A nonprofit intermediary coordinated the team of senior partners
  • All ideas were tested for legal, fiscal and political feasibility
  • The final product was a professional presentation that was easy to understand and implement


  • The plan taps the private sector for knowledge, skills and results.

Government bloat is a familiar lament. Rare is the truly constructive suggestion of exactly how to cut costs without sacrificing vital municipal services.

In Chicago, however, the city’s business community provided just that. As part of a larger transition plan, a coalition of partners from the city’s major consulting and law firms drafted a realistic blueprint for cutting $100 million from the city budget, and revenue ideas for millions more. In 2001, newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel wasted no time in implementing the proposals, and in the first 100 days saved taxpayers an estimated $50 million.

The process leading to the corporate blueprint was developed by the Civic Consulting Alliance, a 27-year-old organization established to coordinate corporate firms to help further City Hall’s top priorities through pro bono engagements. Its approach is relatively simple: the Mayor develops reform plans, and Civic Consulting assembles senior partners to further the goals through traditional business analytics, research and strategy. Over the past five years, Civic Consulting estimates that $75 million in billable hours have been dedicated to revamping the local community college system, reforming local policing strategies and establishing the Chicago area’s first regional planning board.

Unlike other projects, the latest cost-saving blueprint was launched during a municipal transition and brought to the mayor-elect as the transition was being completed.

As with all its projects, Civic Consulting avoided lengthy planning meetings, promptly matching the right firms and executives to a variety of assignments. A.T. Kearney was charged with developing a full financial model for the City and assessing real cost drivers. The exercise exposed structural deficit challenges, and included a review of all outstanding City labor and vendor contracts to identify wiggle room for savings in the months and years ahead. Deloitte examined other cities’ financial models. Another firm looked at revenue opportunities, and Mayer Brown examined legal issues surrounding the emerging savings and revenue proposals. Each firm dedicated two to three people who worked full time for nearly five months, while Civic Consulting convened biweekly coordination meetings, assigning six staff members to the project.

The proposals focused on long-needed fixes. One led to the reorganization of trash collection routes according to the street grid rather than to aldermen’s traditional political considerations. This simple, if previously political, reform will save the city tens of millions annually.

Probably the biggest savings, though, will come from the overhaul of the City’s purchasing activities. Based on the blueprint, the City now uses a “spend cube” to analyze citywide contracting and payment data. It lets City managers know not only how much was spent and when, but with which vendors and in which categories of goods and services. The analysis highlights opportunities to consolidate contracts or negotiate with vendors, and suggests other actions that offer the potential for significant savings. Most government entities rarely engage in cross-agency cooperation of this kind, let alone citywide coordination in purchasing (e.g., one department buys its computers from Lenovo, another from Dell). In the first year alone, the “spend cube” analysis saved the City millions of dollars.

Chicago has also begun to coordinate its purchases with surrounding Cook County, from street salt to janitorial functions.

On the revenue side, Chicago’s corporate partners suggested developing an Infrastructure Trust, building on an idea pursued by the White House called an infrastructure bank. A new nonprofit subsidiary was established that uses pooled debt from local banks to build or repair infrastructure that has difficulty receiving financing through the municipal bond market. Mayor Emanuel set this up within a year of taking office. It is now a national model for fostering locally subsidized building.

New York is well positioned to pursue the corporate coalition model. Civic Consulting has received foundation support to establish an office in New York. Additionally, the City, through the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, has a tradition of tapping consulting firms to generate strategic plans for mayors. The Civic Consulting model could move this mode to the next level, assembling senior partners from corporations. As in Chicago, the next mayor of New York can use this approach to create major savings and revenue-generating models.

Seattle & San Francisco   •  A More Transparent, Inclusive & Collaborative Government

Convinced that open data does not just improve the transparency of government, but governance itself, Seattle and San Francisco have used open data to spur inter-agency information sharing and encourage participation from parties outside of the public sector.


  • All agencies, including the police, release data on a tight timeline
  • Data is routinely updated and accessible via affordable and widely available software
  • Open data offerings and formatting are harmonized with other cities


  • A more transparent and inclusive government
  • Improved coordination and information sharing between City agencies
  • Spur economic development in the civic-tech sector

Governance is impossibly complex. With scores of agencies administering thousands of programs for millions of constituents, it’s little wonder that residents, businesses, politicians and public employees struggle to comprehend and reform their government. In recent years, open data has emerged as the newest and perhaps most promising remedy, allowing residents to monitor their government, activists and hacktivists to participate in governance, and public agencies to collaborate and share critical information. 

According to Mike Flowers, head of New York’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, sharing data “is not a technological issue, it’s a bureaucratic issue.”  The most complex and intractable urban problems demand inter-agency coordination. Youth violence is not just an NYPD issue. Homelessness is not just a DHS issue. Both necessitate collaboration with HRA, DOE, ACS, SBS’s workforce development office, DCA’s financial empowerment office, and many others. Opening data to one another (while simultaneously opening it to the public) is critical to this collaboration. Former Seattle chief information officer Bill Schrier found the most frequent users of an agency’s open data are other city agencies.

NYPD, the second-highest staffed agency in the city and surely the most ubiquitous, occupies a pivotal role in authorizing and empowering New York’s most needed inter-agency partnerships. Unfortunately, their transparency and willingness to share information has been underwhelming. Where Seattle provides real-time 911 calls and redacted police reports along with mapping capabilities and Twitter updates, the NYPD is curiously absent from the City’s generous open data offerings. With crime data so central to understanding and resolving New York’s most pressing challenges, this lack of transparency is not just civically irresponsible, it also hamstrings the work of numerous city agencies and nonprofits.

