October 5th, 2012
04:15 PM ET

Sparking innovation in cities, one geek at a time

By Jennifer Pahlka, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Jennifer Pahlka is the Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Watch The Next List’s full 30-minute profile of Pahlka this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET

Code for America seems to have struck a chord with many people. It’s easy to understand the value of bringing young tech and design folks into government and having them learn from each other because, whether they give it a lot of thought or not, their relationship with government is pretty important.

Our program seems to promise to fill a need they didn’t necessarily know they had, or create a possibility for something better when they had thought change was impossible.

But beyond the notion of promise, what is the real need for cities to innovate? There are many answers to this question, and the one I hear most often is that the public sector must keep up with the private sector.

When interacting with government feels outdated, it sends a signal to citizens that their government isn’t benefiting from the efficiencies that private companies have found in recent years. It's not taking advantage of the new networks of participation that we see all around us. As the pace of change accelerates in our daily lives, that gap can grow, and it can result in an erosion of trust.

It is what fuels many communities to defund local government, turning off streetlights and no longer maintaining infrastructure. The public is convinced their money isn’t well spent, and the results often guarantee that it’s not.

Cities must also innovate because they are in crisis, at least financially. Multiple revenue sources are being reduced (including support from federal and state programs), need for citizen services is increasing, and their workforce is retiring and leaving them with fewer workers but huge pension liabilities. Twenty-six municipalities have gone bankrupt since 2010, and more are likely to as it becomes harder and harder to push off inevitable financial meltdown.

There’s an upside to this, in that the crisis is forcing conversations about innovation. As Rahm Emmanuel said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I’d argue that cities also are in a renaissance of ideas, growth, and optimism. To me the real reason cities must innovate is that the existing model of providing services doesn’t scale. There are big important things we must fund together; it just doesn’t make sense for everyone to take their own garbage to the dump every week, or for each house to capture and use its own water.

But we ask government to do so much, including things we can do for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our community. When a neighbor helps a neighbor with a trapped animal instead of calling city services, or when a community cleans up a park for a fraction of the cost of having public servants do it, the model starts to scale again.

The trick is figuring out government’s role in encouraging and coordinating these actions, and to the extent that digital technology has gotten pretty good at coordinating collective action, government must get good at technology too. Not the big enterprise technology of the 1990s, but the lightweight, simple technologies that real people actually use. The technologies and interfaces that connect us to our networks and help us do things together.

Governments, and citizens partnered with government, need to learn how technology can teach us how to act like citizens.

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Filed under: Geek Out • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. DAD

    Great show

    October 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  2. Daniel

    "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country". I forget who said that; was it Jack Kennedy or Mitt Romney?

    October 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      It was President John F. Kennedy

      October 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  3. spencer

    This is great, work smarter not harder, and don't waste tax payer money.

    October 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  4. woodie

    They stopped picking up trash where I live unless it fits in the plastic can. So trash is piling up in peoples backyards.

    October 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • Brad76

      Start recycling.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:06 am | Reply

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