fbpx Smarter Cities | Harvard Kennedy School

CONSIDER IT AN ACADEMIC VIRTUOUS CIRCLE: In his final year at Harvard Kennedy School, Andrew Levine MPP 2017 joined a group of graduate students conducting research and analysis to help then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh figure out whether the city of Boston should pursue a tax hike to fund major projects. The students were deployed through the Kennedy School’s Greater Boston Applied Field Lab course, run by Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy. Walsh’s team met often with the students, and the learning flowed in both directions: The students saw policymaking up close, and the city received some free expertise from people with years of varied professional experience. In the end, Walsh chose not to seek the tax increase.

Now Levine himself is a customer for HKS fieldwork and expertise. Hired as the director of administrative services for the town of Billerica, northwest of Boston, Levine needed help deciding what to do with a couple of unused buildings. Make one a senior center? Use another for affordable housing? So he turned to the Kennedy School. This spring, a cohort of HKS students is working with him in Billerica to sort through data, consult with Billerica residents on the possibilities, and weigh costs and benefits.

These field lab classes are just one of an array of fast-growing initiatives across Harvard Kennedy School over the past several decades that advance research, teaching, and field studies to help strengthen all facets of local governance. These projects are now spread through many of the School’s research centers. They stretch far beyond Greater Boston, across the country, and indeed around the world—and then back again to Cambridge, through degree programs and executive education courses that bring mayors and senior city administrators to the HKS campus.

Justin de Benedict-Kessner walking with group of students
HKS Assistant Professor Justin de Benedictis-Kessner and students of his Urban Politics Field Lab hit the streets of Portland, Maine, to study an artificial intelligence traffic signal program being considered by the city manager.

The School’s impact on city governance is poised for dramatic expansion this year. Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has made a $150 million gift enabling the launch of the new Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard, based at the Kennedy School. Incorporating the five-year-old Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the new center has ambitious research and teaching goals for advancing better local government everywhere. 

Whether in big urban centers or smaller towns, “there’s a lot of attention being paid to cities now, trying out these new innovative plans and policies to create smart cities,” Levine says. “If you want to work close to the daily lives of Americans, to work on policies that really help them, municipal government is the place to be.” 

The faculty director for Levine’s student cohort is Assistant Professor Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, who is working closely with Bilmes to expand the School’s oversubscribed urban field lab courses. He came to HKS in 2020 from Boston University, where he taught undergrads; he says he jumped at the opportunity to work with graduate students at HKS because of their career experience and their public service career goals: “It’s just a lot more brainpower applied to these policy problems that cities and towns have.”  
 

Very Local Roots

The urban field lab work stretches back to 2005, when Kennedy School students began heading out to cities and towns for on-the-ground learning and fieldwork. Those students didn’t have to travel far. Just a few miles up Massachusetts Avenue, in not-yet-booming Somerville, a young mayor was eager for help. 

Joseph Curtatone, elected the previous year, had bold and practical ideas but scant resources with which to push them forward. He wanted expert advice on designing templates for activity-based budgeting. He needed to evaluate the 311 customer-service line. And he knew he had to translate data from city departments into usable formats for city programs. 

At the Kennedy School, Bilmes wanted to apply her own deep expertise in how governments work (and why they don’t) to give her students more exposure to urban problem-solving in the real world. With Curtatone, she saw an opportunity. Bilmes recalls the day he came to her class, then still mayor-elect, to encourage students to volunteer for projects in Somerville. He told the class, “We want to do all these fancy things, we want to do basic things. We want to turn the city around. However many hours you can spare, I want 10 times that much.”

HKS field lab students work on policy issues related to Boston’s public transportation system.
HKS field lab students work on policy issues related to Boston’s public transportation system.

She thought he’d get a couple of volunteers. In fact, 67 of the 97 students in the class signed up. “They did it all semester, and then through the rest of the year,” she says. “So that was the genesis of the experiential learning project, which has grown into a huge program.” 

Jerome Lyle Rappaport, a Boston philanthropist and good-governance activist who passed away last year (see the article on him in this issue), was keen to support that work. He already had a long track record of connecting city officials in greater Boston with the Kennedy School. Since 1981, he had been sponsoring annual scholarships for city and state officials in the region to earn Kennedy School Mid-Career Master of Public Administration degrees so that they could professionalize Boston-area governance. He had expanded that support in 2001 with the launch of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Kennedy School, with programs including summer fellowships for students. 

With Rappaport’s philanthropic support and Bilmes’s leadership, the Greater Boston Applied Field Lab took off. Since those first Somerville projects in 2005, the lab has dispatched more than 500 students from across Harvard’s graduate schools to take on scores of vexing technical projects throughout greater Boston. 

