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Think Local First

An image from David Macauley's Underground, source: http://socks-studio.com/

This post from OTI’s Civic Innovation Team is part of theMeeting of the Minds Blog Event, posing the question --How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?

Everyday in our cities, we interact with layers of social, technical and political systems. At the Open Technology Institute (OTI), we research, analyze, and experiment around the ways in which people interact with these layers and how that impacts equitable access to information, freedom to communicate, and economic and community development. One area of our work focuses on “Civic Innovation.” We believe civic innovations aren’t necessarily new city apps, but rather include processes and practices that re-imagine how cities can support and engage residents.  As cities capitalize on these emerging innovations -- both born locally and from peers -- they pioneer a new frontier for sustainable community networks, social structures that have huge implications for the trajectory, strength, and inclusivity of economic growth.

Unlike the federal government, cities have more flexibility to fail forward and iterate. At the same time, cities also increasingly play the role of direct service providers, a position that comes with extra responsibility to ensure that economic opportunities are equitable. This tension, between risk and responsibility, can be a healthy incubator for innovation -- demanding attention be paid to the entire local economic ecosystem and favoring multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approaches.

Below, we’ve rounded up three examples of economic innovation strategies wielded by municipalities and communities that attempt to address this tension: Incentives, Engagement, and Access. Although no innovation is perfect, these examples are useful inspiration for the kinds of community practices that integrate government, constituent, and business contributions to build on local strengths and create new economic futures.

Incentives: To bolster local business, encourage communities to think local first.

When the question of economic stimulus arises, too often municipal governments turn their attention to entrepreneurs themselves, seeking either to attract new investment from external businesses or to bolster seedling local enterprises through tax incentives. What’s missing? Incentives for locals to steward local economic growth. In early 2014, coffee shops within Washington, DC introduced a “Disloyalty Card” to incentivize customers to frequent locally-owned businesses, explore different neighborhoods, and meet members of the local coffee community. Similar cards are in use around the country, scaled to a particular industry or wielded state-wide, with incentives ranging from a free cup of joe for customers to special partnerships with local Chambers of Commerce and discounted advertising deals for participating businesses. Loyalty cards and their kin, Cash Mobs -- “happenings” where dozens to hundreds of residents spend money at local establishments -- aren’t local economic cure-alls, but their thoughtful implementation could do wonders for incentivizing the movement of people and dollars within a community -- and for encouraging local business to create jobs and hire locally. Imagine if a tax incentive program for women- and minority-owned businesses came paired with a loyalty card to ground these businesses as city staples and a Cash Mob, organized by a public-/private-partnership, to welcome these organizations into the community. Community resilience starts with local pride.

Engagement:  Generate community investment by tapping into local expertise.

Governments can engage residents to be actively involved in collaborative governance.  For example Philly’s Ambassadorprogram taps into citizens’ energy. The program equips citizens with tools to serve as “Ambassadors” to incentivize business into Philadelphia. This also serves as a business development leadership training that citizens can effectively use in their daily lives. Residents, with local expertise, can serve as critical connectors and translators. This program is an example of how city government can empower citizens with skills, information, and resources to support and promote economic development. Citizens want to do meaningful work. Diverse platforms, not limited to only government, can provide critical venues and pathways for meaningful citizen engagement.

Access: Develop a healthy digital ecosystem by building shared community infrastructures.

New digital systems for communication and collaboration don’t always require large, up-front investments from local governments. Communities themselves can pool resources and build local infrastructure to provide last mile access to the Internet -- or even just a neighborhood information platform. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, a community-based non-profit, the Red Hook Initiative runs a Digital Stewards program for whom the main activity is to plan, build, and maintain a community wireless network. The wireless network serves multiple purposes for different people. For young adults it is a job training program, funded through workforce development funds from the New York City government. For many residents, it provides open internet access.  Local businesses use it to participate as active community members and offer local deals. On the local wireless network (before messages reach the internet), there is an information hub where residents can find out when the next bus is, upcoming community events, jobs available at local businesses, and talk to each other about resource and skill sharing. By building technical infrastructure that matches the social infrastructure, communities can support themselves and develop healthy digital and community ecosystems.

These three strategies are but a few examples of how cities can effectively wield community-centric approaches to invigorate local economies. True economic resilience isn’t about just weathering tough times or capitalizing on new technologies for external investment -- it’s about building community capacity. Innovations that incentivize the kind of local pride that keeps dollars local, turn community leaders into business leaders, and increase access to information and communication are critical practices that help communities find their own power. Sustainable cities use innovation to steward this power, working bottom-up and cross-sector to channel hyperlocal strength into city-wide opportunity.