Innovation Teams (i-teams) are in-house innovation consultants who help cities tackle their biggest challenges. We spoke with Jeff Carter, Director of the i-team in Mobile, Alabama, about his team’s efforts to combat community blight over the past year.
Why did your city apply to the i-team program?
When Mayor Stimpson took office in 2014, he cast a bold vision of “One Mobile,” centering on ensuring that Mobile is the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020. His newly appointed staff began work immediately and quickly recognized a thirst for enhanced capacity and the need for innovative solutions. The Executive Director of Planning and Development, Dianne Irby, immediately saw the value the Bloomberg Innovation Team grant and led the application process.
How do you think about innovation—what does the word mean to you?
Innovation is the process of capturing an idea and converting it into existence. Innovation may take the form of a product, procedure, or enhancement. Municipal innovation pushes city institutions, typically seen as static entities, to think beyond the way it has always been, try something different, and shift the perceived opinion. Innovation helps rebalance the risk equation where the overwhelming fear of failure traps entities into their current form well beyond their prime. A deliberate innovation process is a great tool in the face of ‘the way we have always done this.’
Innovation can also be equal parts energizing and suspicious. To be successful with new ideas, we have to invite and welcome participation, embrace discussion, listen and distill information. Innovation is measured in not only how creative an idea is, but more importantly how successful and game-changing it becomes when implemented.
What are some specific challenges your city is currently facing?
Mobile has always had an industrial backbone and with that came an ebb and flow of residents. The influences and impacts of westward sprawl have weighed on Mobile for more than six decades. Over that time, the city repeatedly expanded its boarders to maintain its population. This sprawl has created stress on the city’s ability to provide needed services and to properly maintain its infrastructure. Currently, Mobile is experiencing excellent job growth with the recent addition of Airbus and the continued expansion of Austal ship building activities. Additionally, our downtown is seeing a revival and we are expecting the return of Carnival Cruise lines to our port in November. Our biggest challenge is how Mobile will capitalize on this boom in a way that will ensure long term growth and stability.
What are some specific opportunities you see to improve your city?
Our opportunities are rooted in our challenges. Mobile has been very successful in recruiting large manufacturing companies. Those facilities are dynamic job engines. However, Mobile has had less of an emphasis on cultivating small and mid-size employers. Development of small and mid-size businesses would create additional jobs and help create a sense of place in Mobile. These are job opportunities that serve community needs as well as create residents. Additionally, capitalizing and developing our cultural resources will provide excellent enhancements to our city. Beginning November 2016, Carnival Cruise line will add 185,000 new visitors annually and we’re confident that this renewed job catalyst will be a welcomed addition to our downtown.
What has been the biggest surprise so far during the process?
Silos is a popular buzz word when talking about municipal government. When our team began investigating the effects of blight on our neighborhoods, we found that 17 departments had some hand in blight assessment, mitigation, and neighborhood redevelopment. That number doesn’t account for the federal offices that administer grant programs available to assist in these areas. Our city had been progressive, creating a blight task force to facilitate cross department participation and with some success. As our team dove deeper, we found that “silo” wasn’t quite the right word to describe what we observed.
These departments did work together, but weren’t maximizing productivity. As the process continued and the actions of the departments involved were translated to one another, the team got stronger and the work happened faster. During our first attempts at conducting a citywide blight survey, our code enforcement department was able to log around 10-15 properties a day using pen and paper. As other departments understood what the goal was, they began stepping up. Our GIS department offered a mobile solution that no one knew could be used, and with that technology deployed the same code enforcement officers sky rocketed from 10-15 logged per day to over 500 properties geo-located and entered in our GIS database in a single day.