CITIES ARE NOW HOME TO more than half of the world’s population, and by 2050 two out of every three people on earth will live in urban areas. Cities are also drivers of economic growth and models for sustainable societies. And as history, and most recently the 2016 U.S. presidential election, showed us, cities have an important effect on politics: They can be centers of power, but also objects of resentment.
At Harvard Kennedy School, cities are a focus for research and an opportunity to experiment with new and better ways of governing: using data to open up the democratic process or to improve city services; harnessing the power of innovative financial tools to provide funds for new approaches to old problems; or convening urban leaders to share knowledge and experience.
The city of Boston develops a mobile app for residents to send in information about the quality of road conditions. In New York, the Department of Homeless Services creates risk-assessment tools, looking at information such as eviction notices and shelter entries to identify families at risk of homelessness. These are some of the ways cities are using data and analytics to improve their operations and, more important, their residents’ quality of life. The Ash Center’s Data Smart City Solutions Network, headed by Steve Goldsmith, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government, has been at the forefront of understanding the phenomenon. One of its programs, the Civic Analytics Network, established a national network of urban chief data officers who will collaborate on projects using data visualization and predictive analytics to solve problems related to poverty and economic opportunity. There’s already plenty of evidence that enormous benefits can be had. In Cincinnati, a program in 2012 that used indicators such as a mother’s zip code and smoking habits and a child’s sleeping environment to help city officials zero in on at-risk communities brought the infant mortality rate down by more than 25 percent in just one year.
City governments have to buy a lot of stuff—everything from school transportation to computer software to concrete—and even a medium-size city such as Boston will spend more than $1 billion a year on goods and services from the private sector. But most cities treat procurement as a back-office function, according to Wiener Professor of Public Policy Jeffrey Liebman. The Government Performance Lab that Liebman leads has been working with 20 cities across the United States to improve procurement and implement “results-driven contracting.” The idea is to make the administration of contracts more efficient, focus on the quality of service, and have a higher profile in city government. “Procurement and contract management are among the most important roles performed in city agencies—and governments need to treat these tasks as the high-value activities that they are,” Liebman argues.
Cities more and more are becoming laboratories for policy relating to issues from obesity to climate change. And the most innovative public policy solutions increasingly come from mayors’ offices. But for all their inventiveness, cities often have only limited access to experts and networks that can help them learn from one another. With a $32 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation headed by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the Kennedy School aims to become a hub of innovative city leadership. Over the next four years, as many as 300 mayors and 400 top aides will take part in customized executive training programs with specialized curricula, teaching tools, and cases. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a university-wide initiative jointly managed by HKS and Harvard Business School, will spark new research on innovative policies, mentoring programs for new mayors, and internships for students. “With more and more of the world living in cities, mayors are increasingly responsible for solving major challenges we face, from climate change to poverty to public health,” Bloomberg says. “By giving mayors tools and resources—and by connecting them with peers facing many of the same challenges—this program will go a long way toward helping them run cities more effectively.” Jorrit de Jong, a public policy lecturer and academic director of the Ash Center’s Innovations in Government program, will serve as the Initiative’s faculty director.
Complaining about politics is not a modern invention. Despairing about democracy seems a little more so. There’s a creeping sense, from Athens to Brasilia to Washington, that even if democracy isn’t quite the worst form of government, it’s not necessarily better than some of the others either. Quinton Mayne, an associate professor of public policy, argues that the problem may be resolved not in national capitals but, rather, in cities. Studying decades’ worth of data from hundreds of thousands of individuals across dozens of democracies, Mayne has found that where local governments can shape welfare policies, such as in education or social services, citizens are much less likely to be politically disaffected. Cities can be engines of economic development, creativity, and innovation, but of human welfare, too. Mayne’s in-depth study of cities, in particular Denmark’s urban centers, shows how proximity to government can have a positive impact on citizens’ view of their own well-being as well as of governance.
One of the great tasks a city undertakes is the education of its children, so officials constantly struggle with the question of improving student performance. One approach is tracking high-achieving students. For example, Boston’s Advanced Work Class program follows students who score high on standardized tests in the third grade. What’s the value of such efforts? The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston’s analysis of the program shows that although standardized test scores had little effect on short-term outcomes, a positive effect emerged down the line, with higher achievement in math and even a tripling in enrollment in elite universities.