San Francisco’s Innovation Zone

The Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation is looking at activating parts of SF in ways that similar to efforts aimed at digitally hacking the City. These zones, for a specified amount of time, would be designated for piloting technologies, architecture, design, art, partnerships and business models in a real environment. One of the most significant lessons learned from Open Data is that when a government asset is open, then applications are built, products are made, and businesses are started. While programmers were hacking with open data, architects, artists, foodies, and gardeners were in the streets hacking the infrastructure to create parklets, urban gardens, and popups. These types of urban infrastructure hacks have created new types of public space, business markets, community participation, and socio-cultural development. Simultaneous to these two movements, SF has continued to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects without having an opportunity to test or compare the technology of competing vendors before investing and scaling across the city.


Introduction by Gordon Feller

Let me introduce you to Jay Nath. Jay is the chief innovation officer of the city of San Francisco. You met the other CIO, chief information officer, yesterday − Jon Walton. Jay occupies a unique position not only because he’s the first chief innovation officer for any city in North America, but because he brings multiple talents: the technology expertise, the social concerns, and the economic development mandate which the mayor is very intense about. You’ll hear later when the mayor is here why he’s married innovation and economic development to social inclusion. Not to steal any more of Jay’s thunder − Jay Nath. Thank you.

Jay Nath

Thank you, Gordon. First of all, I want to welcome all of you here. I want to thank Cisco for selecting San Francisco as their city to host the Meeting of the Minds. I want to encourage all of you to stay here through the weekend. We’ve got a lot of sporting events happening and some events around innovation that I’ll be sharing with you in a few minutes.

Before I talk about bottoms-up innovation and the approach around smarter cities, I want to talk a little bit about the office of civic innovation and why innovation is important in public institutions. From my standpoint, I think there are 2 primary reasons. One, you really want an attach point. You want to signal to your community that there is a welcoming hand to really collaborate with. Secondly, you need space for experimentation in cities. Government is built for continuity, sustainability. It’s not really built for risk-taking. You wouldn’t want them to take risks. Having a sandbox where we can actually do some experimentation and take on high-impact projects and take on higher-risk projects is really important.

There are 3 areas that we’re focused on. One is around public engagement, really deepening and broadening civic engagement. The second is around economic development, as Gordon mentioned. That’s of primary importance for our city. Third is making our city smarter. We’re driving efficiency through technology and methodologies.

We launched in 2012 at the beginning of the year. We did that very publicly through Tech Crunch and we did that for a reason. We wanted to signal that we exist and that, again, people can come to us. We want to also publicly state what we’re doing in 2012 so people have an insight and they can collaborate with us about the different projects that we’re working on and hold us accountable. At the end of 2012, we’re going to be producing an annual report about the work that we did, our successes, and our failures. With innovation, you really have to embrace your failures and learn from that to push things forward.

We’re really looking at a methodology around lean startup. We’ve been inspired by Eric Ries. I had him speak to city staff and that’s been really pivotal in our thinking: approaching things from a scientific basis to test our assumptions out, to be lean, to be scrappy is really important for us. We have a small team, just like a startup. My deputy innovation officer Shannon Spanhake is hopefully the future of public service. She’s a former CTO of a startup. It was founded on some patent-pending technologies around environmental sensors.

We’re blessed to have some really great partners in our ecosystem here in San Francisco. Code for America, as many of you know, works closely with cities on yearlong fellowships and through their civic accelerator program, driving innovation through design and technology. Another organization you may not have heard of is SFCiti, San Francisco Citizens’ Initiative for Technology and Innovation. They’re really our tech chamber of commerce. They represent over 300 tech companies here in San Francisco. They’ve been a great resource for our city. Some of that I will be mentioning have been pushed forward by them. Of course, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts grafted their doodle arts collective that incubates digital and physical hacking in our cities.

