Why are US Cities Slow to Adopt Innovation?

As noted in our last post, American cities are lagging behind others (like Eindhoven, Stockholm, and Barcelona) in the adoption of innovative service technologies.  Funding is one large barrier, and perhaps the most important.  However, other barriers exist that, if addressed, could increase the feasibility of funding for what are often thought of as risky investments. Evaluation and Evidence

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.  Really cutting edge technologies will have no evidence to back themselves up when they are first launched.  Early adopters cannot be risk averse, must trust their intuition, or both.  This is challenging for city governments.

Additionally, even when evidence is available, for early technologies the evidence often comes from foreign countries or different cultural contexts.  Cities need to be able to apply what has worked elsewhere to the local context in a convincing way.  In order to mitigate this barrier for other potential adopters, and for a city’s own financial health, an evaluation program needs to be incorporated into the technology adoption process to prove or disprove the innovation’s smart and sustainable claims.

Lastly, without evidence, it is difficult to prove a relative advantage of the technology – will it improve the status quo?  This is a complex question; the technology may be good for some and bad for others raising equity concerns, which, if realized, are bad for society, and even if not, are difficult doubts to overcome at the outset of an innovative proposal.

Physical and Environmental Variables

Our existing physical environment can produce barriers to innovation adoption as well.   This article from Slate highlights the challenge of adopting service-providing robots in the complex, random dynamic urban environments of modern cities.

Dero Bike Rack Company produced the ZAP!, a solar-powered device that counts passing bicycles as part of an employer-based bicycle riding encouragement program.  While their device shows a lot of promise for decreasing vehicle miles traveled on a localized level, the city of Minneapolis has faced challenges in implementing it.  While the city desires to invest in the technology city-wide, they have found a challenge in the divided nature of our urban space – private property owners don’t want to install the device on their building unless it will have a direct benefit for their tenants.  Again, this is difficult to prove for a new technology.

Communication Channels

Communication channels are the bloodstream of innovation diffusion.  The current governmental budget crunch has led to less money for travel, less conference attendance, and less spreading of ideas.  This highlights the importance of the internet as a means of information spreading (e.g. webinars, forums, blogs, even interest-based listservs).

Citizens themselves are becoming more comfortable with mobile and web technologies.  This level of comfort needs to be communicated to decision makers and leveraged as evidence of the potential success of new communications technologies and social media.

Persuasive Local Champions

If communication channels are the bloodstream, then local champions are the heart of innovation diffusion.  Someone needs to identify the barriers and develop strategies to break them down.  This person needs to be tireless and to empower others to advocate as well.

Going back the case of Dero Bike Racks, because the company is located in Minneapolis, it has seen all ZAP adoption within that city.   There is a sense of trust due to this proximity, which has created a local champion within the government.  This case highlights the opportunity for technology companies to partner with the cities in which they are located to pilot, test, and evaluate their innovations.

The Summit in November will undoubtedly address many of these challenges.  If these barriers can be mitigated, innovative service technologies will be viewed as less risky, less costly, and more advantageous, increasing the ability for cities for find funding for cost-saving investments.

-          Terra Curtis