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Let’s Not Go Back to ‘Normal’- CityLab

A rush to return to pre-pandemic life means giving up chances to make necessary improvements to how cities work.

As Covid-19 hits the South, West and Sun Belt of the U.S., many cities that were part of the “first wave” are starting to feel, well, normal. And that’s not a good thing.

“Normal” in too many cities looks like this: Pedestrians and cyclists die on streets made for cars, not people. Chronic underfunding of local government and social services entrusts the health, well-being and education of our most vulnerable neighbors to the variability of tax revenue. Black and Brown communities lack the space or amenities to social distance and are penalized when they seek creative means to do so. And in times of crisis, while some big businesses are quick to equate showing up to your job as an act of heroism, they remain unwilling to pay a living wage to heroes.

But even as we’re looking at the failures of the status quo, we’ve also seen the possibilities of a better kind of normal: Birdsong has become the predominant city soundscape. People are reclaiming streets and sidewalks for sociability and to demand social change through protests. Unheralded public servants are opening data and standing up user-friendly dashboards to make government more transparent and deliver critical information to residents with remarkable speed. Mayors across the country are experimenting with guaranteed income projects as a means of advancing racial and economic justice.

The changes we’ve seen in our cities in an extremely short period of time suggests that many of the barriers to better cities are not technical or financial, but rather political in nature. That's why it’s critical that we don’t allow a desire for normalcy to lead to a rushed return to normal, and the failure of the status quo. Instead, before our memories of what better cities look and feel like begin to slip away, we should be thinking about how the entire city ecosystem — government, businesses, residents, nonprofits and philanthropy — can support a major culture change in cities: from hiding from failure to embracing and constructively learning from it. This is the focus of a new report from the Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute's Center for Urban Innovation that looks at ways of fostering new ideas within the public sector.

Creating this paradigm shift will require radical changes to longstanding mindsets and beliefs about innovation, risk, and the role of government, and yes, failure. But the foundation for big, (relatively) fast culture changes in the public sector has already been established. A renaissance in public sector innovation has been percolating for years. Innovators within local government, supported by philanthropy, have brought data and analytics, continuous improvement, human-centered design, and other critical innovation tools to the forefront of government operations. However, what’s been missing from this has been a correlating change in the culture surrounding public sector innovation, specifically attitudes toward learning from failure inside and outside of government.

Over the course of several months, our team worked with a cohort of six cities and counties across the country to understand the barriers to creating a “fail forward” culture and to generate tangible actions to bring this culture to fruition. After implementing actions to build this culture, 95% of the public servants in the cohort that responded to our survey reported that they considered innovation as part of their job, compared to just 51% beforehand, demonstrating that culture is the key enabler in driving innovation.

Positive urban transformation came out of an intense reflection on what caused such catastrophic failures and a deep commitment to find a better way forward. We face a similar moment now.

But we also found that in many ways the deck is stacked against governments that want to become more innovative. Within local government, the mantra that “government can’t afford to fail” is pervasive. And while this sentiment is not entirely wrong — a risk-averse posture is appropriate for many government functions — it contributes to a fear of failure that discourages passionate public servants, of which there is no shortage, from identifying (or acknowledging) problems and from engaging in the experimentation and learning necessary to develop more effective solutions. Public sector leaders will need to build psychologically safe cultures that incentivize responsible risk-taking in the pursuit of improving a status quo that is not delivering results for residents.

Outside of government, the rush to classify ambitious, new programs as either winners or losers encourages the “blame game” and discourages risk-taking. Take, for example, this 2013 article recounting the overwhelming negative coverage of New York City’s then recently launched Citi Bike program. The article reads almost like a parody knowing what we know seven years later about the vast benefits of bikeshare systems which have become nearly ubiquitous in major cities around the world. Narratives like this crowd out any room for nuance and have the effect of cutting budding promising programs and solutions off at the knees before they’ve had the chance to mature. This rush to judgment obscures the nature of “wicked” problems where there is almost never a simple solution or immediate success. The broader public will need to realize that deliberate experimentation, and the failures and learning that come with it, is critical for breaking path dependency toward slow-moving disasters, like Covid-19 now and climate change in the future.

For all its agonizing, and fatal, impacts, Covid-19 is not unprecedented: It’s neither the first pandemic nor the worst. Cities have always come out the other side better, but not by accident. Positive urban transformation came out of an intense reflection on what caused such catastrophic failures and a deep commitment to find a better way forward. We face a similar moment now. Cities all over the country have seen clearly where they are failing. It’s counterintuitive, but remedying those failures will require more failure, born out of a commitment to build a better future through bold innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

Jennifer Bradley is the founding director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute and a co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution. Josh Sorin leads the City Innovation program in North America at the Centre for Public Impact.


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