On the ground in 300-plus U.S. city halls

September 27, 2017

How many workshops have you facilitated and how would you describe the experience?

Sania Salman (Idea Couture): I will have completed 18 workshops by the end of September, and it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The most fascinating part has been the way the curriculum showed city leaders how to take something that might, at first, be a broad, urgent problem and then whittle it down into a much more concrete and targeted aspect of that problem. During each, and every, workshop, there’s been a pivotal moment when I can tangibly see participants buy into the process.

Without naming any cities, what would you say is one of the most surprising moments over the past two months?

BW: I was in a small city dealing a dramatic rise in homelessness and a large increase of migrants from Latin America The participants came in wanting to address homelessness, but then they began to see that homelessness was a symptom of other challenges. About three quarters of the way through the day, all the people in the room — and this was the most diverse group I worked with, including church leaders, the school superintendent, business people, and the police department, among others — realized that the literacy and language gaps were the biggest challenges their city faces. By the end of the day they had coalesced around addressing these challenges as the root of homelessness and other issues. I was amazed by this mind shift over the course of only one day, and the moment when everyone realized they wanted to work together on literacy was both surprising and inspiring.

What one lesson did you share with attendees that you think would be helpful to everybody interested in government innovation?

SS: In order to be innovative, you’ve got to check your assumptions and have the audacity to admit when your understanding of the problem is wrong. Too often, we become attached to an idea or solution. Innovation requires that you approach the world not with answers but with questions. It requires a sense of endless curiosity and an awareness about your own biases and assumptions. I like asking participants, “Is there any inherent value in finding answers if the answers are to the wrong questions?” Take all your understanding, expertise, and data and validate it. Then, continuously arrange and rearrange and stack these blocks of knowledge in different ways to understand how you can truly make lasing change.

What did your experience teach you about the state of U.S. cities?

SS: I wrongly assumed there wasn’t an appetite for innovation or, perhaps, there was a lack of passionate talent. I was proven wrong, repeatedly, on both accounts. What I’ve learned is two-fold: First, there is a perceptible hunger to be creative and forward-thinking and, second, there is a contagious passion for the continued success and progress of the city. These two characteristics go hand in hand. Many cities are looking to be innovative because they realize the only way to tackle some of their incredibly intractable problems is by finding avant-garde solutions that can leapfrog them into the future. American cities don’t lack talent, expertise, or even passion. But they need more enabling tools and resources to provide directional guidance and make an innovative future seem more attainable.