THE BLOG
03/12/2013 09:21 am ET | Updated May 12, 2013

America's Cities Are Innovating for the Future

History has shown, time and again, that from the ashes of economic upheaval come the potential sparks of massive-scale progress. Today is no different. After years of near-catastrophe at worst, and malaise at best, our economy is showing signs of shaking off some cobwebs and moving into a new future. And I believe technological innovation, already an important driver of recovery, is going to be what defines our future more than anything else.

We are simply living in a new digital age, bringing people and ideas together in ways that we couldn't have imagined only a few years ago. Companies like Google have obviously seen technology as an immensely powerful force for good since our founding 15 years ago. But we can't do it alone. It's up to others, outside of Silicon Valley, well beyond the tech sector, to embrace an innovation agenda if we are truly to build a new economy -- and new future -- that will endure for generations.

Thankfully, this is already happening in places that have historically been at the forefront of innovation: America's cities. Startup culture -- the inventive energy, the garages serving as labs for the ideas that will shape our future, the crazy people dreaming up the crazier ideas that actually will change the world -- is not the sole provenance of Silicon Valley. It's a mentality that should belong to everybody, that everybody should benefit from -- and it's a mentality shaping some of the most innovative thinking going on in cities around the country today.

As they face budget cuts, funding problems, and economic distress, cities have had to think in new ways about what kind of economy they want to build for their people. When they take that thinking seriously, they learn quickly that technology and innovation are the best bets to drive both economic growth and social progress, generally their two chief concerns.

They see the stats about the power of the Internet, and it becomes harder and harder to deny where they should place their resources. Over the past five years, the Internet has grown explosively, contributing to 21 percent of GDP growth, whereas over the past 15 years, it contributed 10 percent of GDP. And it's creating jobs: 2.6 jobs for every job in obsolescence, to be precise. More generally, it's providing opportunities that simply didn't exist before, building the single best infrastructure for the exchange and creation of ideas the world has ever known, and then connecting and empowering individuals to bring those ideas to life. It's no wonder municipal governments are starting to get into the game.

One of the most exciting stories in the field of government innovation is Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to identify innovative ideas to solve common city challenges. The response to the first-ever challenge has been extraordinary, with hundreds of cities applying from all over the country. Twenty cities have been selected as finalists, and all of their ideas use technology and innovation as their fundamental underpinnings. Five winners will be announced in the coming days.

In Houston, for example, they want to construct a high-tech sorting facility that would allow 75 percent of the city's trash to be recycled using technologies from the mining and refining industries (residents put everything in one bin; technology handles the rest). In Boston, they want to put more youth data in the hands of parents and empower them to share it more easily with educators, technologists, and researchers to ensure the best programs for their children. Even in a smaller town, like Springfield, Oregon, they are trying to create mobile primary healthcare that combine at-your-door service with telemedicine technology in order to reduce EMS and ER costs.

These are just some of the 20 examples from the finalists -- which themselves represent a smaller fraction of what's going on in cities all around the country. Local leaders all over are championing innovative solutions to difficult problems. Cities of all sizes are harnessing technology to address and advance a diverse array of issues. Ideas are bubbling up more and more, faster and faster. And, the Mayors Challenge is removing political gridlock and tearing down the bureaucracy that has a tendency to extinguish those ideas before they have a chance to flourish. Indeed, the Challenge is instead identifying the best ideas out there, helping them break through and spread, and, in the end, accelerating the economic and social progress our country needs right now.

The famous American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen once said that, when you look at a city, it's like reading the hopes, aspirations, and pride of everyone who built it. When I look today at the 20 finalists of the Mayors Challenge, and at cities around the country, I see those hopes and aspirations and pride coming to life. I see the beginnings of an age where technological innovation, more than anything else, will foster widespread growth and prosperity. I feel the energy that built Google 15 years ago -- the same energy that will build our new economy, and will define the way we all live far into the future.

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