Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The first-ever CityXChange summit aims to change the way cities define and solve problems.
This week, an unlikely group is assembling on the crystal-blue shoreline of Lake Como in Italy: Eleven global mayors, twelve start-up technologists, and more than a dozen of the world’s highest profile venture capitalists are putting their heads together over five days at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. On the docket: Solve the toughest urban challenges of the 21st century.
“Too often, cities think they know what the problem is, and what the universe of solutions is,” says Michael Berkowitz, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program. “Often, I think, their thinking could use some expansiveness.”
To help encourage ambitious thoughts, the Bellagio Center will provide vaulted meeting halls, terraced gardens, and on-site 11th century ruins, all of which should make a more inspiring setting than the average convention center. But Berkowitz means an expansiveness of another kind. The delegates of the Rockefeller Foundation’s first-ever CityXChange summit aren’t just working on novel solutions to old problems—they’re opening a dialogue on how cities solve problems with private partners in the first place.
“What often happens is that we’re brought solutions at the end of a procurement process, without a lot of input from entrepreneurs throughout,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “This is an opportunity to shift that paradigm.”
Reed is referring to the normal rhythm of public bid for a product or service. Say, for example, a city wants to keep its streets cleaner. Officials may believe they lack a sufficient number of street sweepers, and that they must buy more. So they solicit offers from high-tech street sweeper manufacturers, select the best price, sign a contract, and buy. Maybe streets get cleaner. Maybe they don’t.
But what if cities brought in industry perspectives from the start? What if they bid for the best answers to a question—how do we keep our city clean? —rather than the best product? “Maybe the answer is better public education, or more rubbish bins,” says Berkowitz.
Or maybe the answer is “more street sweepers” after all. Still, it’s possible the city missed out on a better idea by neglecting to open the conversation earlier.
The summit offers a chance to reshape that problem definition process. Ahead of arrival, 100 Resilient Cities tasked each mayor with a specific “resiliency challenge.” Reed was charged with devising a strategy to make Atlanta’s pledge to run on 100 percent renewable energy actually feasible. Jakarta officials are aiming for a way to improve access to clean water. Leaders from Sydney, Australia, are intent on using tech to improve congestion. Throughout the day, the mayors group off with top-flight investors from the likes of Tusk Ventures, Y Combinator, and Homebrew, as well as leaders from tech-oriented start-ups in the electricity, water, and mobility sectors, to map out a hypothetical plan.
It’s particularly useful—and rare—to have the investors at the table, because they’re often generalists, focused less on selling specific products than they are on novel ideas with the potential to create demand and drive profits.
“Mayors tend to think about the complexity of their cities, and think about scale right away, which inhibits innovation,” says Michael Eisenberg, a founding partner at the Israeli VC fund Aleph, via email. “One of the key areas of focus here is getting the mayors to think smaller. Get a win on innovation, gain expertise and momentum, and only then focus on scaling it citywide.”
In the group discussion about energy for Atlanta, it was one of the venture capitalists who offered the idea to start by focusing investments in renewables at Atlanta International. “That was a great piece of advice,” says Reed, “because the airport has all of the issues the city has with energy use, but it also has a strong balance sheet in terms of paying for all the innovation needed.”
In other words, the world’s busiest passenger airport is well insulated from business cycle risks, with its stable cash flow and solid long-term assets. That makes it a prime place for investors to throw down behind, say, solar panels on terminal rooftops, electric maintenance vehicles, or a runway system that actually generates power. Ideas that yield a return on investment could then more viably spread to Atlanta itself. Other cities could mimic them, too.
Reed says he intends to kick off the airport plan as soon as he returns to Atlanta—possibly with help of start-ups like Bright Power, an energy management consultancy and software system, and one of the invited start-ups.
Not all cities will necessarily leave the summit (which ends May 18) with clear-cut next steps. But all leaders will have had the opportunity to break from their daily crisis-aversion duties to reflect on the needs of their cities. Tasked with developing ways to solicit community feedback on local issues, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was excited to have the chance to sit and chew on problems with startups like Neighborly and Premise. But she also revels in the chance to simply improve her craft as a public servant.
“I love the analogy of sawing away at a tree,” she says. “If you just walk away from the work and spend a few minutes sharpening the saw, the amount of time you take sharpening will be more than made up for by the speed your saw works.”