The Solution Must Come From All of Us

05/07/2015 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

It is no secret that cities are the incubators of innovation in America today. In an era of paralyzed government, cities are one place where things can still get done. As the economist Edward Glaeser put it, "We get smart by being around other smart people; cites make us smart by enabling creativity."

But what is driving that creativity? Is it just the singular brilliance of our mayors? The nimbleness of city officials freed from the heavy shackles of a national, partisan audience? Is there just something in the water in Charlotte, San Jose and Detroit?

Mayors and their governments undoubtedly have a role to play in fostering the well-being and prosperity of their cities. The sheer amount of resources they have at their disposal gives them immense power to move their metropolises in the right directions.

But the cities that are truly innovating are doing it by thinking beyond government. They understand that to realize its potential, a city must tap into the skills and energies of all its residents, not just the ones who work in City Hall. And yet too often solutions to our urban problems are assumed to be something that must always emerge from a government commission or task force.

Such an approach wastes the ideas and capabilities of all those citizens who work outside of City Hall and their closest confidantes. Enormous potential to transform cities exists in the very people who populate them.

That's why the Knight Foundation launched the Knight Cities Challenge -- to further new ideas from innovators who will take hold of the future of our cities. Activists, designers, artists, planning professionals, architects, city officials, educators, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, block captains, social workers -- everyone was welcome to apply.

And everyone did. Knight received more than 7,000 applications from across America. The overwhelming response to the challenge demonstrates the passion citizens have for their urban areas. People are eager to improve their cities. And they have no shortage of ideas on how to accomplish this.

The winners put forth a host of ideas for reshaping communities large and small -- the main commonalities among the successful proposals are creativity and a devotion to civic innovation.

Take the plan by the Rebuild Foundation to transform vacant space in downtown Gary, Indiana, into a kitchen and café run by student entrepreneurs. Called "ArtHouse: a Social Kitchen," the project will create jobs, repurpose abandoned buildings and offer new culinary experiences to local residents.

Or consider "The Buzz," the brainchild of Detroit Future City, a team determined to revitalize the city. It will pair barbers with landscapers to give bold haircuts to unkempt, weed-choked vacant lots. "The Buzz" will beautify the city, create economic opportunities, and unite parts of the community that don't normally interact.

Other winning projects are the product of a single individual with a dream. A recent arrival in Akron, Ohio has fallen in love with the city -- but at first he found it tough to connect. His brainchild is "Unbox Akron" a subscription based box service that will expose new businesses and neighborhoods in Akron to the people that live there. The bet is by uncovering the unique variety of the city these boxes can help to create a stronger attachment to place. A less frequent service will be sent to expats designed to make them ambassadors for Akron, and maybe entice them to come home.

Lastly, some of the Knight winners are mayors themselves. Chris Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, won for his proposal to create a position in his office dedicated to working across departments to manage the mayor's $42 million "8-80 Vitality Fund," which will ensure that walking, biking and public spaces are a priority in all city programs. The role of the Cities Challenge in enabling the mayor's own plan for a healthier, more livable city shows the role foundations can and should play in this work as well. Foundations have a unique set of resources that enable them to act as conveners, bringing together diverse, talented people and empowering new, bold ideas.

I hope city leaders and other foundations will look at the winners of the Knight City Challenge -- and the many other innovators working out there to better their cities -- and think about how to tap that talent and intelligence.

There is clearly a wealth of imagination and passion among Americans for improving their communities. Whichever cities tap into that potential by opening up their processes and their thinking will succeed in ways that will surprise us, and may even surprise City Hall too.

Carol Coletta is the vice president for community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation. Knight Foundation just announced the winners of the first Knight Cities Challenge, which is awarding a total of $5 million to 32 projects in cities across the country.