“[Field labs are] effectively a clinical program at the Kennedy School … based on the concept that the best way to really learn financial management and how to budget ... is to do it.”

Linda Bilmes

The circular educational premise is simple: The students take their classroom learning out to cities and towns for intensive interactions that turn theory into practice, addressing problems from homelessness to mental health crises to sewer system failures. The city officials they work with get ideas and analysis from the graduate students, who often have had specialized professional experience before landing at Harvard—and in turn, the students in the field learn directly from the practitioners who are on the front lines. And HKS faculty members often conduct their own field research alongside these projects, building the Kennedy School’s archive of working papers and case studies on how to govern cities and towns more effectively. 

In the years since, Bilmes has received dozens of letters from mayors, “and one thing they always say is they are amazed, and I’m always amazed, at how the students become experts in the topic within a few weeks. That’s partly because they tend to be very good in topics that are very data intensive and crunchy—where they can get their fingernails dirty and then they can add value. So it is a win, win, win.”
 

Bloomberg's Impact

The School’s biggest hands-on urban laboratory is the nascent Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard. In March 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University announced the establishment of the new center. Michael Bloomberg said then that the investment in mayors was important because they are “the most creative and effective problem-solvers in government—and that’s exactly the kind of leadership that the world urgently needs.” 

This new center will dramatically increase Harvard’s engagement with city officials, creating more learning opportunities and fieldwork for students as well as for mayors and city officials, and expanding urban research, not least through 10 endowed faculty positions.  

A previous gift from Bloomberg’s foundation enabled the launch in 2017 of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which built a dynamic system for training mayors and other city executives and provided fellowships for students. The initiative, a joint effort of the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies, has provided leadership courses for more than 400 mayors and nearly 1,300 senior officials from some 478 cities worldwide—and never more effectively than during COVID-19. 

As mayors struggled with the fallout from the pandemic, the Bloomberg Harvard program brought in timely reinforcements. Kimberlyn Leary, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, joined HKS as a public policy lecturer and helped participating mayors contend with leadership and negotiation challenges as COVID-19 and its accompanying physical and mental health issues unsettled many urban communities. 

The leadership initiative will be one of the pillars of the new center. Jorrit de Jong, the Emma Bloomberg Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management, who has been the faculty director of the initiative since its launch, is taking on faculty leadership of the far bigger Center for Cities as well. He envisions it tapping into faculty and graduate student expertise at many Harvard schools, from engineering to education to design and public health. 

“It’ll be a University-wide center,” de Jong says. “Our mandate is to bring together the expertise and programming about cities from across the University as well as being a conduit for all the work that’s taking place at Harvard to connect students and faculty with city leaders.” 

“Our mandate is to bring together the expertise and programming about cities from across the University as well as being a conduit for all the work that’s taking place at Harvard to connect students and faculty with city leaders.”

Jorrit de Jong

“The role of a mayor is really twofold,” he explains. “You have an organization-facing responsibility, and that’s complex in and of itself. Then you have a community-facing responsibility, which also comes with a lot of challenges. It’s very rare that people are good at all of these things. Therefore, our program has been designed to provide them with an opportunity to hone their management and leadership skills. It’s not about [teaching] policy, but it is about those capabilities that you, as an individual but also as an organization, need in order to come up with better policies.”
 

Global Reach

From its early involvement in surrounding towns, the Kennedy School’s cities work has reached far into the field to improve urban living around the world. 

One recent expression of this reach: In June, the Growth Lab, part of the Center for International Development based at the Kennedy School, launched Metroverse. This project, led by Growth Lab Director Ricardo Hausmann, the Rafik Hariri Professor of the Practice of International Political Economy, now provides detailed analysis of competitive advantages for more than 1,000 cities in 79 countries. Metroverse gives local officials data visualization tools to help them choose realistic pathways to fostering economic growth. 

Hausmann says that years of Growth Lab work comparing countries’ competitiveness has made clear the immense differences within countries, especially between cities and rural areas. In some developing countries, megacities have grown to account for a third of the population. So Hausmann’s Growth Lab researchers drilled down to apply their theories of national development at the city level—and found that the same logic applies: economic complexity fuels competitive success. 

This insight has had pragmatic applications. Growth Lab scholars worked with officials in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, and helped leaders there grasp the lessons flowing from the data: They needed to grow knowledge-intensive remote business services and not continue to rely on consumer spending for economic growth. In the years since then, Hausmann says, “these services have grown by leaps and bounds. This is an example of how changing technologies are reconfiguring global value chains and creating new opportunities for cities if they get their act together.” 
 

