The Field of Urban Innovation Funding Is Getting More Crowded—and Interesting

Over the past few years, we've written quite a bit at Inside Philanthropy about philanthropic efforts to boost cities, work that comes at a moment when more Americans are choosing urban life. Funders have come in from different angles.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has focused heavily on governance and innovation, with a big focus on data, evidence-based programs, and leadership development.

The Knight Foundation has been interested in creating more engaged communities that attract talent and expand opportunity.

Kresge, whose mission is "expanding opportunities in America's cities," is engaged in grantmaking across a number of areas, including the environment, arts, and health. Some of its work around new urban food systems has been especially interesting.

Additionally, Knight, Bloomberg and Kresge are all big backers of creative placemaking through the funding collaborative Artplace America. Cities have mainly been the locus of efforts to use the arts to build stronger communities. 

We've also reported on Living Cities, which is one of the oldest players in the urban innovation space and backed by a range of funders. It works with "cross-sector leaders in cities to develop and scale new approaches geared at achieving dramatically better results for low-income people."


One of the newest initiatives in the urban innovation funding space is the Future Cities Accelerator, which last month awarded 10 grants of $100,000 to "startup ventures serving poor or vulnerable populations in U.S. cities."

The accelerator was the brainchild of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has lately made "resilient cities" a major focus of its work, working in partnership with the Unreasonable Institute, which helps early-stage startups get the support and resources they need to scale their businesses.

Together, the two organizations created Future Cities Accelerator last year to combine their expertise, making both funding and mentorship available to organizations dedicated to solving problems for the urban poor. The Rockefeller Foundation also brought in New York communications agency SKDK and D.C.-based social media the agency Blue State Digital to help with promotion of the initiative.

The Future Cities Accelerator fielded more than 300 grant applications to find the 10 grant winners. The chosen ventures not only receive funding, but also training in prototyping, a scaling bootcamp, six months of guidance from an advisory team, and nine months of generalized support from For Impact.

The grantees represent a wide range of social initiatives. One of the ventures is CommonLit, an online resource for teachers providing students with literacy education, and assisting teachers with resources and assessment techniques.

Another grant winner, Boston-based Spoiler Alert, is a tech platform designed to help restaurants better manage food waste, including redirecting excess to organizations that use it to feed those in need.

A third grant recipient, Thread, provides mentors for underperforming students in Baltimore, increasing high school graduation rates from 6 percent to 9 percent.

While the set of grantees may not seem to have a lot in common, they are all united in their ability to work toward the accelerator’s overall goal: to invest in programs with the ability to scale, and ultimately be implemented in urban cities everywhere. This is something we see a lot in the urban innovation space—a focus on spreading money around to promising efforts with the hope of finding models that really take off. 

With all the new funding coming into cities, it's fair to say that there has never been a better time than now to be doing interesting things at the urban level.