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Building the case for urban innovation labs

The Aspen Institute has a web posting by Eric Lavin about an annual event bringing together mayors and innovators from across the globe, called CityLab.

What is an urban innovation lab? 

It’s an entity focused on developing context-driven and cutting-edge solutions to a city’s most pressing challenges. The best labs promote a culture that allows for testing and learning — or drawing upon Bloomberg’s language, a culture that adopts the best parts of America’s mindset about entrepreneurial failure — where new approaches can be conceived, challenged, improved upon, and if effective, implemented across the city.

Urban innovation labs come in many shapes and sizes. Some are embedded within government, such as the Bloomberg Foundation-sponsored “i-teams, ” which help mayors effectively design and implement solutions to problems in their cities. Some are housed outside city hall, but work closely with government staff (the Aspen Institute hosts an Urban Innovation Lab focused on the Washington, DC region).

One common element of successful urban innovation labs is a persistent focus on challenges unique to the city they are working to improve. Every city — including the ones I mentioned above — has unique challenges. For example, the non-profit Hyderabad Urban Lab focuses on clean water and general sanitation, whereas the Tel Aviv city government’s “i-team” has a focus on affordable housing solutions. These cities share a risk-tolerant culture and dedicated teams that are embedded within city governments or given freedom by city governments to develop new approaches to these problems.  

We need innovation labs to provide the flexibility and information that government has lost, particularly in many western cities. Rob Adams, director of city design and projects for Melbourne, Australia, framed the need for innovation labs by pointing to the 1980s, when governments began to privatize their operations, and in his view began to “contract out their intelligence.” Innovation labs are the government’s effort to build up its intelligence.

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