And police data is not the only issue. While New York’s 2012 open data legislation is the envy of many cities, its 2018 implementation timeline “reflects government’s general inability to move at the speed of technology” according to Stephen Romalewski, an open data advocate and the director of the CUNY Mapping Service. In February 2013, under pressure from the Office of the Public Advocate, the City released Department of Health and Department of Consumer Affairs data on small business inspections and fines. The City of Chicago published a similar data set two years prior.

Beyond good governance, open data reform is a key component of economic development. A recent study found that half a million jobs have been created around mobile and web apps. In New York, the diversity and volume of open government data has helped nourish several of these start-ups. But those companies can only flourish if the data is accurate, accessible, and routinely updated. San Francisco CIO Jay Nath, for instance, is working to ensure that application developers can access data in multiple formats, such as CSV, XML or JSON. When New York’s Department of City Planning releases data that can only be downloaded in prohibitively expensive software, it is what Presidential Innovation Fellow Phillip Ashlock would call “hidden in plain sight.” 

As the civic-tech sector evolves, harmonization between cities will grow increasingly important. When data structure is standardized, developers needn’t customize their apps for individual cities. This stimulates participation from programmers around the country as well as larger, more sophisticated companies who typically ignore app contests because submissions only reach a limited audience and are not easily monetized. New York took an important step when it collaborated with San Francisco and Yelp to standardize its food inspection data. Regrettably, it has been slower to adopt the newest Open311 protocol currently operating in over 40 cities worldwide.

NYC is already a leader in open data. Now it must become the leader. The benefits are clear: greater transparency and accountability to residents, increased collaboration between agencies, and improved economic prospects for our growing, but still nascent tech sector.


Oakland   •  Municipal Identification & Debit Card

Oakland has unveiled a new city government ID card with a novel debit card feature. Designed to assist low-income, “underbanked” individuals, it offers ease-of-access to reputable banking and government services.


  • Mayoral support and coordination
  • Fair rates of interest and fees
  • Well-devised application processing and ID card distribution
  • Extensive public awareness campaigns


  • The underbanked are guided toward formal banking practices that encourage savings and help them avoid predatory financial practices
  • The card also provides a free or low-cost alternative to other forms of government-issued ID, like a driver’s license

Earlier this year, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan launched a city-level identification card program. While cities such as Los Angeles; Washington, DC and New Haven issue city-level government identification cards, Oakland is the first to meld a debit card feature into the municipal ID.

There is great need for such a vehicle. Underbanked residents either 1) do not engage in  standard, recognized money-management practices or 2) engage in informal banking practices, whether legal or illegal. The reasons are many (e.g. cultural, legal, etc.), but the consequences are near-universal: People living in underbanked communities are left out of everyday transactions in which a debit/credit card is the most safe common vehicle and sometimes is required. The underbanked individual also misses out on the convenience of ATMs and cannot manage his or her expenses online. Moreover, the underbanked are more vulnerable to predatory lenders and card vendors that charge exorbitant interest rates and fees.

Oakland’s Municipal ID card offers a reliable, government-backed alternative to low-income residents. Created in partnership with SF Global, a card vendor company, Oakland’s Municipal ID costs $10-$15, depending on the age of the applicant, and offers transparent fee structures. Although traditional banks offer better rates and fees, the Municipal ID was not created to compete with them or replace them. Rather, the cards were designed as a city government identification card that also include a non-predatory debit card function, encouraging its bearers to enter into formal banking practices. Oakland residents with proof of identification (domestic or foreign) and city residency, can apply in person or via a city website.

Oakland’s Municipal ID card program and its dedicated website were launched in March, so the measured benefits and pitfalls have yet to be determined. However, an issue has arisen from concern that Oakland may be distributing government identification to undocumented individuals. In addition to federal immigration legalities, federal privacy issues can be problematic as well. A banking institution’s obligation to comply with federal immigration policies can conflict with clients’ right to privacy.

While the model is still in development, there are immediate benefits to a wide range of communities. Because Oakland’s Municipal ID card was designed primarily for underbanked and immigrant communities, the users of the card are encouraged to steer away from the pitfalls of cash-only based finance. They might be encouraged, too, to increase their participation in the formal economy, and ideally to seek and, when deemed eligible, gain greater access to government social and protective services for themselves and their families.

While immigration issues on the municipal identification issue are unresolved, New York can still move toward adopting such a program. In 2007, the City Council introduced a municipal identification program based on one in New Haven, Connecticut, but the proposal was tabled amid the controversy of undocumented individuals gaining access to government identification. New York still has the opportunity to revisit this idea if Oakland’s program is proven to be a success.

New York can minimize controversy by marketing the municipal card as primarily a bank card that includes other city service products (e.g. Metrocard, library card, coupons, etc.), in addition to providing a secondary use as an general ID card of potential value to immigrants and others who could use it to access a variety of services. A substantial number of New Yorkers thus would experience improved access to legitimate government and commercial services and be encouraged, as well, to participate openly and actively in the life of their community. New York has been a trailblazer in addressing the needs of immigrants and if the city decides to implement its own municipal identification card program, it can continue its groundbreaking efforts on behalf of immigrants and potentially make a major impact on the gathering national discussion on immigration policy.

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