The last thing I’m going to talk about before I go into the presentation is that October is innovation month here in San Francisco. It seems like every month is innovation month here in San Francisco but we wanted to celebrate individuals and companies that are doing outstanding work. We kicked it off with a startup map that we launched at Disrupt SF. We used crowdsourced information leveraging Tech Crunch’s Crunchbase API. I don’t know of any other city that’s doing that. We believe that’s the better approach than a top-down approach trying to manage all this data. Let’s work with our community. We also have some anchor events that are happening throughout the city. I just want to mention that that map was produced by GAFFTA and Golightly House Media. OpenCoSF − this is the first year of OpenCoSF. It’s starting today. If you can make it, I encourage you to. Our mayor will be there as well as Ron Conway and some other executives like the CEO of Twitter. Really, what it’s about is inviting 40 tech companies here in San Francisco to open up their doors to really understand what makes them tick so people can get a better insight about the people and technologies that are driving these companies. Year 2 is going to expand out beyond tech but Year 1, we’re focusing on high-tech and that’s being produced by Federated Media and Golightly House. We’re going to have a party tonight. We’re launching Innovation Month at Westfield Center right here in Union Square. Westfield Labs is being announced as well. We’re expecting 500 people. It’s a great party. If you can attend, please do. You can sign up at

To get to the heart of the discussion, I’m going to talk a little bit about a bottoms-up approach for innovation in cities and thinking about how that compares to a planned-out, top-down, designed approached. We’ve seen a lot of disruption happening in social media and other industries in the past 10 years: knowledge management, journalism, software development. If you think about it, there are some things that are common to these industries and how they’re being disrupted. One is they’re generative platforms. Each of these, people can create. It’s democratizing access in creation. I think that’s really, really important. It’s near real-time. People can make changes very quickly and iterate and there aren’t barriers to entry. The question is how do we start thinking about applying some of those lessons in these industries to cities and what does that look like? Does that allow for co-creation so that everyone can participate? Is that even possible and what would that look like? My sense is that as you’ve seen in the internet, we’re going to see the 1-9-90 rule taking effect where there’s going to be 1% that are really creating things, 9% that are contributors, and 90% that are really just consuming what people are doing. I think what’s important is it’s democratized. Anyone can be that 1%. It doesn’t have to be the elite, the experts. Anyone can be part of that. It’s that choice.

I’m going to talk about digital hacking and some of the lessons we learned here in San Francisco and see how we can potentially apply that to the physical hacking in our cities. A big source of digital hacking is open data. We heard yesterday from Chris and Jon about open data in San Francisco, across the country, and internationally. We’ve been focused on the supply side for the past 3 years through DataSF but what’s more interesting is how do you incubate the demand side? That’s been through hackathons, community events. It’s been a feedback loop for our city to uncover where we should be going next. I think what’s really interesting is private sector data. If you look at Telco data, if you look at taxi data, it’s locked and inaccessible. What happens if we had a data marketplace where we actually use all that information and be agnostic to where the source of that data is coming from? I think we can have a lot more insight into what’s happening in cities to benefit everyone. We’re going to be making some announcements around this on Monday with our mayor and some leadership in our city around open data. We’re reclaiming leadership. We’re going to be talking about private data and a lot more on Monday. If you’re going to be here in San Francisco, please join us at The Hatchery on Monday. With that data in 2009-2010, we partnered with GAFFTA on something that’s called Summer of Smart which was a series of hackathons. It was really a learning exercise for us. It was a way for us to start ideating with our community. Here’s a video of that that goes into it. [Video is shown] We had over 500 participants, 10,000 hours of civic engagement, and 25 apps created. I think the one thing to note here is that the engagement was not just people participating and showing up. They were actually networking, deeply thinking about how to solve the challenges that were put forth.

One of the outcomes was an app called SmartMUNI. What I think is interesting about this app is that it actually goes a bit deeper. It’s not just a consumer-facing, citizen-facing app; it’s actually used for operations. We had some troubles but it’s now being implemented in San Francisco. It helps our transit planners actually do real-time planning on the ground. We’ll be seeing that coming from a hackathon actually being instituted in our city.

We also took this to the political class. We have had this bottoms-up insurgency but how do we actually educate and enroll the political class? We did that through the debate of 16 mayoral candidates. For the first time, they learned that the constituents were not just a feedback mechanism but actually could create solutions as well. It was really inspiring for them.

We had another hackathon called unhackathon where we focused on design thinking around the taxi space. It was really about blueprints, not actual technology. We’re actually taking many of these ideas for regulatory changes. Two of these ideas were stolen by a taxi company here locally, a startup. We want people to steal ideas; it’s a good thing.