Data as a driver

The Metroverse is one of several city-focused projects at the Kennedy School to rely on quantitative analysis. Solutions to many of the urban policy challenges facing mayors depend on careful parsing of data to build research and fieldwork on factual evidence, not just anecdotes or opinion.

Stephen Goldsmith, the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy, even built data into the name of his program. A former mayor of Indianapolis and a former deputy mayor of New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, Goldsmith founded and leads the School’s Data-Smart City Solutions project and is a founding faculty of the new Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard.

For the past decade, Goldsmith has run programs for chief data officers and chiefs of staff of large cities, many of them funded through Bloomberg Philanthropies. His program curates a wealth of resources for city officials, including use cases, a data set of solutions that have worked for cities, and practical tools for areas including public safety, urban mobility, and civic engagement.

Aerial view of a parking lot full of school buses in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Aerial view of a parking lot full of school buses in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images

Goldsmith says that before he served as mayor of Indianapolis, “I read every Kennedy School case study that dealt with mayors. Since then, I’ve been focused on using technology and digital transformation to improve the operations of government. When I worked for Mayor Bloomberg, we set up the country’s first data analytics center, and I brought that with me to HKS—this interest in using data and digital tools for innovation in cities.” 

Goldsmith says that when he came to HKS, two decades ago, “if you were a hot-shot Kennedy School graduate, you wanted to go to the federal or national government. And then, because of issues at the federal level, we have become much more interested in cities than ever before. If you really want to touch people and make a difference, cities are where to play.”  

Bilmes, a budgeting specialist who served as assistant secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, also emphasizes data in her field lab work. In the field, she says, students soon outgrow the finance textbooks because “even working in a small community there may be 20,000 lines of data for them to analyze, which enables them to apply the textbook lessons at much greater scale and complexity.”  

“If you  really want to touch people and make a difference, cities are where to play.”

Stephen Goldsmith

She stresses that the field lab is an advanced class, aimed at those who have mastered the basics of budgeting and finance in introductory courses. She compares the field lab to a medical school residency or working in a legal aid clinic during law school. 

“It is effectively a clinical program at the Kennedy School,” Bilmes says. “It’s experiential. It’s based on the concept that the best way to really learn financial management and how to budget—to learn the financial structure of a city, whether that’s climate resiliency issues or mass transit or affordable housing or social services or whatever the topic is—is to do it.” 
 

Urban Virtuous Circles 

The School’s work with cities resembles a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Consider the case of Calgary, Alberta, whose mayor for the past 11 years was Naheed Nenshi MPP 1998.   

Nenshi was in the second class of mayors to attend the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative executive education training camp, in 2017, and he sent eight of his senior staff members to similar HKS classes. Then the Bloomberg program sent summer fellows to Calgary to help Nenshi’s team research failures in the city’s mental health response system and come up with solutions, including ways to map out the response system when people are caught in a mental health crisis. 

“This culminated in Canada’s first community-based action plan on mental health and addiction, to figure out ways to use community resources to really make a difference in people’s lives,” Nenshi says. “It’s called the Community of Connections, and it’s already being replicated across Canada.” 

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi MPP 1998 and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and announce the beginning of construction on the Green Line at the Calgary Transit Oliver Bowen Maintenance Facility.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi MPP 1998 and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announce the beginning of construction on the Green Line at the Calgary Transit Oliver Bowen Maintenance Facility. Photo by Mike Sturk/Reuters

The impact of the field work extends beyond the learning for the students and city officials; it often is a driver for valuable faculty research as well. During the Calgary project, a group of senior faculty from HBS and HKS assessed the obstacles that had kept city departments from working together well and what they did to overcome that. The resulting research paper, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, drew larger lessons on overcoming common barriers to cross-sector collaboration.  

The group of authors, including de Jong, Amy Edmondson (HBS), Hannah Riley-Bowles (HKS), Mark Moore (HKS), and Jan Rivkin (HBS), also launched three large empirical studies examining the conditions under which diverse teams in cities can succeed in working across silos and sectors. De Jong asks: “How do you launch and support interagency teams that work on complex social issues? How do you build their collaborative muscle? We’re learning a lot about the factors that help and hinder these efforts.”       

The virtuous circle in Calgary thus touched on all three core Kennedy School missions: teaching, research, and outreach with impact. Says Nenshi: “This is not about dry research. This is about stuff that makes a change in the cities that participate, but it’s also very replicable to other places.” 
 

