Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The latest round of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program encourages cities to find solutions based on data analysis and a human-centered approach.
When cities are faced with a slew of problems, it’s tempting to skip the research process and jump right to the solutions. And you can’t always blame them. Faced with a lack of funding and human capital—not to mention groups of increasingly frustrated residents—there isn’t necessarily room for trial and error.
Bloomberg Philanthropies is giving seven local governments a bit of breathing room through its Innovation Teams program (i-teams for short). The initiative, which already includes 13 other municipalities across the globe, provides grants to help cities form a team of problem solvers to tackle issues through data analysis and collaborations with residents.
For its third and latest round of funding, in which cities can get up to $500,000 in annual grants over the next three years, Bloomberg Philanthropies is bringing i-teams to Durham, Baltimore, Austin, Detroit, Anchorage, Be’er Sheva in Israel, and—in its first foray into Canada—Toronto.
“We're emerging as a global center of innovation, with a tech sector that is scaling up, and we're home to a lot of the leading minds in AI and design thinking,” says Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives at the Toronto mayor’s office. “I think it's time for our city government to catch up to where our city is.”
Previously, an i-team helped Syracuse, New York, test a system that predicts breaks in water pipes. Meanwhile, in Long Beach, California, the mayor’s office teamed up with the nonprofit Code for America to launch a portal that helps budding entrepreneurs navigate the steps and resources to get their businesses up and running. Perhaps, then, Anchorage, can take a cue from Long Beach’s innovation team. The Alaskan city, which hired Brendan Babb as its first chief innovation officer last year, will receive $1.5 million to tackle rising health care costs in the city of 300,000 and to revitalize the Mountain View neighborhood through workforce development. “It has four times the unemployment rate that Anchorage has and it’s also one of the most diverse census tracts in the country,” Babb says. “We're interested in ways to get more people to apply for jobs, provide for more job training, and find out the skills needed for people to fill those existing jobs.”
The idea is to test new ideas on a small scale, says Andrea Coleman, a senior member of government innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “It increases the opportunity to fine tune ideas at an early stage without [needing a lot of] money, research, or time,” she says. “And that lowers the barriers to innovation.” If successful, any of the projects can be scaled up and shared with other cities.
And not all solutions have to be high-tech. As an example, Coleman points to Tel Aviv, where research showed that families spend more than a third of their income on private tutors for their children. There, the i-team created pop-up learning spaces to help families struggling with finances. The program started out in one community and has recently received $300,000 from a different funder to expand citywide.
It’s not just about the funding. Babb and Agrell agree that learning from other cities will be a huge benefit. “The problems Toronto is facing—issues around housing and social equity—every big city is going through some of the same things,” Agrell says. “And I think there's such an opportunity for information sharing through program like this. We can learn what people are doing—what works and what doesn’t work.”