By: Justin M. Bibb
Cleveland is at a critical crossroads. Over the past decade, the city has made tremendous strides in rebounding from the economic downturn that has plagued many post-industrial Midwest cities. More than $4.5bn has been invested in downtown Cleveland over the past five years. In addition, the city is emerging as a magnet for talent attraction as it has experienced a 68% increase in the number of 25-34 year old college graduates since 2006. Yet despite these promising changes, Cleveland faces huge challenges.
According to the Federal Reserve, the city has lost 40% of its population since the 1970s, and recent data from the U.S. Census shows that 34% of residents live in poverty. The city also has a massive skills gap. Currently, 66% of residents are functionally illiterate (having math, reading, or language skills below a 4th grade level); and some neighborhoods have a 95% illiteracy rate. Even more alarming is the fact, that Cleveland is still considered one of the most segregated cities in America with 55% of its population living in homogeneous zip codes.
These challenges will be even more compounded as major demographic shifts, falling revenues, and rising citizen demands have placed an unprecedented amount of pressure on the public sector.
So how can the city address these challenges to be competitive over the next 50 years?
The answer lies in adopting a new model of urban transformation focused on entrepreneurship, equity, and engagement:
Entrepreneurship in the classical sense is most commonly thought of as the process of starting a business or creating a product that generates economic value. Yet, what is often overlooked is the notion of entrepreneurship as a mindset. Entrepreneurs are resilient in the midst of failure. Entrepreneurs have the ability to exploit a perceived weakness as an opportunity. In nowhere is this mindset needed more than in municipal governments. Applying an entrepreneurial mindset to the challenges cities face will lead to policies and an urban service delivery model that is more user-oriented, efficient, and solution-oriented than one focused solely on politics.
Equity must be one of the main criterion for how we view public policy if cities such as Cleveland are to truly thrive. Fundamental to instituting an equity lens into urban revitalization efforts is the collective understanding, buy-in, and support of those impacted most severely by the conditions that have led to the vast socio-economic disparities undermining many American cities. To not meaningfully involve and engage diverse groups in regional and local change models that seek to impact their current and future wellbeing is to marginalize their assets and perpetuate the existing negative outcomes that persist.
Engagement is the last but the most essential element to this new model of urban transformation. Trust in government is at an all-time historical low and many residents living in the urban core feel the social contract between city leaders and citizens is broken. But, by leveraging civic tech and open data tools, governments now have the opportunity to engage residents in community decision-making processes by using publicly-held, trusted, and easily-accessible data to create solutions in their own communities. Encouraging citizens to be more engaged in the policymaking process also promotes high levels of trust and social capital, thereby impacting a city’s bottom line and promoting innovation.
Nonetheless, this new model of urban transformation represents a new playbook for Cleveland, and cities alike, to truly be competitive. It is my hope that 2015 can be known as the beginning of a new era where entrepreneurial, inclusive, and highly-engaged cities become the rule not the exception.