Beyond City Borders

For Jeffrey Liebman, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Public Policy, improving the lives of urban residents means thinking beyond city hall. “The government programs that matter most for people in cities are often administered at the state level or the county level, or by a school district,” he says. “So when you want to do work that benefits people in cities, you can’t just work with the mayors. You also have to be working with governors and county officials and with school superintendents.” 

Liebman, an economist who served at the federal Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration, leads three major programs that are critical to the School’s urban teaching and research. He is the faculty director for both the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, and he also directs the Government Performance Lab, which he founded in 2011. Liebman’s teams have worked with more than 100 jurisdictions spanning 38 states. 

At the very local level, Liebman and his Rappaport Institute research team worked with city administrators in the metro Boston city of Chelsea to evaluate the impact of a guaranteed basic income program the city introduced to alleviate food insecurity during COVID-19, when the city’s residents were hit hard by job loss and illness. This randomized controlled trial tracked, among other things, how much of the monthly grants to families was spent on food (more than 70%). 

Meanwhile, the Government Performance Lab (GPL) is working with state and local governments around the country to speed up progress on challenging social problems. GPL staff recently worked with government officials in Harris County, Texas (the greater Houston area) to design one of the largest pilots of alternative emergency response in the nation, redirecting a subset of 911 calls from police to mental health professionals.  

“The GPL helps government leaders translate vision into action,” says Gloria Gong, executive director of the Government Performance Lab. “Many promising ideas end up dying on the vine because governments don’t have enough support figuring out how to actually implement potentially transformative policy ideas.”  

“This is not about dry research. This is about stuff that makes a change in the cities that participate, but it’s also very replicable to other places.”

Naheed Nenshi MPP 1998

When the GPL opened additional technical-assistance slots for governments seeking to reduce their reliance on police in response to challenges including homelessness and mental health, they received applications from 70 jurisdictions. GPL staff are now working with five governments intensively—Durham, North Carolina; Long Beach, California; Harris County; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Phoenix, Arizona— and more than two dozen governments meeting regularly in a community of practice. 

Another Taubman Center program gives HKS students an opportunity to contribute to incoming administrations as they move from campaigning to their early weeks of governing. The Taubman Center’s Transition Term embeds students during the January break between semesters in the transition office of newly elected mayors, county executives, and governors in a paid fellowship. Since 2018, the program has placed 59 students in 20 state and local governments, including that of Montgomery, Alabama, where students worked with the city’s first Black mayor, Steven Reed, in 2020, and Boston, where students supported the transition of Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the first woman and the first person of color to serve in the role.   

“Transition Term is one of the Kennedy School’s best experiential learning opportunities, serving state and local leaders at a time when their new teams are still thin and extra capacity is particularly valuable,” says Will Whitehurst MPP 2022, who participated in the program in 2020. “I loved the opportunity to bring tools and best practices to help the incoming Miller administration in Macon-Bibb, Georgia, as they structured their top priority strategies.”

HKS field lab students speak with the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, Joyce Craig.
HKS field lab students speak with the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, Joyce Craig.

Mayoral Allies

Mayors Nenshi and Curtatone both completed long stints in office in late 2021. This winter, Curtatone joined the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation as a senior fellow (and the Bloomberg Harvard curriculum development team published a case on his innovation journey). Another veteran of the Bloomberg Harvard mayors initiative, Joyce Craig, won a third term in November in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Craig is a vocal champion of Bilmes’s field lab, which dispatched a team of students to help her grapple with a vexing crisis of homelessness and addiction in the state’s largest city (also the subject of a recent case study). The students helped Craig build up a database of the disparate nonprofit and government programs in Manchester that were working on homelessness. They discovered that just $4 million of the $35 million spent on the issue was under government control; nonprofits controlled the rest. So they worked with her on a new approach to get all the government and private agencies to collaborate effectively and target funding where the need was greatest.

Craig credits Bilmes’s team with enabling what has become an online collaboration among all the state’s 13 mayors to confront homelessness jointly so that homeless people aren’t merely shuffling from one city to another. Now those cities are coordinating responses and working with state officials and nonprofit organizations to track the allocation and impact of funding.

The collaboration has made Craig one of Bilmes’s many municipal admirers. “She is incredible. She has a wealth of knowledge on so many topics,” Craig says. “It’s wonderful to know I can pick up the phone and give her a call and she is available and willing to help at any time. I hope she knows the same is available to her here.”

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Full width photos by Jon Barrett, Henrik Dolle, EyeEm / Getty, and Majosheph Prezioso / Getty

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