Lessons from the front lines of urban innovation
Urban technologies cannot scale when they haven’t been proven, and they can’t be proven without the right collaborators at the table. That’s the driving message behind New Lab and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Circular City program, first debuted in 2018 and currently running its 2020 edition. As cities consider how to most effectively cultivate and engage with a local startup ecosystem, it’s critical they partner with the right stakeholders to deliver value for all.
At New Lab, we have found that implementing innovation programs that bring diverse stakeholders together is essential to building, testing and iterating new approaches, tools and products. To foster design with intention, different perspectives must be included from the outset and throughout the product development lifecycle. This human-centered approach may sound straightforward, but it’s not the status quo. Too often, technologies are developed in isolation – completely separated from end users or the broader public who may be impacted when that technology is rolled out at scale.
By taking the time to cultivate an ecosystem of collaborators, cities have the opportunity to work on problems that cannot be tackled by any one set of participants alone, while supporting a home-grown community of innovators. Aligning contributors around specific challenges — and ensuring that the solutions developed provide value for all involved — is critical to building and sustaining momentum. After all, when a startup in your city develops a product or offering that serves the needs of your city, the city is not only addressing the need, they are creating an economic engine that supports the growth of startups and the innovation economy.
Empowering each stakeholder – startups, government agencies, academic researchers, investors, business leaders, community organizers – to do what they do best is also critical to applying emerging technologies in an urban context. For example, in programs like Circular City, there are parallel tracks of activity. Alongside a startup building algorithms to better understand how people move through the city, researchers and policymakers are working together to consider the ethical and practical implications of leveraging such data. To successfully address multifaceted issues that impact various stakeholders, it’s imperative to convene the right brain trust to consider questions like: what constraints or structures might be built into the governance of this data? What safeguards does the company need to put in place to respect citizen privacy?
One of the key challenges when bringing together government agencies and tech startups is that they have vastly different ways of operating. Startups are keenly aware of the runway they have to prove out their product and business model, and build traction. This means they are motivated to move quickly and work in an agile manner, learning as they go and iterating on the fly. Government, on the other hand, is focused on minimizing risk and operating within the bounds of a bureaucratic system designed to address constituents’ needs and safeguard against unintended consequences.
Cities are not set up to be living laboratories, and yet they are the required proving grounds for urban tech entrepreneurs. Untested products and services will not be eligible for traditional avenues of government procurement or even public-private investment. This reality leaves government little opportunity to educate themselves about the market, interact with new types of products and services, and the teams designing them.
This is a problem – not only for entrepreneurs who want to ensure their customers and the people and communities who may be impacted by their work find value in it – but because it also leaves little opportunity for government to help shape the technologies it will one day interact with.
In order to design technology that’s attuned to real needs, entrepreneurs need the opportunity to engage with different stakeholders and to test and pilot their technologies in real urban environments – the results will be a more sustainable, accessible, equitable future for our cities.
Government must find partners who can help them create the conditions to safely experiment and interact with new technologies. Running pilot programs where technologies can be rapidly implemented, business models can be tested, and value propositions validated will make our cities beacons for an optimistic future where technology and innovative approaches are applied with intention and care to our most urgent needs – from the climate crisis to affordable housing.
Shaina Horowitz is the vice president of product and programs at New Lab.