When Christopher Gergen co-founded Forward Cities in 2014, he had a vision for bringing cities together to tackle the topic of inclusive innovation and economic development. His goal was helping cities think about how they could drive economic growth, while also experiencing economic inclusion and racial equity and integration.
It's a challenge for our times. Wealth inequality in America across racial lines is growing, particularly in cities.
Last summer, Gergen was approached about succeeding outgoing President Lee Fisher of CEOs for Cities, a 20-year-old organization which convenes cross-sector business leaders into a "national city-learning network." Instead of a new gig, Gergen saw an opportunity to pool the resources of two like-minded organizations for greater impact.
The merger was announced Feb. 8 and will move CEOs for Cities operations from Cleveland, Ohio to Durham, North Carolina. The first national meeting of the newly merged organization will be held in Durham, NC June 4-6, 2018.
83 Degree Media's publishing company, Issue Media Group, is a media partner of Forward Cities. We had a chance to chat with Gergen via phone to better understand why this merger makes sense and how it will help to better advance the goal of inclusive economic growth.
Issue Media Group: Tell me why it makes sense for these two organizations to join forces.
Forward Cities CEO Christopher GergenChristopher Gergen: I saw an opportunity to bring the two organizations together in a meaningful way.
CEOs for Cities was started 20 years ago by urban leaders when cities were in decline. It was an opportunity to engage mayors and CEOs of companies and city leaders into a conversation about how we think about city vibrancy in a new and meaningful way, and get cross-sector leadership to care and coordinate on intentional strategies to lift up cities.
Over the course of the last 20 years, CEOs for Cities has distinguished itself by assembling a network of mostly mid-sized cities that are important laboratories of innovation. And they've always been able to pull these interesting cross-sector groups of people together around this work. Another major asset they've developed over the course of their 20 years is significant research on what's working in cities. Through the City Vitals Index, they built a set of indicators that benchmarked cities against one another in terms of city vibrancy. And they built a terrific communications platform through a bi-weekly newsletter and strong social media presence.
Building upon this good work, I thought there was now an opportunity to leverage this platform to deepen our collective impact on a key issue facing all of our cities. In particular, my real interest has been consistently focused on inclusive innovation and economic development. So how do we create true, inclusive, economic prosperity? And so that was one of the things I wanted to push with the board, and say, "If we did this merger, and it was under my leadership, I would want us to be focused on this issue." And they agreed that that was a meaningful topic and something that they were willing to support. They were also willing to take on the brand of Forward Cities and allow me to build up my team in Durham, NC -- which contributed to my excitement about the merger.
I reached out to a number of different cities in the network to determine where inclusive economic prosperity fit into their list of priorities. Not surprisingly, I got very positive feedback from the cities, as this was something they really wanted to focus in on. So it gave, I think, new life and new meaning to the work of the CEOs for Cities work. And it enabled us to bring the best of both worlds together.
IMG: What are the challenges facing cities when it comes to inclusive economic development?
Gergen: Wages have gone in different directions for different demographics. The wealth gap continues to increase. Many cities have seen significant economic growth because of new urbanism, and a lot of exciting stuff going on in downtowns, but that is benefiting primarily already-affluent white communities.
So if you look at who is not participating in that conversation, it's typically under-connected communities of color. And that is contributing directly to a widening racial wealth gap and inequities of opportunity and ownership.
And it's not just around wages, which is important, it's also around owning your home, owning your own business, earning a livable wage, and thriving within the innovation economy.
We're quickly moving into a totally disruptive economy, where automation and artificial intelligence are going to play a significant role, and the workforce is going to change. The demand for knowledge workers is huge. If one isn’t prepared to compete in this new economy, you are at significant risk of getting left farther and farther behind.
So what we're trying to look at is our set of key data points within cities. What is the asset distribution? What's the wealth distribution? How many new businesses are being started in the city and by whom? How much capital has been raised and by whom?
The trifecta for cities is that they're able to continue to see: 1) economic growth; 2) economic inclusion; and 3) racial equity. Because cities need to continue to grow economically but for us to create true shared prosperity we need to a "rising-tide lifts all boats" strategy in which all demographics are included and treated fairly.
IMG: How specifically will Forward Cities work to strengthen inclusive economic development within its member cities?
