Cities That Work for Everyone

Cities, some would argue, are the world’s greatest inventions, bringing productivity and opportunity to billions. But for many, cities are a hellhole of poverty and violence offering no visible way out. While sociologists have studied cities for years, a new generation of technologists, systems thinkers, and sustainability advocates are taking a fresh look at living together in close proximity in an effort to create #SmartCities. There are a number of interesting new hypotheses about how cities should evolve to be more livable and sustainable, including efforts to build density, speed transport, reduce consumption, boost employment and raise wages. In the long run, what will matter most is learning.
Sacramento. Since being elected mayor of Sacramento in 2008, Kevin Johnson’s mission has been to make Sacramento “a city that works for everyone.” His team has mobilized volunteers, improved public art, attacked homelessness, slowed gang violence and encouraged the city to think big with regard to economic development. Mayor Johnson has launched Stand UP to promote education innovation and Sacramento READS! to boost literacy, while collaborating with the school district to align city services to maximize resources to support public education.
Johnson serves as president of the United States Conference of Mayors (UCSM) which established a national goal that every student should graduate from high school ready for college and careers, regardless of income, race, ethnic or language background, or disability status. Under Johnson’s leadership the mayors passed resolutions calling for access to early learning, connections between in and out of school learning, career pathways, and adult job training. “It’s clear—you can’t have a great city without great schools,” said Mayor Johnson, “If you want to reduce crime and poverty, you need a good education system—it’s the great equalizer, it’s the passport, it’s the civil rights issue of our time.”
New York. “An ecosystem for learning is essential,” said Michele Cahill who served as a philanthropic leader and deputy chancellor for NYC schools. “An ecosystem draws in energy and contributions from a broad base of leadership, including educators, advocates, policy makers, philanthropy, government and civic voices,” adds Cahill.
Cahill suggests that partnerships should be a core element of school design not an add-on.
“When partnership is a core element of school design, students have opportunities for relationships with adults and experiences that literally expand the world that is well-known to them through connections with cultural organizations, professional and business settings, science and technical organizations, or community services.” (See Hangout with Michele Cahill on Smart Cities.)
Washington DC. When Adrian Fenty was elected mayor of the District of Columbia in 2007, he sought dramatic improvement in education. Test scores in the District were among the lowest in the country. “On my first day in office, we introduced legislation to take control of our public schools. It was a bold idea and part of a hands-on approach to city government,” said Fenty.  After gaining control of the schools, Fenty’s team implemented talent development strategies and set to work on building a performance-oriented culture. The changes caused controversy, but they quickly boosted academic results.
“In this global economy, talent development is job one for mayors. It starts with quality early learning, it includes great K-12 schools—the feeder system of a city—and adult learning and higher education linked to emerging job clusters,” said Fenty.
“In addition to the progress we made in education, my administration also built new parks, opened low-income housing, and made the District a safer place to live,” said Fenty, “New retail developments brought new jobs. It is this sort of “full-court press” that is necessary to revitalize our cities and boost education-based mobility.”
3D Smart CitiesSmart Cities. As the majority of the world’s population becomes urban, cities must become centers of learning for young and old. Every person, organization and region needs to get smart—to skill up, learn more and build new capacities faster and cheaper than ever. In the long run, education is the economic development agenda.
Borrowing from Johnson’s mission statement, my new book is called Smart Cities That Work for Everyone. It outlines how innovative new tools and schools are making it possible for individuals, organizations and cities to boost learning outcomes. Smart Cities starts with a handful of people with innovation mindsets–a combination of persistence, entrepreneurship and a collaborative focus on impact.
The book is intended to serve as an outline for regional action and investment, a guide for investment, a blueprint for civic entrepreneurs and Edupreneurs, and a signal to parents and educators about the future of learning. It all starts with a focus on learning and an innovation mindset–a focus on growth, initiative, and collaboration that can be taught in every classroom and encouraged in every city.
For more on Smart Cities, see:


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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