Should more entrepreneurs be heading up city governments?

With urban tech and innovation on the agenda of more city governments, one might argue there’s more of a role for local entrepreneurs to play in local decision-making.

That’s precisely what a panel of global leaders in urban innovation spoke about Tuesday afternoon at the New Cities Summit 2016 in Montreal.

Among the panel was Svante Myrick, the Mayor of Ithaca, New York; Khalifa Sall, the Mayor of Dakar, Senegal; Vincent Ponzo, the director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia University; Stephanie Huf, head of marketing at Ericsson Industry and Society; and moderator Jonathan Kay, the editor of The Walrus.

A member of the crowd asked whether more innovators and entrepreneurs should be in city councils, and even if we should be using new ways of electing people in a city. “Who cares if the three guys elected all come from the north end of the city. If they all have good ideas about mass transit, then shouldn’t there be another way to empower innovation in cities than the ones we have?”

Kay echoed the crowd’s sentiment, asking “what do you do in situations when you have municipal government models that haven’t evolved with the economy?”

From left, Kay, Huf, Myrick, Ponzo, Sall and his translator.

Huf said it’s a big dilemma that we’re all facing: some cities acknowledge that they have a capacity issue, but they don’t feel they have the competence in their own ranks to lead their innovation. One approach, said the Ericsson exec, is just to sit back and provide a platform for technology, allowing startups and the private sector to step in. Indeed, there have been examples in this way within the sharing economy around the world.

“But if cities don’t build their own capacity and if they don’t have people on their staff within their departments that are part of the digital economy, then how are they going to manage the new regulations? And how can they make choices about what kind of innovation the city should, in fact, be driving?

It should not necessarily be a given that a [startup] might be the one that starts mobility as a service for the city. Why should it not be the public transport authority that would start the innovation from within? If they don’t recognize that this is their job going forward, then you wont have a healthy balance within innovation and power.”

-Stephanie Huf, Ericsson

Myrick, who became Ithaca’s youngest Mayor when he was elected in January, 2012, added that the only “hack” he knows to tweak democracy to get better entrepreneurial thinking within city halls is for more people to vote.

“The more people that vote, the better the people who are elected.

When I came into office we had a trash pickup route. We did the same route in the same order for 56 years. So what’s changed in 56 years? I mean, everything. The amount that people throw away, where people live, the trucks we use. It turns out we were driving these garbage trucks to the dump half-empty. We rebooted the program and people were so mad. You wouldn’t believe how mad people were. But what did it do? We did an incentive program for that crew where they got the same amount of work done in four days.

That sort of entrepreneurial thinking can happen in a direct democracy, and you’re seeing it more.

-Svante Myrick, Mayor, Ithaca, New York

Under Myrick’s time in office, Ithaca opened up the Rev: Ithaca Startup Works space in September 2014, which has helped incubate nearly 40 startups. It’s open to anyone in the community, where people have access to entrepreneurs-in-residence. Ithaca now has the lowest unemployment rate out of New York State’s 52 counties.

Back to the issue of getting entrepreneurs in office, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the host city of this Summit, a place that has already taken seriously a commitment to tech innovation within city works.

Montreal created its Smart and Digital City office in 2014, headed up by Mayor Coderre, vice president of the City’s executive committee responsible for information technologies and the smart city, Harout Chitilian and director Stephane Goyette. Chitilian is a computer engineer along with his duties in office. The Smart and Digital City office is currently working in nine key areas to make Montréal “a world renowned leader among smart and digital cities by 2017.

Moreover, in the independent Montreal borough of Westmount, city councillor Phillip Cutler also doubles as the founder of local startup GradeSlam. He was the subject of an in-depth feature by MTLinTECH earlier this year.

Mayor Sall of Dakar added to Myrick’s notion, saying cities and towns need to be the ones coming up with incentives and conditions that lead to creation and innovation.

“They have to become role models for further research,” he said.


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