I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of a more structured approach to community with respect to the civic technology movement, which is why I picked up Brad Feld’s ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.’
Feld, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, brings a huge dose of humility to his writing and genuinely seems to live up to his “give more than you get” mantra. He’s the founder of TechStars and is a big influence on Boulder’s emergence as a hub of technology entrepreneurs and startups, having organized regular meetups of various kinds to bring the community together.
I loved this book and spent the final pages reading it as I walked through SFO after just getting off a cross-country flight. Feld’s advice is comprehensive, concise and inspiring.
One relevant aspect of the book is a dedicated chapter on government, “Contrasts Between Entrepreneurs and Government,” that highlights the obvious differences between the two, and essentially designates government’s role more as a “feeder,” rather than leader, in fostering startup communities (a feeder encourages others to be part of the community).
His assessment is representative of how most entrepreneurs, especially civic entrepreneurs, see government:
Entrepreneurs often focus on the micro, that is, specific things that need to get done or will have impact. In contrast, government focuses on the macro. When I talk to leaders in government, they use words like global, macroeconomic, policy, innovation, and economic development. These are not words that entrepreneurs use; entrepreneurs talk about lean, startup, product, and people.
And here’s one that nails the traditional approach to government innovation:
Government is an instigator of feeder control. Although this happens at a federal, state, and local level, it’s most obvious at a state level. A new governor is elected. After the typical six-month settling-in process, he and the recently appointed head of economic development declare that innovation is a key driver of economic growth for the state and they convene an “innovation council.” This innovation council takes another six months to get going while it recruits the appropriate high-profile members. It then creates a set of high-profile public events to spread innovation across the state.
While other chapters include commentary and advice from others, the government one simply identified the obvious problems (which is a great first step, but I finished the chapter wanting ideas and solutions as was provided in others).
Feld has a great deal to offer the nascent civic technology community (especially civic startups), and I hope he follows up at some point on specific ideas and advice for government. His long-range approach to building community is aligned with the pace the public sector moves, and he would be instrumental in helping move the needle on the changes happening in government.
While there are a few semi-formal, regular civic technology communities emerging, like what we’ve started with CivicMeet and what Code for America is doing with CfA Brigade, there’s still not a heavy focus on building core communities beyond the hacker set.
For those in the civic technology community, having more leaders focused on bringing people together with regularity is much-needed and will be key as the movement goes forward. Feld’s book can help us get there.
Whether you’re in government or generally interested in building community, I highly recommend ‘Startup Communities.’
Watch the book’s trailer:
Great Clay Shirky TED Talk on how distributed version control and “having access to all the source code all of the time” will one day change the way government works. If you’re too busy to watch it in its entirety, the last five minutes are well worth your time.
Thumbnail photo: Joi Ito
New York City’s Michael Flowers gives an overview of how the city leverages data analytics to solve problems and better serve citizens. Flowers is the analytics director for the mayor’s office of policy and strategic planning and director of the financial crime task force.
Of note: NYC receives about 65,000 311 complaints a day.
“Cities and government, in general, we’re really factories of data, which is not our data. It rightfully belongs in the public domain.”
“We see this digital space of empowering our citizens as the next generation of city government.”
Civic Apps Competition Handbook, written by Kate Eyler-Werve and Virginia Carlson and published by O’Reilly Media, doesn’t focus on the debate, but does provide a great guide to anyone interested in organizing one.