10 Smartest Cities: Leading on Innovation

Stanford’s Rick Hanushek said, “The future of every city depends on skills.” That’s the premise of our new book, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone. Our three year investigation chronicled innovations in learning in America’s great cities. Based on obvious best practices and hunches about emerging trends, we identified seven keys to improving education and employability:

  1. Innovation Mindset: Cultivating effort, initiative and collaboration in kids and adults citywide
  2. Sustained Leadership: Building political capital to create great learning options
  3. Talent Development: Developing great teachers, leaders, and edupreneurs
  4. Collective Impact: Partnerships and community engagement
  5. Aligned Investments: public and private investment
  6. New Tools & Schools: New tools and new learning models
  7. Advocacy & Policy: Pro-growth, pro-achievement, and pro-innovation policies.

It’s not a simple formula but it’s one that, with local adaptations, every city can embrace to lay the groundwork for dramatic improvement in access and outcomes. In the long run, it’s all about learning–it’s the best formula for promoting economic growth, reducing the crippling effects of poverty, and improving safety and security.
Most of the seven keys are conventional wisdom but an important emerging issue is the need to incubate new tools and new learning environments (#6). Not every city needs to be an EdTech hotspot but all regions need a network of capabilities that translate opportunity into action. That starts with civic and education leaders that share an innovation mindset (#1) and translate that into an innovation agenda.
We ranked cities on a dozen dimensions including the level of innovation in school districts and charter schools; foundations and nonprofit innovators; the presence of EdTech companies, startups and investors; university leadership in learning innovations; and the state policy context. The top 10 Smart Cities are:

  1. New York: EdTech and venture hotspot but the school district’s interest in innovation appears to be on the wane. A dozen intermediary organizations and a few universities play a constructive role.
  2. Silicon Valley: The most innovative place on the planet with some charter schools that have adopted lean iterative development and some districts beginning to innovate. Stanford plays a critical role in talent development and idea generation.
  3. Washington DC: Great charters and district schools on the move with innovation advocates like NGLC, CityBridge and NewSchools and a growing EdTech presence.
  4. Boston: Leading universities with a strong EdTech presence.
  5. San Francisco: An EdTech and venture hotspot.
  6. Chicago: #2 for startups and headquarters to lots of EdTech and some great charter schools.
  7. New Orleans: Great charters and turnaround story with a great EdTech incubator, 4.0 Schools.
  8. Denver: Most aggressive portfolio with elected board supported by great advocates.
  9. Oakland: Where social justice meets a vibrant EdTech community.
  10. Houston: The best urban district and school networks with foundation and nonprofit partners.

The regions that skill up fast by improving K-12 and creating early and ongoing access to career education will flourish. Schools and colleges can’t do this alone, it requires civic leadership, business partnerships, and continued public, private and philanthropic investment. Learning is the best investment a family, a community, or a state can make.
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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1 Comment

Mike Guerena

Surprised San Diego did not make the list. Quantifying innovation in schools across an area is difficult unless schools or district are purposeful in getting their innovative practices to the public. Sometimes the pockets of innovation, especially if they are just outside the hub of the city center, do not effect the greater area.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Mike, We reviewed SD here http://www.gettingsmart.com/gettingsmart-staging/2013/02/smart-cities-san-diego/
SD has a couple innovative schools (HTH, Preuss, e3). SD Co has some districts doing good work, we mentioned a few in 25 Districts Worth Visiting http://www.gettingsmart.com/gettingsmart-staging/2014/11/25-districts-worth-visiting/
Despite a biotech ecosystem, SD has no EdTech presence.

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