Aiming high: connecting private sector technology to public sector challenges

The Future of Cities We've launched a handbook, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, to explore how city problem-solvers are using innovation to achieve greater public impact.

NYCx is a Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) program that focuses on inviting the leading thinkers and technologists globally to help NYC plan for and use emerging technologies for the benefit of residents. As Mayor de Blasio shared at the launch of NYCx in 2017, this approach is vital to “ensure that new technologies are making New York the fairest city in the world.”

 

Driving technology to meet the greatest need locally

Jeremy M. Goldberg and Youssef Kalad see the role of NYCx as, broadly, to bridge the gap between emerging technologies and the public good, ensuring that the benefits of technology are directed where they are most needed. There is a sense of urgency to this mission and we asked them to outline the impetus behind it.

Jeremy explained that MOCTO established the NYCx program in the City at a pivotal moment: “Our cities are being transformed by technologies at an unprecedented rate and public institutions must keep pace with and plan for these changes. The Mayor’s vision of making NYC the fairest city in America requires that we include New Yorkers in the technology development process in order to direct technological change toward the common good.”

“We have two pillars of NYCx:

“The first pillar of the program is our Moonshot Challenge, which pinpoints an urgent City priority where the Mayor has tasked City agencies with making meaningful, dramatic progress. Moonshot problems are broad and global in nature and the Moonshot Challenge taps into emerging technologies to tackle them. While there are issues in New York that are highly localized – and for these, we empower communities to see how technology is shaping their lives and whether technology can play a role in supporting community or block-level action (recognizing of course that technology is not always the answer) – there are also issues and challenges we face here that have global relevance. The Moonshot Challenge is our vehicle for making a positive impact on those pressing global issues”.

“The second pillar is NYCx Co-Labs which is all about working with residents in places like Brownsville in Brooklyn and Inwood in Washington Heights to tackle their community challenges.  Co-Labs neighborhoods are rich in culture and creativity but in some cases have historically been left behind in the modern economy. Through a series of workshops and design sessions, we work with residents to identify and prioritize their most urgent challenges. Topics are then selected with the community and partner City agencies and presented to local and global entrepreneurs, technologists, and organizations to propose solutions. Winners are selected and go on to work hand in hand with residents on developing, designing and rolling out their pilot projects”.

While there are issues in New York that are highly localized – and for these, we empower communities to see how technology is shaping their lives and whether technology can play a role in supporting community or block-level action

 

Anchored in equity

Youssef explained that the current Moonshot Challenge is focused on cybersecurity but has an explicit focus on equity, which is aligned with the Mayor’s pledge to make NYC the fairest city in America.

“Fairness is central to this challenge,” says Youssef, “so we ask ourselves, ‘How do we level the playing field between the Fortune 500 companies who can afford to invest in expensive cybersecurity tools and NYC’s 240,000 small businesses who have considerably fewer resources but are the lifeblood of the city and are increasingly digitizing their services in response to demand?’”

The focus on equity is not just about outcomes and beneficiaries, as Youssef explains, “We also try to level the playing field so that organizations of all sizes and individuals of all competencies can enter our challenges. For example, we offer funding to finalists to build testable prototypes and proofs of concept. We want these challenges to be truly city-wide projects that leverage public testing grounds.”

 

Starting with the problem, not the technology

Previous Moonshot Challenges have focused on climate change and broadband connectivity (specifically on narrowing the digital divide). We asked how NYCx goes about choosing these issues. How can you tell when a project has the potential to make a major impact rather than just being a “nice to have”?

The first piece of advice is simple: “Don’t start with technology, start with a problem. It doesn’t necessarily matter how, or even whether, you apply a piece of technology; the driver must always be the problem and that must remain at the forefront throughout the process.”

To select the problem itself there are three key criteria, which Jeremy outlined. “First we look for a problem that is global in nature, so that making a meaningful contribution to solving it will have an impact beyond NYC. Second, it needs to be something on which the Mayor has put forth a public commitment to making progress. This ensures we are not going out on a limb, but rather there’s been a commitment at the City agency level to make progress on that front. This is particularly important in terms of funding.

“The third criterion is tricky to define, but it’s a strong general principle: it should be a problem that can’t wait, so the need must be immediate and persistent. Climate action, for example, was very clear in this sense – every day that we fail to take the steps we need to in order to move to a carbon-neutral world is a day that’s lost. The Mayor had committed the city to join the Paris Climate Agreement after the federal government had stepped away, so there was already funding and political commitment to the cause.”

 

Partnering for long term impact

While not every city will be able to focus on delivering global solutions, there are important lessons to be learned from the success and ambition of MOCTO’s NYCx program. When we asked what advice they would like to pass on to other cities’ innovation and technology offices, both Jeremy and Youssef felt strongly that partnering was vital to achieving meaningful outcomes.

“Partnering delivers impact. Working together and learning is at the heart of what we do and is far more important than the technology. Within any city, you need to look at businesses, communities and/or industries and reach out to broaden your understanding. There will always be an opportunity for partnership, whether that’s in a pro bono capacity, a challenge capacity or in some other way. It’s how you learn about recent trends and developments and their impact. We don’t have all the answers as government, and to find them we need to work alongside partners on a day-to-day basis to understand the difficulties they face and to learn about potential solutions.

“It’s also valuable to reach out to other cities. We’re partnering with eight international cities and countries on our Cybersecurity Moonshot for a reason. These aren’t proprietary projects, and so it’s helpful when we share insights and experiences. This is critical to the design process, which evolves constantly and in real time. Learning, feedback, and adaptation are critical because as we are tackling dynamic issues in dynamic environments. Nothing stands still.”

Working together and learning is at the heart of what we do and is far more important than the technology.

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The Future of Cities

Over the last few months, the Centre for Public Impact, in partnership with the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Instituteand the Boston Consulting Group, has spoken to these problem-solvers in American cities to understand how they are innovating to drive change for residents on the biggest challenges. Our findings are detailed in The Future of Cities handbook. To find out more and to join the conversation, visit our website.

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