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‘Innovation in its simplest terms is thinking differently,’ says an assistant city manager in Carlsbad. ‘This is a pretty important time to encourage diverse thought.’
Around the country, there has been a dawn of “civic hackers” who want to apply technological and modern approaches to municipal life. What they see as its paper-based, closed-off and inefficient status quo has got to go.
And several cities around the country like San Francisco and Philadelphia have created posts for a “chief innovation officer” – someone to channel that energy from the public so it doesn’t get lost in bureaucracy.
San Diego, unlike some peers, has no open data policy, no chief of innovation and lost its open government director months ago. It does have the interested, often-techy activists who want to find new, more efficient and less expensive ways of doing city business and helping regular people get involved. And it has a bustling sector of innovative businesses, some leaders of which hope the city will help foster growth.
It also has had a decade of bungled decisions, financial issues and political scandals, the current one notwithstanding, leaving little time to make an app for paying parking tickets more easily, or thinking creatively about how to get more residents to weigh in on city decisions.
Most governments tend to be risk-averse, said Greg Hermann, who works in the Carlsbad City Manager’s Office and has “head nerd” emblazoned on his business card.
“It’s a really good reason. Our primary purpose is to be excellent stewards of taxpayer funds,” he said. “There’s a hesitancy to do anything that’s going to be perceived as risking taxpayer funds.”
But innovation – shaking up systems, doing things differently – is inherently risky. So Hermann and others are trying to think of ways to foster innovation that are cheap, quick and allow for early assessment of how well an idea is working.
The intersection of city life and innovation takes a number of different forms. Some cities see the most important concept as promoting innovative startups, giving them inexpensive space and streamlining regulations. Others want to see the innovation applied to their own processes, breaking the boxes around government checklists and peeling the red tape away.
A community can’t assume that just because it’s a quality place to live, it doesn’t need to change, Hermann said.
“The way we talk about it is that innovation in its simplest terms is thinking differently,” he said. “This is a pretty important time to encourage diverse thought.”
When the Roadmap Needs to Change
Sometimes innovative ideas break the law.
When Car2Go, the network of electric vehicles spread throughout the city, first approached San Diego as a place to do business, there were several obstacles. Eric Engelman worked for former Mayor Jerry Sanders at the time.
“Car2Go, on its face, was illegal under city code, because city code was created in the era of traditional rent-a-car,” he said.
It was illegal to park a vehicle that wasn’t currently being rented on public streets, and it was illegal to start or end a rental in the public right-of-way.
The SDPD was skittish about making exceptions for parking revenues, and there was a revenue impact of taking away parking spaces to make room for free spots for the vehicles, Engelman said. The company came straight to the Mayor’s Office rather than try to jump through hoops in the city’s transportation department.
“The ugly truth is that it wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” Engelman said.
The tale lends credence to the idea of having an office or a person who helps ideas get through a bureaucracy. The innovation was a new way of getting around city streets, but it may have proven too frustrating had Sanders’ administration not stepped in.
“I think cities are always going to be playing catch-up and fundamentally in the way,” Engelman said. “The question is how do you minimize it?”
Hermann, in Carlsbad, said that city of 700 employees has been experimenting with a network for sharing ideas, all to make the city better.
“We’ve got a police officer engaging with a librarian engaging with a planner, online,” he said.
Give Me Your Data
A group of tech activists want the city of San Diego to adopt an “open data” policy. Last week, neighborhood planning honcho Joe LaCava and software developer Jeffrey Johnson made a presentation to a City Council committee.
The city generates data every day about things like crime, parks, street sweepers and infrastructure. The group wants to be able to access it. Open data paves the way for developers to make apps, visualizations and interactive maps – like ways for residents to check on the street-sweeping schedule, or to visualize the way the city’s budget works.
“San Diego is one of if not the only major city in the country that doesn’t have an open data policy in place and I find that pretty troubling,” said Johnson, the local “brigade captain” of Code for America.
Johnson should know. The company he works for, OpenGeo, works on civic engagement apps for cities like New York City, San Francisco and Portland.
“All of those cities have very specific policies in place and are way out in front of us in terms of doing innovative things,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s group recently launched a test app for San Diego to allow people to vote on the infrastructure project they think is most important.
The group counts two key supporters – Councilman Mark Kersey and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. But the next steps could take a long time. Lightner asked the city’s Independent Budget Analyst to study what it would take for the city to adopt a policy, and how much it would cost. The next meeting is expected this fall.
And the mayor would have to get onboard. The mayor’s liaison to this crew was Donna Frye, who worked in the administration for just a short time. Johnson said the mayor’s office is preoccupied with the current scandal.
Without someone inside the city operations, the work may be extra-difficult. “Not everybody’s on Twitter, blogging and tweeting. Most people in government are really difficult to actually have access to,” said Jay Nath, San Francisco chief innovation officer. “You can email your elected officials, but having somebody who’s able to translate those ideas in a meaningful way and turn them into projects is really important.”
Technology itself is not the goal, Nath said. Instead, he aims to make government processes more efficient, to connect residents and empower them to be more involved. If that involves technology, so be it.
“We actively try to dispel that notion that technology and innovation are interchangeable,” he said.
Building It, Hoping They Come
The city of Carlsbad just opened an incubator for biotech, tech and clean tech entrepreneurs who want a low-cost place to test ideas.
City of San Diego officials gave some grant funding at the outset of EvoNexus, a free-rent office space downtown for early stage startup companies.
In some cities, fostering these types of things would be among the duties of a chief innovation officer – someone tasked with making the city a friendlier place for innovative businesses.
But in any model, focus needs to be paid to connecting the innovators to real help and savvy, said Robert Reyes, founder of StartupCircle San Diego. And they don’t have to look far to see what happens when it doesn’t work. Escondido opened an incubator in 2011 that flopped.
Reyes said Mayor Bob Filner did follow through on a campaign pledge to convene a conversation about what the city’s role can be. And Filner announced a “Civic and Urban Initiatives” team that seeks to foster innovation and implement the best ideas in the city.
The head of that project, Teddy Cruz, didn’t return my calls in time for this story, but city spokesman Bill Harris said the effort is underway.
“We don’t have a chief innovation officer, as you know, but we’ve got a wide variety of committees and networks afoot,” he said.
Reyes gave credit to Filner for asking the right questions, even if there hasn’t been much action yet. But he said the action needs to come soon.
“San Diego is still being conservative about is this, is this something we should do?” Reyes said. “It’s not something that you should, it’s something that you have to. You’re not trailblazing; you’re just keeping up.”
This is part of our Quest to find out more about the innovation economy in San Diego. Here’s a good overview of what we wanted to find out, and check out these highlights from the series.