• Opinion
  • November 14, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

How city agencies can innovate: New York’s lessons for the world

Opinion: A new book describes the drivers and constraints behind urban innovation

This piece was written by André Corrêa d’Almeida, adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, where he is also assistant director of the MPA in Development Practice program at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute. He is the founder of ARCx‑Applied Research for Change and former senior advisor to the United Nations Development Program. 


I moved from Denver to New York City in September 2007.

For almost four years, between 2010 and 2013, I was a visiting professor at Pratt Institute while also at Columbia University. At Columbia, my office was, and still is, on W. 118th Street, in Upper Manhattan. At Pratt, my classroom was on W. 14th Street, in Lower Manhattan.

It was during this time, with a regular six-mile commute up and down 104 streets, that the idea of this new book, Smarter New York City: How City Agencies Innovate, began to take shape.

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That repeat journey helped me understand how interconnected New Yorkers’ lives are with the city systems that shape our aspirations.

We share more than just the public space, social ties and the air we breathe

We share more than just the public space, social ties and the air we breathe. In a city that brings together over 27,000 people per square mile, we all intensively share physical systems, social norms and institutions.

These features of our “urban gorgeous mosaic” — as my colleague and former mayor David Dinkins likes to call it — set the rules of our daily lives and facilitate personal growth and happiness.

In Edward Glaeser’s words, “cities magnify humanity’s strengths.” Otherwise, why would we want to live most of our lives there?

To turn the ideas which started to emerge in 2010 into the book, I created a citywide research group of 30 scholars from 22 research institutions and 10 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Cornell Tech, NYU and Pratt Institute.

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For three years, this research group, powered by ARCx-Applied Research for Change, worked together with a common framework of analysis and structure.

Nearly 120 interviews and 15 participatory roundtables were held in three New York City boroughs, with field experts, scientists, city officials, tech and data companies and civic organisations.

Government agencies have much to teach us about how technological and social advances occur

Improving municipal governance is critical to the future of the 21st-century city, from environmental sustainability to education, economic development, public health and beyond. And, while innovation is often seen as exclusive to the private sector, government agencies have much to teach us about how technological and social advances occur.

We will not be able to fulfil the global partnerships the 17th Sustainable Development Goal point us to if city administration and local governments are not viewed much more seriously as the cradle of innovation they are.

So, in this age of acceleration and massive migration of people into cities around the world, this book explains how innovation from within city agencies and administrations makes urban systems smarter and shapes human life.

Featuring a forward by Stephen Benjamin, president of the US Conference of Mayors, and using a series of case studies, Smarter New York City describes the drivers and constraints behind urban innovation.

These include leadership and organisation; networks and interagency collaboration; institutional context; technology and real-time data collection; responsiveness and decision making; and results and impact. Cases include residential organic-waste collection, an NYPD program that identifies the sound of gunshots in real time and the Vision Zero attempt to end traffic casualties, among others.

Challenging the usefulness of a tech-centric view of urban innovation, the book brings multidisciplinary perspectives to imagine new possibilities from within city agencies. The introduction promises that our 12 case studies will produce practical knowledge about how agencies innovate — how they are becoming smarter — with the goal of explaining what “smarter city” means.

It is also a roadmap for how lessons learned in New York can be replicated in other cities, with practical lessons for city officials, urban planners, policymakers, civil society and private-sector partners.

We develop the Becoming Smarter Framework (BSF) for city innovation and apply it to these case studies. The BSF is a conceptual and practical tool that helps explain and accelerate innovation in urban systems, with 46 smarter takeaways for city agendas.

The tool has been built to help mitigate fear of change and failure

The tool has been built to help mitigate fear of change and failure, encourage investment in curiosity, support trial and error and offer a methodology for program design, piloting and scaling up.

For Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor, Columbia University, and director, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, “Smarter New York City presents a compendium of fascinating and insightful case studies of how New York City is building a smarter, fairer and greener city. This is a brilliant, timely, and remarkably useful guidebook to promote sustainable development innovations in cities around the world.”

From the private sector, Daniel Doctoroff, CEO Sidewalk Labs and former NYC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding, has said: “André Corrêa d’Almeida provides us with a critical reminder of just how important — and challenging — it is for local governments to put new technology to work for residents. The thoughtful ideas explored in this book offer key lessons for how city officials, civic groups and private-sector partners can bring the great tradition of urban innovation into the digital age.” — André Corrêa d’Almeida

 (Picture credit: Unsplash/Tom Ritson)

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