Technology Wars Yield Efficiencies for Cities

Pick up nearly any magazine devoted to business, finance, technology or consumers and you will learn the details of the war being waged by corporate kingpins Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. Ostensibly this competition is supposed to be good for the average consumer whether individual or corporate. This assumes of course that the average consumer is actually using the various technologies and/or services and that they are truly ready to take advantage of the advances born of this competition.

Alas, there is a risk that those who are slow to adopt and adapt technology will be left clinging to obsolete devices, networks and behaviors preventing them from reaping the fruits of competition. Among this group of laggards I count this author and many, many city governments.

This particular corporate slug-fest is not like those that led to airline or bank consolidations or even to software and telecommunications mergers. No, these four companies intrude into our daily lives in monumental ways. Seventy percent of our Internet searches go through Google. On any given day, Apple is the first or second most valuable company on the planet. Facebook has over 800 million users in a world of 7 billion people. Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer with over $34 billion in annual revenue in 2010.

You can dissect the battle and argue over the various advantages or disadvantages of each company. That discussion takes you to devices, server networks, clouds, consumer preferences, algorithms, market penetration, cash reserves, IPO’s, and the accumulated smartness of guys named Bezos, Zuckerberg, Page and Cook.

While that may be interesting to many, what is more compelling is how the public sector will evolve and adapt to this fast-changing environment of technological nirvana. Fortunately, even for technological underachievers, (again, this author) there are some simple manipulations of existing technology that can be applied more aggressively in cities.

Social networks like Facebook are the single most valuable tool to engage citizens in public decision making. Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a great example of how a city used crowd sourcing techniques to support community projects. Secure payment software such as Pay Pal, Wallet or Card Case can help make city websites transactional for everything from building permits to property taxes. Smartphone apps are designed to improve efficiency and speed up access to information. They are as useful to the city employee in the field as they are to the corporate executive or the overscheduled teenager.

As noted in the November issue of Fast Company, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are the four American companies “that define 21st century information technology and entertainment.” The spin-offs from the head-to-head competition between these firms will undoubtedly help severely strained local governments find ways to economize and innovate, so long as these governments still have the capacity to recognize the technological opportunities waiting to be grasped.

Green Riverside Impresses at the Congress of Cities

Last week, I arrived at the Congress of Cities in Phoenix, both excited and anxious about meeting our members and working a large conference for the very first time.  Would I be in the right place at the right time? Would I have answers for the questions that our members might ask?  For the most part, I was scheduled to work within the Green Cities track, helping to coordinate sessions and make sure things ran smoothly.  Walking into the Convention Center on that first day, I figured I’d be too caught up in my work to fully listen to and retain information from the wealth of experts that were speaking.

Not only was my anxiety misplaced (the members were extremely welcoming and pleasant) but I was also able to learn an immense amount about sustainability initiatives across the country.  There were several moments throughout the conference where I felt excited and inspired by what local governments were doing to actively pursue their sustainability goals.

Let’s take the mid-size city of Riverside, Ca.  as an example.  Their story begins in 2001, when the city made smaller, but crucial strides towards greening their internal operations (changing light bulbs, cutting energy costs, etc.) .  Since then, with the support of the community, their sustainability efforts have taken off- within a few years, Mayor Ron Loveridge created a Clean & Green Taskforce; the Taskforce developed a Sustainability Policy Statement in 2007; and this policy statement ended up serving as the guiding framework for the Green Action Plan that the city implements today.    

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Green Riverside story is the number of creative strategies that the city is consistently utilizing to inform residents about local sustainability initiatives and keep them excited about current and future programs.  Take, for example, the Green Riverside brand, which is not only displayed on their website, but also on numerous publications and reports that they distribute. Additionally, Mike Bacich and Ryan Bullard, both of whom attended the conference to share their success stories, host a radio show that is dedicated solely to sustainability topics.  According to Bacich, it’s important to keep recognizing the progress that the city is making so that residents feel like their efforts have been worthwhile (in one of the sessions he even mentioned that they use the back of their utility bill to spotlight sustainability news!). 

