Applying the Tools of Innovation to Improve Lives in Cities

With apologies to Tolstoy: All happy cities are alike; each troubled city is troubled in its own way.

Massive urban centers tend to face complex, interrelated problems, and these require thoughtful, multi-pronged solutions. On this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, we spoke with Katie Appel Duda, co-leader of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation grant program. The program funds cross-functional innovation teams in more than 200 cities around the world. These teams address problems as varied as the high cost of living in Tel Aviv, social isolation of seniors in Barcelona, and transportation gaps in South Bend, Indiana. Appel Duda described the importance of inter-departmental collaboration and shared how teams across the globe learn from each other’s efforts to make life better for their residents.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Saikat Chaudhuri: As you see your teams operate in cities like Tel Aviv or elsewhere, and as these different programs mature and have impact, are there any structural or process changes that you see as a result? For example, do people shuffle departments around or change the way, say, research allocation is done? Because those are interesting levers that organizations can pull in order to create very different environments.

Katie Appel Duda, Co-Lead, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation Program

Katie Appel Duda: It’s a great question. If I look at some of the teams that have been operating for a longer time, I think we’re absolutely starting to see that.

The City of Los Angeles is an interesting one, and a team that we work really closely with. They were one of the first cities to receive a grant to start up their innovation team. It was towards the start of Mayor Garcetti’s administration. They worked on a number of really interesting issues. They’re one of the ones who worked on police recruitment, as I mentioned. They’re working on homelessness. They’re starting to think about the future of work. And we initially funded a relatively small group of people. At this point, not only have they picked up the funding for all of the people that were initially grant funded (which, by the way, is something we’ve seen in every city that we’ve ever funded, because they’ve seen the value of it). In L.A. and in some of the other cities we’ve seen, they’ve also really expanded the office, and that’s been interesting.

One of the things that we’re increasingly seeing, which is really interesting and I think something to follow, is how cities like L.A. and others are starting to combine these new emerging skills and practices in city government so that they can work more collaboratively. So for example, you’ll have a human center designer working alongside a data scientist working alongside someone with expertise in behavioral science alongside the analysts who are thinking about performance management. And it’s really interesting when you start to see those things come together.

If you think about it, in a really high-functioning organization, if you have a really robust performance management structure and you’re able to assess how you’re doing against targets that you set; and you’re also able to surface where you’re not doing well and where there are opportunities; and if you can flag those things for a team of experts with skills in behavioral science and innovation and design to immediately start researching and surfacing new solutions, it can be really powerful.

Chaudhuri: Yes, it is very powerful. It really resonates with me from a lot of organizational research. We also think about having diversity, right?

Duda: Absolutely.

Chaudhuri: Especially diversity in mindsets. We sometimes equate diversity with ethnicity or gender and so forth, and that’s important, but diversity in mindsets is really important in different disciplines. And what you’re saying really resonates with me.

One of the reasons I was asking you these questions is because when I teach about incumbent organizations — think about the big companies who lose their way like the Nokias and the Blackberrys and so forth, and some that bounce back like the IBMs — I always think about structures, processes, people, and incentives. That’s four levers that you have at your disposal, which was really powerful in this as well.

The city has to work with so many different parties — residents, but also other vendors and the like. One particular thing that I was thinking about is that you’ve got all these new companies that come in which affect the city life in some way. You could see these positively or negatively. I’m curious to hear your assessment. Uber, Airbnb, etc. What do you see as their roles in both creating better lives in the cities for the residents, but also innovatively creating sustainable cities?

“The most important thing that city leaders can do is get a seat at the table and focus on how these technologies can work for them.” — Katie Appel Duda

Duda: There’s always going to be disruption, right? And so right now, absolutely, you think of the Ubers, the Lyfts, the Airbnbs, and so often the narrative, when it comes to these technologies in cities, casts these as things that are happening to cities. And I think the most important thing that city leaders can do is really get a seat at the table and focus on how these technologies can work for them.

So, for example, ride sharing. How might you think about ride sharing, how it can help solve the first and last mile problem? How might Airbnb be utilized to respond to crisis? And what we’re seeing in cities that are successful is that they’re really trying to be, excuse the pun, in the driver’s seat.

South Bend is a really interesting one. Another program that we do is something called the Mayor’s Challenge, and it’s a big competition where we’re asking cities to come forward with bold new ideas that haven’t been tried before. South Bend is one of the winners of our latest Mayor’s Challenge, and what they brought forward was a really thoughtfully curated, tailored solution to a very specific problem when it came to transportation and low-income shift workers. South Bend is not a city with a robust transit system. And most cities are that way, right? We’re not all New York and Chicago.

Chaudhuri: Yeah.

Duda: That’s challenging, and it’s even more challenging when you have shift work that’s not happening on a traditional schedule. What they were seeing was it wasn’t that people had a problem most days getting to work. Maybe there was one car for the family, or they were carpooling with a colleague, and most days that was working for them. But if there was an unexpected something that happened — the car broke down, another family member needed to use the car — they’d miss a shift. That happens a couple of times, they lose their job.

That’s bad for them. It’s bad for the employer and the cost that they’re paying to onboard new people. That turnover costs money. So South Bend’s idea, and what they’re testing now (which is really exciting and cities should be watching it) is partnerships with ride share companies like Lyft and employers who are going to help offset part of the cost of a new system for backup rides.

It’s not rocket science, right? When we read the application it really struck us as a smart, targeted idea. And so we are excited with what will happen from it, but I also think it’s just a great example of a city really thinking about “How can I leverage these disruptive technologies to help achieve outcomes that are priorities for me and my administration and my residents?”

About Our Guest

Katie Appel Duda co-leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation grant programs, which help city leaders and their teams in more than 200 cities around the world to better solve problems and share promising ideas that improve life for residents.

Before joining Bloomberg Philanthropies, Katie served as assistant communications director to New York City Mayor Bloomberg and as a policy advisor at the Department of Homeless Services. A proud graduate of New York City public schools, Katie also holds an MPA from New York University and a BA from the University of Virginia.