Innovators develop ideas on advancing opportunity

Photo credit: Tom Clark.

Leaders in civic innovation tackled the question of how places can accelerate economic opportunity Tuesday during the first day of work of a Civic Innovation in Action Studio convened by Knight Foundation in Miami.

The advancing opportunity group included about 35 thought leaders, including Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation’s vice president of community and national initiatives; architect and urbanist Andrés Duany; Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities; and Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative in St. Paul, Minn. RELATED LINKS

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Steve Babitch, associate director of IA Collaborative, and Hilary Hoeber, a design researcher and strategist, led the advancing opportunity session, which explored a series of “how might we” ideas.

Before the work began, economist Joe Cortright described “the framework for the conversation” by providing details on research assembled for the studio and outlining five fundamentals for the discussion:

  • Human capital matters.
  • Economic mobility is strongly tied to place.
  • Some places have much lower economic mobility.
  • Concentrated poverty is highly persistent and is detrimental to opportunity.
  • Bringing people of different income levels together lessens the effects of poverty.

“The primary focus of this is to … move toward the generation of new ideas and fresh thinking,” Babitch said. He urged participants to be “creative, collaborative and constructive” as they divided into five teams to ideate in three areas around additional questions: 

Bridging social capital

  • How might we design interventions to bring together communities with different economic profiles?
  • How might we encourage the formation of networks across neighborhood borders? Within mixed-income neighborhoods? By individuals? By organizations?
  • How might we shape networks in ways that give them great appeal?
  • How might we design for serendipity that results in cross-pollination?
  • How might we create routines for crossing the street?

Common tribes

  • How might we decrease the perceived differences among groups?
  • How might we design for accidental meetings between strangers to recognize commonalities?
  • How might we make it easier to fund and join a range of tribes?
  • How might we ease the normative tension that emerges with neighborhood change?


  • How might we change the physical appearance of a place to demonstrate it’s ripe for investment?
  • How might we leverage the demand for city living to increase economic integration?
  • How might we convey that the community is cared for? And how do we make caring for the community the norm?
  • How might we start small to build confidence for greater levels of investment?
  • How might we create new stories that stick to disinvested neighborhoods?
  • How might we affirm people’s decisions to live in economically diverse neighborhoods?

After sharing their ideas with the larger group during a “Gallery Walk,” the advancing opportunities teams reconvened to each choose one idea to develop further. The five groups settled on a handful of projects that will be refined during workshops on Wednesday. They include:

  • A regulatory free zone: It would encompass two to four blocks in a city and “remove frameworks that people use to avoid living, building and negotiating directly with others.” Team members said the idea would push more private activity into the public space and encourage investment in trails, parks, libraries, recreation centers and other common spaces.
  • Activating public spaces: Team member Penalosa said the idea would “put the public back into public spaces, opening streets to walk, to bike, to skate, and doing it on a regular basis. Penalosa, former parks director in Bogota, Colombia, implemented a similar idea there during his tenure, the Ciclovia, which has become an international model for making cities more accessible to people. Penalosa said it was essential to determine the wants of the public before pursuing such ideas and to ensure that the ideas are sustainable: “In the cities it seems easier to find the millions to build the park than to find the thousands to make it work,” he said.
  • Blending popup blocks and culture mapping: The idea would use temporary projects, prototypes and collaborations to understand what a neighborhood wants, define challenges and suggest ideas that could propel long-term design solutions and shift community policies.
  • Extreme community shark tank: The idea centered around access to economic opportunity for people who may not have it and ensuring that people have a vested interested in their communities. One manifestation would be a community fund that could help develop places of production and places of innovation, which in turn could lure venture capital to neighborhoods. The name mirrors a popular television show on entrepreneurship, “Shark Tank,” which refers to potential investors as sharks.
  • How to get people to cross the street: Team member Egon Terplan, regional planning director for SPUR in the Bay Area, asked innovators to “imagine a community where everyone is asked what they can teach. Everyone has intrinsic knowledge that has value but it needs to be shared; we want to unlock that. … We can use that as a starting point to engage one another.” He said a series of events could make that happen.  

The participants return on Wednesday to refine the ideas and to think about implementation.

Michael D. Bolden is editorial director of Knight Foundation.

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