The last one I’m going to mention is creative currency. It is a partnership with GAFFTA, the Hub and American Express, exploring deeply about creative currency and the new economy in one of our poorer districts here in San Francisco. Of the 4 ideas that were selected and incubated and seeded, this one is really interesting. It’s taking idle spaces in retail areas, combining them with people who are underemployed and transforming the space through novel ideas. Here’s a quick video on that.

The other mechanism that we’ve been using to drive change is through challenges. It’s really working with our constituents. Challenges have a long history in government but it’s taking a new emphasis at the federal level. We’re doing some work here at the local level through ImproveSF, which I’ll have the mayor talk about through this video:

“Hi, I’m Mayor Ed Lee and I want to welcome you to ImproveSF. ImproveSF is an online brainstorming platform where we reward you for working with us to solve our city’s most challenging problems. On this website, city agencies will post challenges and you can submit ideas about how to solve them. Through the years, our work in open data and hackathons has taught us 3 important lessons: innovation is disruptive, solutions can come from anywhere, and collaboration is key. ImproveSF combines those lessons and embraces the power of technology to make it easier for you to communicate and collaborate with city government to solve problems from home, from work, or from anywhere with internet access.”

Our first challenge was around the transportation agency. Here’s a video describing what we’re looking for in the transportation space. [Video is shown.] The first challenge was a great success. Transportation is something that people are very passionate about. Our second challenge went deeper. It’s about access to fresh, healthy food and food justice in the Central Market. With 85 ideas, the winning idea came from students at Berkeley. We took those ideas and incubated them at the Hub. We’re going to see how we take those ideas to market. That’s really critical. We don’t want a platform where we generate ideas and they go into a black hole. We’re going to ensure that those ideas are actually implemented and they’re solving real problems.

We’re also looking at international challenges. We’ve worked with Living Labs Global for the past 2 years. The last challenge was around lighting and how we do intelligent lighting in San Francisco. It’s a $20 million capital program in our city and they’ve had 2 failed RFPs. Really, it’s thinking about what is another mechanism for RFPs. Challenges are a great way to do that. The winning solution is from Paradox Engineering. They’re a company from Switzerland. The CEO flew in from Switzerland. I want to recognize him. Gianni, please stand up for a second. Thank you for flying in. Their solution is really interesting. It’s really future-proof. It’s really dedicated to open standards interoperability. That’s something important for San Francisco and I think for cities in general to think about open standards. If you want to learn more about their technology, I’ll do a shame in trying to represent their technology but it meets our needs currently and also for the future in thinking about wireless mesh network in how we control lighting and other technologies in our city.

Moving to physical hacking a little bit, we’ve explored digital hacking and some of the lessons learned there, which is about prototyping, iterating quickly, and democratizing access so that people can create things very quickly. Can we do the same thing on the physical side? What does that look like in our public realm? A great example of that is the Urban Prototyping Festival. It’s a festival that’s being launched here in San Francisco next week. It’s really exploring interventions on the digital and physical side in our environment. What does that look like? One of the examples that I like is something called the 10-mile Garden. It’s an idea from a professor here at the Architecture School of California College of the Arts. Her idea is looking at unused space, spaces in front of fire hydrants, and can we rethink of what that space looks like into gardens. If you actually aggregate that space across our city, that adds up to 10 miles so it can have a big impact on our environment. She shared this with me several months ago. Through this festival, we’re actually able to surface this idea in a much broader way. I think what’s interesting with the Urban Prototyping Festival for our city is that they’re creating tension points. We’re going to be doing a lot of physical hacking through the festival permit. We’re going to look at those tension points and think about what kind of regulatory changes we can make on the permitting side. For me, I’m seeing permits as the new API for making change in our urban environment.

One of the other disruptive things that we’ve seen on the physical side is access to physical assets. There’s been a culture of ownership, of this inevitability of continuing to build more freeways and etc. But there is this really profound idea of sharing physical assets. We’re the center of this here in San Francisco. I think what also is interesting is that we’re unfolding and unteasing the tension points between the legacy industries and the new emerging industries that are at play here. No other city is doing that. We have a working group announced by the mayor that’s working on both sides to craft better policies. We don’t want to be reactive. As you saw, the CPUC actually made it illegal for a sidecar and other cars like ride-and-lift to work. We think that we should be a lot more thoughtful about this. We shouldn’t just be rushing in and being reactive and just applying old models to new spaces.

