The Equity Factor

4 Cities Join to Bring Diversity to the Innovation Economy

(Credit: The Pratt Center for Community Development)

Though individual municipalities can face unique challenges depending on everything from regional economic booms to climate change, more often than not, cities can learn important lessons from one another. (After all, one of the reasons I write this column is to bring you stories about smart urban innovations that your city can copy.) A good example of putting this mutually beneficial approach to work is the new Equitable Innovation Economies, an initiative by the Pratt Center for Community Development and Policy Link to offer a supportive framework for cities to share strategies for equitable job creation.

“A piece of our mission is strengthening the manufacturing sector, because it provides good jobs,” says Adam Friedman, executive director of the Pratt Center. “And building communities of practice has become a fundamental model for us in how we do things. One of things that we learned from the Urban Manufacturing Alliance [UMA] is that we’re all reinventing the wheel again and again, and we have to stop doing that. Cities sink or swim together. We should not be competing with one another, but we should be looking for ways to build each other up.”

“One of the things we learned … is that cities actually don’t have anyone to talk to about these issues within their own agencies or within their local governments,” adds Tanu Kumar, who’s heading up the EIE project, “and they’re looking for a space to have these conversations.”

For EIE’s pilot year, a group of cities — Portland, San Jose, New York and Indianapolis — is collaborating on goals, best practices and the creation of transferable models. Reps from all four came together last week in Philadelphia, as part of this year’s UMA Convening, and I had the chance to sit and talk with them. They discussed where they are currently, and what they hope to get out of the program over the course of the year. Two points of discussion were how innovation cuts across the design, tech and industrial fields, and the stigma of whiteness in the “maker economy.”

“I think in our city, there’s this sense of urgency and openness about the issue,” Chris Harder, Portland’s development director, said. “I think the word equity can be watered down or glossed over. We’re just being very explicit about what we mean and why it’s important.

“We’re often referred to as the whitest large city in the U.S., and we don’t like that. We don’t think it’s totally representative of what we think the city is. It’s not good for our economy to have stigmas like that. Our theory is, if we can prove that you can create an innovation economy that’s equitable in Portland, you can do it anywhere else.”

Portland had already begun opening a civic dialogue addressing these themes with efforts like Include, Innovate, Invest Portland and the StartUp PDX challenge, which foster the participation of women and people of color in the city’s tech, green tech, athletic and outdoor industries. “[I3PDX] was kind of our attempt to almost slice at the pie,” continues Harder, “To start making near-term demonstrations with actionable outcomes, while still working on the larger, long-term policy and pipeline conversations.”

The other cities in EIE are also sharing their most progressive projects. By participating in a collective program design, the team will be able to tailor their expected outcomes to their unique goals. While this is happening, the group will be keeping track of “a measurable list of equity indicators that relate back to our objectives,” notes Kumar. Like most newly launched initiatives, progress will be incremental.

“We might have some answers in the short term, and some we may not be able to see any impact for three to five years,” Kumar says, “but to have this baseline is really important.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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