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Smart Cities | The Art of Seizing Good Ideas

These days, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a city’s innovation program or office. Seattle alone has at least four. But how are these cities and agencies framing their work? And do these programs actually result in “innovative” outcomes?

This year, we set out to find the nation’s leaders in city-led transportation innovation and bring their lessons home.


We’ve partnered with UW’s Mobility Innovation Center.

In partnership with the Mobility Innovation Center, we commissioned the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance to review the innovation frameworks of six leading cities—Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco—to identify and analyze their noteworthy innovations, and provide recommendations as the department considers developing its own innovation framework.

The study, based on archival research and semi-structured interviews, revealed how different cities:


  • Solicited ideas from residents, public employees, and the private sector.
  • Analyzed those ideas for their potential.
  • Implemented promising leads with the ultimate goal of changing policy and establishing new programs.


We found innovation themes.

Though the study presented cities independently, each with two highlighted innovations, we saw some cross-cutting themes.

Getting creative with partnerships, for example, is high on everyone’s list, whether with private companies or think tanks.


  • Austin has hired the Rocky Mountain Institute to aid its transition to a shared, electric, and autonomous mobility system—or with universities for their research expertise and to serve as third-party data aggregators as in Chicago and Seattle.
  • San Francisco goes a step further with its Civic Bridge program, which connects city employees directly to private sector volunteers to build trust and brainstorm innovative policy solutions.


Most cities are also revisiting their procurement processes to figure out where they can be made more efficient and how they can solicit more ideas from a broader audience without foregoing their commitment to a fair and equitable process.


  • Boston and Los Angeles are both experimenting with open solicitations, and in 2017 New York City launched a competition, the Genius Transit Challenge, to collect proposals to modernize its aging subway system.


However, though there appears to be a broad commitment to preserving existing protections for fairness, equity, and transparency in procurement, we haven’t yet seen any examples of cities trying to innovate their processes to become more equitable.


What impressed us the most?

Image by NYC DOT |

NYC DOT’s Street Ambassador program, which sends teams of individuals to community meetings and areas with high foot traffic to provide information and collect feedback on potential transportation improvements. These ambassadors speak with individuals in their preferred languages, and some of them were formerly parking meter attendants whose jobs were eliminated by high-tech and automated meters, presenting one compelling example of a workforce transition solution.

The study concluded with recommendations reminding us of the importance of setting goals, managing expectations—especially for speed and success, neither of which are a guarantee when innovating—and preserving public values like equity, transparency, and accountability.


What we’ve done & learned.

As we continue to implement the first moves identified in our New Mobility Playbook, including our innovative permitting programs for free-floating bike share and electric vehicle charging in the right of way, we look to others’ experiences and lessons learned to inform our own approach.

We’re also keeping our eyes out for innovation that will really blow our socks off: something like a mobility solution that is requested and designed by residents and works well for low-income and cost-burdened transportation users. That’s what we’re working toward, and we won’t hesitate to borrow ideas and approaches if someone else gets there first.