I’m going to leave things off with the Bay Lights. Many of you heard about this. When I met Ben Davis, the mastermind behind the Bay Lights, I was awed by the scale and audacity of what he wanted to accomplish. What I was really impressed with is I knew he was going to succeed a year ago. The reason was he had tackled the most difficult part which was getting the regulatory environment, MTC, the Coast Guard and others to buy into this crazy idea to make a bridge a digital canvas. He’s able to do that. When I heard about that, the other challenge of getting $8 million in crowdfunding I thought that was going to be a homerun. He got the $8 million. He got the OK from all these different regulatory environments. This is expected to pull in $100 million into our local economy. I think what is really interesting here is that this is bottoms-up. Great cities are created by great people. We, as government, need to create a space for the entrepreneurs, the artists, the innovators to explore, to use their creativity and intellect to push things forward. Thank you.


Gordon Feller

We’ve got 5 minutes for questions. First question, who’s it going to be? Peter.

Peter Hirshberg

I’m Peter Hirshberg, chairman of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. I’d love for you to talk about how some of these prototyping stuff interfaces with the more formal aspects of city planning and architecture, how the bottom-up stuff inform some of the top-down, very traditional things, and how they work together.

Jay Nath

I think we’re at the initial stages of that at the Urban Prototyping Festival. We have our director of planning there. We have the city leadership there. Again, learning about this and getting enrolled about what the space looks like, who are these hackers, what are they doing and demystifying the work that they’re doing. I think right now there’s this guerrilla aspect that’s in their mindsets. I think it’s enrolling, education, and seeing that their goals are aligned with our city’s agencies and our collective goal of making our city more vibrant.

Gordon Feller

Another question. Good, I get to ask one. So there are obstacles in the bureaucratic system. Not every agency who says they’re innovative really, truly in their heart of hearts wants to be innovative, especially if it’s not invented here. What’s the guerrilla strategy for getting agencies that might be resistant to willingly embrace innovation that sounds not top-of-mind priority for a bureaucratic manager?

Jay Nath

I think it’s a great question. When you have a large organization like our city, we have 25,000 employees. We’re the largest employer in San Francisco. Thinking about scaling innovation from a small group across the city, one of the things that we’re looking at is reaching out to the early adopters, the people who are already like-minded. I’m not going to start with the people who are really recalcitrant and aren’t thinking openly. We’re working with people like our transportation director, our planning director, and others who understand that innovation is important. We’re partnering with Code for America and their fellowship program in 2013 run human services and access to human services. It’s finding those early adopters and then demonstrating real clear value around some of this innovation work. As an example, when I launched open data 3 years ago, I almost lost my job. There were just a lot of problems with it and I don’t say that lightly. I almost did lose my job. Three years since then, there’s been a sea change in perception. More people understand what open data is in our city. They’re really supportive. For me, 3 years is a long time but in city time, it’s actually pretty quick.

Gordon Feller

One last question. Yes, sir.

Joel Olicker

I am Joel Olicker. You mentioned private data and accessing that. I know companies see private data as a revenue source and also are extremely protective of it. How do you see utilizing such a private resource?

Jay Nath

It’s a great question. We’re going to be unfolding what those mechanics, what the Incentive model is for our private companies. I think there are a couple things there. One is a freemium model. They’ll maybe share a smaller subset or the granularity of the dataset might be changed a bit. We’re working, for example, with a company called Motionloft. They’re a startup here in San Francisco that’s doing real-time sensing of pedestrian traffic flow. They’re starting that data with the public. They will be, actually on Monday when they announce it. What’s interesting is that they’re not sharing at the granular level or at the individual level. They’re sharing at a little bit more macroscopic but it’s enough for people to understand where crowds are in our city over time. That’s a real value. If you want to get more detail, you need to pay for it. But I think the freemium model is a great model to leverage. There’s also data philanthropy. I think people recognize that if we share this dataset −telcos do it, for example, with academia− that people can actually use that to do analysis that they may not have the capacity or the skill set within their company. We’re going to be teasing that apart to understand what are those motivations for companies to do that. We’re going to start here in San Francisco but we want academia, non-profits, and private companies to start sharing data. We have a few commitments in place.

Gordon Feller

Jay, thank you so much. We’re going to wish you all the best.

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