Governments Benefiting from Tech Entrepreneurs: The Tables Have Turned

September 11, 2013

The field of technology-based economic development strives to provide opportunities and support for budding entrepreneurs and technology-based startups in hopes of strengthening our economies. But, policymakers and governments have much to gain directly from the pool of talented tech entrepreneurs. Technology startups are tapping into the $142 billion public sector market and are helping governments reduce costs and improve their services through innovative web applications and, in some cases, total system overhauls.  Late last week, the city of San Francisco launched an Entrepreneurship-In-Residence program for the city in partnership with the White House, the first of its kind.

The San Francisco Entrepreneurship in Residence program will select three to five teams of civically focused tech entrepreneurs and provide them mentorship from leaders in both the public sector and the private sector over a six-week period to aid teams in their ventures. Teams’ innovations will focus on challenges in areas ranging from big government data, mobile services, healthcare, transportation, energy to infrastructure. “Products and services that successfully solve issues faced by San Francisco can easily expand to addressing similar needs of other cities and states across the nation in addition to the private sector,” says Rahul Mewawalla, the senior advisor to the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Innovation and a mentor in the program. The city plans to announce those selected early next month during San Francisco’s Innovation month.

Although this is a trailblazing program, its basis is not an entirely new concept. The office points to programs like Code for America, which places web developers in city governments to create programs and web applications to solve problems, and Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator as few of the many sources of inspiration for the program. But, the EIR program is clear on its website that it is not an accelerator or incubator program, “but rather a method for the City and County of San Francisco to formally match entrepreneurs working on products that serve or could serve government to various city agencies and departments.” It is clear there is a burgeoning trend of governments, mostly municipal, that are formally harnessing innovative tech entrepreneurs and their resources to improve government operations and services.

In 2010, Boston mayor Thomas Menino created a mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics aimed at engaging constituents, entrepreneurs, and other institutions to work with the municipal government to address community issues. Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia created a New Urban Mechanics office that continues to partner with the Boston office. Similarly, New York City started a formalized municipal program under mayor Bloomberg’s 2011 NYC Digital office called Code Corps that engages technologists to create and improve city government initiatives, particularly those relating to disaster relief.  Smart Chicago Collaborative resembles these programs, but has since spun from its beginnings in the municipal government and is now its own civic organization.  What remains to be seen is whether such efforts are appropriate and attainable for state and regional levels of government and governance.

California, Massachusettsentrepreneurship, information technology