Gergen: In addition to our national learning platform and bi-annual conferences focused on inclusive innovation and economic development, we are working with a select set of cities to launch Community Innovation Accelerators. Within each participating city, we will employ an Inclusive Innovation Fellow who will work with a cross-sector innovation council that will serve as the local steering committee or advisory committee. The first phase of the work is around systems mapping drawing on a set of tools we have created including an asset-mapping tool, a community survey, and an inclusive competitiveness index looking specifically at 20 key indicators to measure inclusiveness.
Drawing on the collected data, we will then move into a strategic alignment process. Working with our cross-sector innovation council, facilitated by this inclusive innovation fellow, informed by national thought leaders and partners, each city will work to identify what the baseline data tells it about the state of its inclusive economy, where there are gaps, and get in agreement about where they want to try to be in the next 3, 5, and 10 years, and set some target outcomes.
And once a participating city has alignment on those outcomes, they can start to have robust and creative conversations about how to achieve those outcomes, leveraging the local assets in a community. So for example, if there's a really promising incubator that's working with African American enterprises in a particular neighborhood, and it's showing some success in that neighborhood, could you help to give it more support: financial support, social capital support, etc. to be able to take it to more neighborhoods? We will also help cities identify models that are working in other cities (such as Motor City Match) that can be successfully expanded to other cities.
So there are ways to able to share some best practices that other communities are doing to get ideas investment-ready. And once they're investment-ready, to then allocate the necessary investment.
IMG: How do you solve the challenge of bringing capital into low-income communities?
Gergen: Often cities have the necessary investment capital but it's about allocating this to strategies in intentional ways into strategies aligned with target outcomes.
For example, in Columbus, Ohio they have something called the Columbus Way. They're incredibly well-organized, collaborative, and have experienced tremendous economic growth as a result of intentional investment. As they prioritize economic inclusion there is an exciting opportunity to drive a set of strategies and investments focused on increasing employment and ownership opportunities across all communities in the city.
As cities like Columbus set their sites on economic inclusion they have different financing mechanisms. For example, one of the things these communities often face is that many of these initiatives, especially for-profit, early-stage enterprises are pretty risky. To address this challenge, a city can guarantee a loan fund out of a bank or out of a private CDFI thatthat de-risks the capital that's loaned to emerging enterprises.
At the state level, there are also opportunities to leverage public capital to spur inclusive economic development. In North Carolina, for instance, we've drafted a piece of legislation to create something called the North Carolina Community Innovation Fund, which is designed to be a competitive block grant coming out of Commerce for under-connected metro areas and metropolitan and rural communities that cities and communities can apply for to get matching public investment to strengthen their local innovation ecosystems.
And then, of course, there's national philanthropy that can also support this work. So our goal is to help these cities create a pipeline of promising high-impact initiatives that we can then start to leverage public and private dollars to support.
IMG: How are you organizing your work?
Gergen: We have five areas of work that we're focusing on: Communications, Convening, Capacity-building, Research, and Advocacy.
The first is communications. We are about to launch a new website, which will have a robust set of tools, case studies, and stories to be able to lift up some of the most interesting things that are happening across our cities’ network and nationally. We also have a bi-weekly newsletter focused on trying to tell stories about some of the most interesting and promising practices happening across the country that goes out to 15,000 city leaders . We also want to be able to share stories as much as possible through our Twitter feed, @forwardcities that has 23,000 followers. We hope to use these platforms and channels to amplify promising practices across our network and are encouraging our community to share their stories with us so we can amplify this important work to get others engaged and help to build this movement.
Second is our convening strategies. Our first convening with this merged entity is in Durham, June 4-6, which we're excited about. And then we are looking to do our national convening (tentatively) in Miami in fall 2018, which would be a great opportunity for people to plug into all this amazing work.
The third is capacity-building through the Community Innovation Accelerator program which I discussed earlier.
The fourth is research. I mentioned the inclusive competitiveness index - a benchmarking index using the City Vitals model so we can benchmark cities against one another and provide them with baseline data around what it needs to be more inclusively competitive. We've partnered with ScaleUp Partners and Temple University and their Center for Inclusive Competitiveness for that work, and we're also looking to work with other research partners on what's working in communities and why.
Finally, our fifth focus is on advocacy and trying to help more states, like North Carolina, get dollars to help to support inclusive economies. We're also helping cities become smarter about their municipal policy and have launched a municipal policy toolkit on our website (www.forwardcities.org) to help more cities adopt these tools.
In short, we've got a pretty exciting three-year game plan. We're really looking to grow the number of cities in our network and deepen our work with them and, importantly, create more opportunities for economic inclusion across all sectors of our society.