Clearly something is working in Riverside (as a side note- I happened to speak with a woman from Riverside during one of the sessions who mentioned that even dollar stores in the city have started bagging healthy foods).  Listening to Mike, Ryan, and other speakers from around the country made me realize the importance of these creative outreach efforts in propelling a culture of sustainability that resonates with residents.  You may never be able quantify the exact effect that branding yourself as a sustainable city, directly communicating your progress to your residents, or creating transparency within and outside of your city operations has on the success of your sustainability efforts.  Nonetheless, these are crucial steps towards building a sustainable (no pun intended) and successful repertoire with your residents.

If you didn’t get to visit the Riverside booth at the City Showcase in Phoenix, I’d urge you to visit their website ( to get inspired and see what you might be able to take back to your own community.  As for me- I’m already excited about the possibility of meeting more sustainability experts at our next conference!

Innovation in city programs: How do we know it when we see it?

Amid persistent attention placed on cities struggling to make ends meet, cities across the country are also engaged in countless efforts to improve the quality of life for their residents. In many cases, these quality of life improvements are strong ammunition against local hardship. It’s easy for cities to get bogged down in their own struggles, but in order to succeed, they must learn from one another. How leaders in Portland are addressing a common challenge may resonate with city leaders in Baltimore, but the opportunities to share this knowledge are often too few and far between.

At the 2011 Congress of Cities, 35 innovative city programs will be recognized as part of the NLC City Showcase. Because of their innovative approaches to solving common city problems and improving the quality of life in communities, these programs are given the opportunity to showcase their efforts and share their expertise with conference attendees—city leaders who experience the same challenges and thirst for knowledge about innovative problem-solving approaches.

In order for these programs to be recognized for their accomplishments, we had to first identify their good work. Let’s take a deeper look at how we made the selections—in other words, how did we know innovation when we saw it?

We began by looking at programs that seek to address the most common challenges facing cities. We know that these challenges include making cities more sustainable, increasing their economic growth potential, supporting community development and citizen engagement, improving infrastructure, and creating opportunities to improve the lives of youth and families. But some programs stood out from the rest, because they approached these challenges in ways that were both cross-cutting and catalyzing. The chosen programs fostered the cross-department and cross-discipline collaboration necessary for problem solving. They also succeeded in creating initiatives that have the potential to catalyze a variety of other positive effects.

As a result of the Virginia Beach, Va. Green Destination program, for example, the city’s tourism and hospitality industry has committed to decreasing its environmental impact. Through this program, the city has married its need to maintain economic viability through tourism with a citywide commitment to sustainability. As a result, the city was named the Commonwealth’s first “Virginia Green Destination.” This effort also has the potential to use one of the city’s most prominent industries to encourage other city departments, local establishments, and residents to make a commitment to sustainability.

In Rochester, Minn., Active Living Rochester is an active community planning collaboration between health, land use, and transportation stakeholders. The city used a local asset—The Mayo Clinic—to strengthen this initiative, which encourages personal health and physical activity and supports a built environment that promotes active transportation (walking, biking, etc.). The program has the potential to catalyze positive advances, including increased quality of life, increased access to goods and services, and decreased costs associated with transportation and healthcare.

The 2011 Congress of Cities’ host city of Phoenix offered a variety of innovative programs. To highlight innovation locally, we welcomed eleven City Showcase programs from in and around the City of Phoenix. One such program, Higher Education Partnerships and Downtown Development, is simultaneously increasing educational opportunities and revitalizing the city’s urban core, in partnership with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The city stands to reap long-term economic benefits, as local students find that the city provides them with the career opportunities and quality of life they seek.

These are but a few examples of the kind of innovation we found as we studied city programs from across the country. Learn more about the 24 national City Showcase programs and the 11 featured local Phoenix programs on the NLC website and at the 2011 Congress of Cities.