Who's Empowering Wonks to Fuel Economic Growth in American Cities?

Bloomberg Philanthropies made our list of most interesting foundations in 2014 because of its wide range of huge gifts, signaling ways the foundation may be forging new giving paths in Michael Bloomberg's first year outside of the mayor's office. But there's one interesting initiative at BP we've haven't talked about much that's been getting big funding and spreading to new areas: Bloomberg's Innovation Teams.

This initiative is mainly associated with Mike Bloomberg's wonky obsession with making government more efficient. But it also offers insights into how one of America's top funders aims to foster economic growth and job creation in U.S. cities, a challenge which has confounded many foundations and yet is attracting new energy amid a growing focus on urban renewal. 

Twelve U.S. cities have been selected to participate in the $45 million expansion of Bloomberg's Innovation Teams (i-teams), the program that helps mayors effectively redesign and jumpstart new approaches to improving life in the community. The gist of the i-teams is that they are data-driven and open to innovation, and they work with mayors and other city officials to generate innovative solutions to problems.

Grants from Bloomberg's Government Innovation portfolio, which focuses on "promoting public sector innovation," can vary, ranging from $400,000 to $1 million annually, for up to three years. Cities also receive lots of support and opportunities to exchange lessons learned with peers in other cities. 

The first round of grantees began their i-team programs in 2011 with an initial $24 million from Bloomberg that went to five cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis and New Orleans. While it's always hard to isolate the impact of this kind of effort, touted gains have included lowering retail vacancies in Memphis, reducing unnecessary medical costs in Louisville, tackling city bureaucracy in Chicago by streamlining the time it takes to get a restaurant license, slashing the number of homeless people in Atlanta, and positively impacting community violence by lowering the murder rate in New Orleans

So how are cities using these dollars to improve their workforces and economies? In Memphis, the I-team has been working with Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr. to start a program called MemFix, which transforms city blocks with "pop-up shops, marketplaces and painting projects, or by improving street design to increase walkability and biking." These programs are relatively inexpensive ways to help city visitors and dwellers engage with neighborhoods and boost their economic vibrancy. 

Memphis also started MEMShop, a program that provides businesses with free or reduced rent in underutilized spaces for up to six months and gives them business assistance. Another program, MEMMobile, provides a "forgivable loan program of up to $20,000 to start a mobile business."

Memphis is boasting some dramatic changes from these programs, including reducing vacancy rates to 5 percent, when they had been at 46 percent before the program started.

Louisville took its $4.8 million in Bloomberg dollars and invested in data collection and analysis, among other ways to increase innovation. The city is currently working with local businesses in Louisville to increase their exports of goods, with the goal of increasing international exports by 50 percent in the next five years. Across a wide variety of industries including textile, chemical, food and beverage, and medical equipment suppliers, the i-team and their data analysts are working to guide this increase in business. 

And there's a lot of other economic activity in cities getting Bloomberg money. While government innovation is often associated with more responsive public agenciese.g., Mike's fabled 311 numberit's also crucial to making city halls better at fulfilling mandates to create jobs and opportunity. And, here too, the trademarks of the Bloomberg way, particularly improving data, can make a big difference. 

The new recipients of funding from Bloomberg for i-teams include: Albuquerque, NM; Boston, MA; Centennial, CO; Jersey City, NJ; Long Beach, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Mobile, AL; Minneapolis, MN; Peoria, IL; Rochester, NY; Seattle, WA; and Syracuse, NY. Newly formed i-teams should be up and running in the twelve new cities by spring of 2015.

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