In 1932 Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” And indeed, the States remain a powerful laboratory, able to innovate constrained only by the U.S. Constitution.
But the quote applies ever more to cities. Although they sometimes lack deep pockets, and their authority to regulate is derived from the state, they offer many advantages over state and federal government. I’ll list four. First, as Benjamin Barber recently argued, cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government, meaning real innovation gets done in a practical way. Second, as Edward Glaeser points out in “Triumph of the City,” cities are smaller geographically and dense with human potential, which accelerates the spread of ideas. Third, comparatively minimal bureaucracy allows cities to respond quickly to changing technology. Four, if an initiative fails, it doesn’t affect a whole state (or the whole country).
Put differently, cities are the tech start-ups of government; the federal government is Microsoft. As Arianna Huffington recently wrote, “It’s our cities, not the nation’s capital, that are the real idea factory of our country.”
I’ll give two examples.
First, one many people are familiar with: open-data initiatives. In 2007 Vivek Kundra, then Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology for Virginia, became Washington D.C.’s Chief Technology Officer. He created the D.C. Data Catalog, making government data available for open-source application development. He also instituted an app contest, using a pot of money to crowdsource innovation. When Obama became president, he drafted Kundra as Chief Innovation Officer, where he created data.gov, an initiative to provide an accessible online catalog of data from federal agencies. The idea has spread like wildfire, with more and more cities creating open-data sites and sponsoring app contests. And the data.gov model has now caught on in more than 13 countries. The world has been changed, with momentum generated by a city that was willing to embrace new ideas and showcase on a small scale what would eventually become a worldwide movement.
Second, an example from an area of interest to me: vacant-property registration. In 2007 Chula Vista, California, enacted an ordinance that took a novel approach in the fight to maintain vacant properties. Rather than simply requiring property owners to register vacant property, the city required mortgage lenders to register property when it went into foreclosure and then to maintain the property to stringent code guidelines. Chula Vista’s code enforcement officer, Doug Leeper, was particularly vigilant, and during the program’s first year of operation, Chula Vista raised $77,000 in registration fees (at $70 per property) and imposed around $850,000 in administrative citations. The program was such a success that Leeper was called to testify before the House of Representative’s subcommittee on Domestic Policy in 2008 in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Again, one city’s program spread like wildfire. By my count, nearly 100 municipalities had enacted a similar ordinance by 2009, and that number has continued multiplying ever since. Recently, even Chicago modified its registration ordinance to target lenders.
This type of innovation comes only from local thinkers (and doers) living in communities, seeing local problems, and testing solutions in perhaps America’s greatest laboratories for government innovation—our cities.