From the Good Ideas File: The Smart Chicago Collaborative – A New Model for Civic Innovation in Cities

As you might have noticed if you’ve read the book, the Local Economy Revolution doesn’t propose any easy answers.  The prevailing message of the book is probably that effective community economy revitalization takes hard, interconnected work at a whole range of factors, including both conventional “economic” issues and those that we too often haven’t considered in the same sentence. Improving education, creating entrepreneurship support, protecting people against the externalities of bad development decisions — it’s a silo-breaking, boundary-busting, multiple-moving pieces kind of way to live.  It is, I am increasingly convinced, the way of the future for communities, and for businesses as well.

One of the challenges that I have been thinking about a lot lately has to do with how you coordinate this kind of semi-chaotic change.  This is one of the key interests I have coming out of my trying to understand the Downtown Project in Las Vegas lately — I think that’s a cutting-edge model of a new kind of community revitalization, but I’m still trying to put the pieces together.  Suffice it to say that I know it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than the crappy coverage that has run in some of the national publications.

But as I start to piece together a theory of how community revitalization can best happen in this new era, it’s becoming clear to me that the most long-term effective, the most meaningful, efforts are probably going to be ones that take on a broad range of improvements, and spread the load across a wide range of community partners of all types — the entity that is right for a specific job leading and owning the job.

But if everyone is going off scattershot, you can easily get groups working at cross-purposes.  You can get a confusing mash of conflicting priorities, squabbles, turf-guarding.  A morass.  So how to avoid that?

I’m currently investigating some potential strategies, but one that I recently curated at Engaging Cities addresses this issue in one of the fastest-moving, most decentralized, most potentially chaotic civic improvement situations I know of: the civic hacking movement in Chicago, which has become one of the national leaders in open data and digital transparency.  As this article described:

Roughly once a month, a meetup group called OpenGov Chicago unites more than 100 “civic hackers” and other curious city residents for a talk on Chicago’s latest developments in civic innovation. The meetups are a gateway for involvement—and a locus for action—in Chicago’s civic innovation scene.

At just about every one of those meet-ups, you’ll find Dan X. O’Neil. O’Neil, a founder and main organizer of OpenGov Chicago, can be seen at the entrance shaking hands and engaging with guests. A published poet and admitted archivist, he’s also meticulously documenting the event—its images, its words, its feel—on his camera and in his mind.

As Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, O’Neil sees OpenGov meetups as part of a larger framework to bring disparate groups together towards a shared mission—Smart Chicago’s mission—of improving lives in Chicago through technology.

“We have to care about creating a community,” O’Neil tells me. “To get things done, organizations across the board—government, nonprofits, companies, foundations, you name it—need to interact with each other and feel like a community of shared learning.”

One of the things that is striking me is that some of the most effective methods being used involve face-to-face discussions, even among the tech literati like in Chicago and Vegas.  Perhaps more than ever before, these kind of efforts seem to need these intensively personal interactions, even when the objectives could theoretically be achieved without leaving the glow of the monitor screen.  I think that starts to indicate the kind of interpersonal skills, the attention to communication and to listening, that we’re going to need to revitalize communities.  Even among the app-makers,  they know that simply making apps won’t get it done.

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