Can cities really run like a startup?

BOOK REVIEW

Can cities really run like startups?

A revolution in urban transportation is underway. In the past five years, a wave of international start-ups have created sleek new mobility platforms that connect people to their cars, trains, buses and bikes as never before.

Some large cities, like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have started to respond to such changes -- partnering with the private sector and experimenting with new government approaches. Most, however, still operate under a seemingly insurmountable and risk-averse bureaucracy.

In those environments, making meaningful change seems like a lost cause. But author and change agent Gabe Klein is having none of it.

In Klein's new book, Start-Up City: Inspiring Private & Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, he, with David Vega-Barachowitz,  sings the praises of “public entrepreneurship” -- the start-up-paced energy within the public sector, brought about by leveraging the immense resources at governments' disposal. The short of it: the public sector needs to function more like a midsize, successful start-up.

It’s not a one-way street, however. Klein also challenges corporate and start-up America to evolve and embrace “social enterprise,” where working for the common good becomes a primary objective, not an afterthought eclipsed by the maximization of shareholder value.

Klein wants government and the private sector to move beyond their pre-assigned niches and collaborate on “social entrepreneurship.” He writes that such entrepreneurship has the “potential to engender the next level of public-private partnership and give rise to new models of financial reward working in the interest of the greater good.”

Klein’s whole career has focused on bridging the public-private divide, and he draws on his own experience in both sectors to distill advice for private- and public-sector employees alike. The result, he argues, can be better cities with shared goals and nimble, consumer-oriented bureaucracies. Written as a handbook for readers contemplating a jump into civic innovation -- or perhaps those already there, and frustrated by the obstacles their projects are facing -- the book is organized into eight lessons on leveraging change.

There's not much IT in Start-Up City, though the examples sprinkled across its 256 pages offer a tantalizing list of projects to explore.  And while most of those examples feature transportation initiatives -- everything from ZipCar to pothole-fixing makes an appearance -- the tactics and strategies involved could extend to most any municipal innovation.

 “Now is the time for us to stretch our abilities and expectations, grab on to the change that is happening and have the courage to push and mold that change for the greater good," Klein writes. “Only with that sense of fearlessness and risk-taking can we ... forge a better future.”

About the Author

Aleida Fernandez is an FCW editorial fellow.

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