October 5th, 2012
04:15 PM ET

Sparking innovation in cities, one geek at a time

By Jennifer Pahlka, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Jennifer Pahlka is the Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Watch The Next List’s full 30-minute profile of Pahlka this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET

Code for America seems to have struck a chord with many people. It’s easy to understand the value of bringing young tech and design folks into government and having them learn from each other because, whether they give it a lot of thought or not, their relationship with government is pretty important.

Our program seems to promise to fill a need they didn’t necessarily know they had, or create a possibility for something better when they had thought change was impossible.

But beyond the notion of promise, what is the real need for cities to innovate? There are many answers to this question, and the one I hear most often is that the public sector must keep up with the private sector.

When interacting with government feels outdated, it sends a signal to citizens that their government isn’t benefiting from the efficiencies that private companies have found in recent years. It's not taking advantage of the new networks of participation that we see all around us. As the pace of change accelerates in our daily lives, that gap can grow, and it can result in an erosion of trust.

It is what fuels many communities to defund local government, turning off streetlights and no longer maintaining infrastructure. The public is convinced their money isn’t well spent, and the results often guarantee that it’s not.

Cities must also innovate because they are in crisis, at least financially. Multiple revenue sources are being reduced (including support from federal and state programs), need for citizen services is increasing, and their workforce is retiring and leaving them with fewer workers but huge pension liabilities. Twenty-six municipalities have gone bankrupt since 2010, and more are likely to as it becomes harder and harder to push off inevitable financial meltdown.

There’s an upside to this, in that the crisis is forcing conversations about innovation. As Rahm Emmanuel said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I’d argue that cities also are in a renaissance of ideas, growth, and optimism. To me the real reason cities must innovate is that the existing model of providing services doesn’t scale. There are big important things we must fund together; it just doesn’t make sense for everyone to take their own garbage to the dump every week, or for each house to capture and use its own water.

But we ask government to do so much, including things we can do for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our community. When a neighbor helps a neighbor with a trapped animal instead of calling city services, or when a community cleans up a park for a fraction of the cost of having public servants do it, the model starts to scale again.

The trick is figuring out government’s role in encouraging and coordinating these actions, and to the extent that digital technology has gotten pretty good at coordinating collective action, government must get good at technology too. Not the big enterprise technology of the 1990s, but the lightweight, simple technologies that real people actually use. The technologies and interfaces that connect us to our networks and help us do things together.

Governments, and citizens partnered with government, need to learn how technology can teach us how to act like citizens.

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Filed under: Geek Out • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers
October 2nd, 2012
09:47 AM ET

Jennifer Pahlka: Lover of geeks, keeper of chickens

Editor's Note: Watch Jennifer Pahlka’s full 30-minute profile this Sunday on CNN’s “The Next List” 2 P.M. ET. She’s the founder and executive director of Code for America in San Francisco. She lives in Oakland, California, with her daughter, Clementine, and their chickens.

Why you might know her: Her TED Talk has over half a million views for starters, and she is also founder of Code for America, which teams web developers, designers and entrepreneurs with local governments to help make cities more efficient and create positive change.

Quotable Pahlka: “We proudly use the word ‘geek.’ We call ourselves a Peace Corps for geeks… there’s just something about that word that most of us embrace.”

Why she matters: Pahlka has created a prestigious fellowship that pulls the smartest people from the tech world and has them work with local governments to make them more efficient. She believes that government should run as smoothly and as open as the Internet. A web site or app that might normally take a city several years to plan and millions of dollars to execute can be done by her fleet of geeks in just months at a fraction of the cost.


Filed under: Geek Out • Internet • Tech • The Next List
May 9th, 2012
01:30 PM ET

Jad Abumrad: radio that's close to filmmaking

When's the last time someone told you about something they heard on the radio?

In an age of constant connectivity, social media and instant-access video, radio seems to literally be old news – a relic of past generations.

But the innovative, wildly popular WNYC-produced show Radiolab is looking like the exception.

"Being on the Internet has only increased our reach and the number of people who consume public radio," says Ira Glass, who hosts NPR's "This American Life," arguably the most popular radio show currently produced.

The Internet has transformed radio into live streams and podcasts. The inherent nature of radio has transitioned from ephemeral to enduring.

Think about it. A podcast by its very nature is permanent. It has an address – a url. It can be searched and, more importantly, downloaded. Listeners can 'own it,' play it repeatedly and share it with friends.

Traditionally radio has also been a social binder – families gathered around the radio to listen to the lastest news, fisted-clinched sports fans  listening with eager ear to last inning of the ballgame. But today its digitalization is making radio a more personal experience.

"When you're on a podcast you're deep into someone's ear canal. Maybe they're on the subway, maybe they're jogging, or maybe they're just sitting there," says Jad Abumrad, co-creator and host of Radiolab.

"Somehow you own them in a way you don't on the radio," says Jad Abumrad about how his work can engage his audience more deeply. "So subconsciously that gives us permission to do all kinds of things."


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Filed under: Art • Film • Geek Out • Innovation • The Next List • Video
March 10th, 2012
01:08 PM ET

Syyn Labs: A healthy recipe for innovation

Editor's Note: Doug Campbell is the founder of Syyn Labs, a radical, creative collective based in downtown Los Angeles. Be sure to check out CNN The Next List’s profile on Syyn Labs this Sunday at 2pm

By Doug Campbell, Special to CNN

“Would they be cool with us launching a rubber chicken into Space?”

A group of excitable characters are volleying ideas around in a gritty but colorfully decorated warehouse. A disco-starfish stands sentry next to a bear wearing a fez. A giant banana and a stuffed monkey hang from the ceiling. A conversation is underway.

“We can do it with fluid dynamics, by tinting layers of oils as they react to the data.”

“Thermal imaging should give us an accurate read of the audiences facial temperatures...”

“Either way, we should use robots... and the paint cannon.”

The brainstorming session resembles a dream in which Salvador Dali is teaching a class at the MIT Media Lab and everyone has ADHD. But this is real. And this is work. And this happens almost every day here at Syyn Labs.

It’s a humorous alternate reality, one where engineers demand creative fulfillment and artists have no fear of circuit boards.  But how did we gather such a group of quirky innovators? It all started back in 2008 when I met a hacker who was demo’ing an installation at an LA tech event. The event attendees were invited to send a word, via text message, to a phone number. Then Flickr images that were tagged with that word burst on to the projector. The images started innocently enough with “puppies” and such but since it was anonymous, the imagery soon degenerated into the inevitable body parts and profanities.


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Filed under: Geek Out • Innovation • The Next List • Thinkers • Video