City Innovation Officers Cultivate Crowdsourced Solutions

Susan Hall

Amid all the speculation about the evolving role of the CIO - and the possibility that it might disappear altogether - two major cities in the past six months have moved CIOs into a new role called chief innovation officer. Add that to the continuing list of C-level titles cropping up these days.


The Atlantic reports that Jay Nath in San Francisco and Adel Ebeid in Philadelphia view the role as:

... connecting city hall and all of its resources with a new generation of problem-solvers outside of it.


"We don't want just an active hacker community that's developing apps that aren't really going to benefit the community," Ebeid says. "Things need to come back and either enhance citizen engagement, enhance citizen awareness, improve digital inclusion."

The article draws parallels between President Obama naming Vivek Kundra as federal CIO, though it points out that at the federal and state level, it's not the same level of interaction as at the city level, whether the issue is about crime, catching a bus or whatever. Nath also is quoted as saying that despite the level of disenchantment with government,

... there's also this flip side where people actually believe that working with government, we can make a better solution and better improvements for our society.

The idea is that technological advances such as the move to cloud computing mean technology leaders can focus their attention more on interacting with residents - more advancing the "business" of government. Said Ebeid:

Some cities now are realizing that what I really need is someone to help me advance digital quality of life for my city, rather than just keep a bunch of servers warm and running in a closet.

They work on issues such as making it easier to flag a taxi or clearing hurdles to starting a business. Yet while the issues and challenges at the municipal level are more personal, it would seem that such a position would be more risky at the same time with the ever-presence of budget cutting. After all, governments at all levels accounted for nearly one-third of all layoffs last year. At the same time, tight budgets could be called the mother of invention in this case.


Nath and Ebeid talk about how it's easy to get bogged down in the status quo - old systems, old culture - when problems call for fresh thinking. Said Nath:

... I do think that innovation is really about a new way of thinking, new approaches to old problems. It could be about how do you engage with your community better? And it may not involve technology at all. ...

And the article continues:

... momentum is pushing cities in this direction, toward open-source, crowd-sourced solutions instead of top-down ones. It's not just that the hackers are out there, clamoring for more data. At the same time cities across the country are running short on money, people in the community are offering up free labor, free ideas, free new ways of thinking about things.

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