Code For America Summit May 2019 Oakland, CA Drew Bird Photography San Francisco Bay Area Photographer Have Camera. Will Travel.

Week 1: What Is Urban Innovation?

This month I started my work on Civic Innovation with the Microsoft Cities team here in Miami. The work I do is relatively fresh as the program is only 10-months old yet I get to work closely with the Director, Lucas Hernandez, in leveraging my experience to shape the civic technology program to foster civic engagement. This writing will be a part of a weekly data-driven series where I share my learnings, perspectives, and discoveries as I navigate urban innovation. This writing is intended to spark interest and I encourage others to do due diligence on all charts and examples listed below.

Definition for civic innovation might be a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

– Alex Howard, GovFresh

Urban innovation is reimaging cities. If you look outside your house you may see ridesharing and scooters in your streets, in the sky you may see drones, and all of these are just the tipping point for what I consider to be urban innovation. Often, I get asked as a Civic Innovation at Microsoft Cities, “What is Civic Technology?” Instead of focusing on the definition I like to focus on the broader civic impact and trends of innovation we see happening across cities. These trends include: scaling ideas, tackling pressing civic problems, and examples of innovation happening across cities.

Scaling Ideas

Technology is just a tool but innovation is a broader term that encompasses the radical changes that are happening. Here at Microsoft Cites team in Miami, we focus on the local level to observe such trends and work across sectors to elevate the conversation about how technology can accelerate solutions that are impactful for the community. If you look at the above chart you get a grasp of how ridesharing has changed the U.S. The new exponential shift to use alternatives to car ownership paints a picture of one apparent vertical of innovation within cities. Just 10 years ago, outside of public transportation, you couldn’t imagine relying on a smartphone in your pocket to call a ride from vetted strangers.

“It turns out that the average cost to own a car is $7,321 per year not including parking charges, or $10,049 with parking charges… By contrast, ride-hailing services cost $20,118 per year to cover that same distance.”

Source: AAA

No city is the same yet observing the data we can see evidence that most urban innovations use cities as a platform to prove a concept, then scale. Scaling happens from a few cities to hundreds in a matter of years. As more companies succeed in this effort we continue to see more venture capital dollars pour into this strategy in the US and even internationally. More companies use this type of scaling strategy betting on expansion in large cities as the main indicator of product-market fit.  

Lyft S-1 Data on Riders + Key Benefits for Community

Source: Lyft S-1 Initial Public Offering Data (pg 6-7)

If you look at the start of popular ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft they first launched in major cities – New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and more in their initial phases. Today Uber and Lyft collectively are in hundreds of cities with combined users of 100 million and more with about 4+ million drivers across those cities (Business of Apps). Lyft which was founded in 2012 recently became a public company in 2019 and in their initial offering highlighted interesting learnings. The data suggest that the use of ridesharing connects with public transit,  and people who use it to commute to work. All of these hint at how urban innovation is changing the behavior of people of all demographics.

Tackling Pressing Problems

How will your ideas make cities better? Can you grow to 100 cities in 5 years? The last 2 questions are what venture capital firm considers before investing in startups. Startups often find problems and use innovation as a tool to seize markets in the private sector. We know that cities are unique places that hold opportunities to address pressing problems and scale. What do these problems look like and where venture capitalists place their bets in this market? In my research, I reviewed several venture capital firms including Urban.Us, which has a specific focus on these type of markets. In their portfolio, the largest amount of startups invested in tend to be focused on: the built environment, government technology, transportation, and energy. Most also leverage forms of artificial intelligence, hardware, sensors, or more in the platforms they build. This points to evidence that innovation leverages technology but isn’t solely based on tech alone.

Source: Urban.Us Portfolio

Every city is unique, but their problems often look alike. Whether it’s affordable housing, climate change, or social justice we see a need for digital transformation across sectors. While most still have a tough time selling to government others are finding success in prototyping ideas like Startup In Residence, 18F or Code for America. The organizations and leaders approaching these problems create tools that are in the open for anyone to review and use on platforms like GitHub. This hints to another type of innovation where I think communities are creating the conditions for scaling. Locally we see cases of Code for America’s Brigade network doing this. They take the problems happening locally and advocate for the release of open data that they then use to build solutions.

Examples of Innovation Happening

(Source: Snippet of Microsoft’s CivicGraph built by Microsoft NY Team)

The Microsoft Cities team in New York built a  well-known project in the urban innovation communities, CivicGraph. This is an open-source tool using Microsoft’s Power Business Intelligence tool (PowerBI) to elevate a macro and micro view of the communities participating in civic technology through a network graph and map. Communities can participate in adding to this network, and also examine the underlying code of Microsoft’s tool to easily create their own map. This open source culture has and will continue to engender new ideas deployed locally but at scale.

In Chicago, Smart Chicago Collaborative launched a project called Civic User Testing Group. Several years back, Code for Miami’s founder Ernie Hsiung observed this and then used this same model to launch CUTGroup Miami with a grant from the Knight Foundation. With a book on lessons and ‘how to’s’, they were able to implement the same idea in a different city. Another similar local example of this is when The City of Miami’s Director of Innovation, Mike Sarasti used CUTGroup’s example in the methods for their website redesign. Mike not only used the case studies, but he went further to take the mindset of good design and brought a User Experience bootcamp to train government workers in Design Thinking. This is further evidence of how ideas that scale in one place can be scaled in other through what I consider, urban innovation.

(Source: The newly designed MiamiGov site launched months back)

As we continue to observe how urban innovation solves pressing problems at scale, we can see change happen not only locally, but also at the state level. For example, Code for America has made it their mission to make government better and use open source (code) to push this forward. One project I like to point too in all my meetings is They tackle the problem of social justice by building a tool that automated the process for people with convictions to reduce or remove this from their record. They partnered with organizations in their state of California to not only identify and issue but work towards scaling this.

(Source: Clear My Record Partnership Report 2019 by Code for America)

Outside of just making the work they do in terms of impact open. They also break down the demographic impact of the work they do. Through this work, I think organizations of all sectors can see and be willing to work with them to scale their ideas. They actively report on this work and in several conferences in areas not even related to the work they do I have heard this project mentioned. It is further proof that public good and stakeholders can be aligned in this work. It also shows the importance of Urban Innovation in regulated sectors in meaningful ways.

(Source: Clear My Record Partnership Report 2019 by Code for America)

What I seek to do

As I begin my Microsoft fellowship journey,  I am excited to find ways we can use technology to solve urban challenges facing Miami, and then find ways to scale its impact. My work will consist of designing apps, leading projects, working on partnerships, and helping to shape our Civic Technology program in the greater Miami area.

I hope to leverage my learnings across the community to advocate for ideas that can scale locally and across our cities. With Microsoft, we have the potential to achieve scale across cities. In my work, I seek to look at urban innovation through the lens of tackling problems faced by innovation communities who lack resources to deploy artificial intelligence in internal operations. I’m looking for organizations and people who are seriously interested in this. Interested? You can reach me on Twitter or we can set time to have quick coffee if you’re in the greater Miami area.

Written by Gregory Johnson

Major thanks to Lucas Hernandez for revision/edits.


Gregory Johnson is the inaugural Civic Innovation Team member with Microsoft Cities in Miami. He is a Technical Product Manager at EveryLedger. He has worked 6+ years in regulated industries like healthcare, education, and local government in the enterprise building digital services. He has been noted by the CEO of Code for America for his work with Miami Graph and several awards by local Miami organizations. Learn more about him at