On the Aspen side of things

Oct. 27, 2013 @ 11:36 AM

From October 6-8, I had the opportunity to join world leaders at the inaugural CityLab 2.0 in New York City. This summit was hosted by the Aspen Institute, Atlantic Cities and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Why was I invited? Not sure. But it just might have something to do with the Durham Urban Innovation Center’s (DUIC) grant submittal being a finalist for the national Bloomberg Mayor’s Innovation Challenge.

How exciting to mingle with reps from El Salvador, the United Kingdom, India and Beijing and with the first female city manager of Tel Aviv. How interesting to reconcile the sadness and depth of the World Trade Memorial with the rebirth of the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a national model for redevelopment, local manufacturing, entrepreneurialism and urban farming. Its LEED platinum buildings, one-acre rooftop farm, 500 jobs, the second largest film studio outside of Los Angeles (have you seen “Boardwalk Empires”?), local small businesses that manufacture Kevlar and a job matching program for Brooklynites are of dreams and lollipops.

At one panel, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, told former Vice President Al Gore that “one of the greatest gifts you can receive is an idea.” Gore responded “When the country was created it was the printing press [technology] that led to the emergence of a meritocracy and information; ideas and logic came to be the source of power.

“[Cities] have to make possible for the public to join the dialogue and get them as part of the debate.” Throughout the entire summit all conversations began with “cities are the engines of innovation and creativity.” How does the City of Durham convene residents and stakeholders around one table to establish such dialogue and create actionable goals for innovative neighborhood revitalization? As Theaster Gates (Chicago artist) said “Artists are willing to wrestle with the impossible more than everyone else.” Maybe we as City staff, any city, should see ourselves as these artists, building a canvas as a catalyst for colorful creativity and taking those risks necessary to make our communities more resilient, adaptive and innovative.

This is where the DUIC takes its cue. The DUIC is a solution-focused collaborative dedicated to convening partnerships and implementing out-of-the-box programs, policies and projects to respond to our dynamic city.  The summit reminded me that money is out there; best practices in transit, housing and brownfield development are reachable.

Three lessons I learned from the summit: (1) cities should create value for neighborhoods not part of the value chain, (2) cities should be proactive and (3) cities should look forward at least two generations when making decisions.

Wanona Satcher is founder and director of the Durham Urban Innovation Center (DUIC), a division within Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services that specializes in resident-driven innovations.  “We invest in people, build capacity, develop community and connect.”