SXSWi: You can solve ANY problem with these 4 "Is" / by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

You Can Solve Any Social Problem with These 4 Is Today, I spoke on a panel at SXSWi with Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque and Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento about Bootstrapping Your City’s Innovation Ecosystem.  Innovation is a cool and sexy concept in the business world, and I would argue that America’s cities need to channel the spirit of innovation to solve some of our country’s most pressing problems. I’ve found, in my experience to date, that you can solve any problem, no matter how big or small, with 4 “I’s”- impact, interdependence, intrinsic motivation and iteration.

What is the IMPACT you're hoping to achieve? 

When it comes to innovation in cities, IMPACT boils down to the simple question "is anyone better off?"  Every member of a team or partnership must have a crystal clear understanding of the IMPACT they are hoping to achieve. Ensuring that common understanding exists is an essential step in any problem solving process. Leaders of all types can find themselves struggling to clearly communicate the measurable change they want to see, especially when confronting a problem that is complex and multifaceted. For years, New Orleans was known for having the highest murder rate of any US city larger than 250,000 people. And for years, the violence persisted and seemed intractable despite many different efforts to address the problem. Eventually, with the help of Bloomberg Philanthropies, New Orleans installed an innovation delivery team to find ways to tackle the rampant violence. New Orleans’ leaders were persistent about using data to make strategic decisions. They continuously asked themselves,“will our strategies measurably reduce the murder rate as quickly as possible?” and reflected on the data to measure their progress. They consistently maintained a focus on the IMPACT the city was hoping to achieve. And they were able to implement strategies that effectively reduced the murder rate by 20% - the lowest rate the city had seen since 1999.

How is the IMPACT you hope to achieve INTERDEPENDENT on others?

Very few problems that leaders seek to address are completely isolated, nor do they have clean-cut, straightforward solutions. Problems are connected to systems with complex INTERDEPENDENCIES. Cities across the country, for instance, have been trying to invest more in public transportation, but there’s often a “last mile” problem - the gap between where public transportation ends and where residents live or work. In San Francisco, Chariot, a private van service, was founded to address the city’s last-mile problem. Chariot had immediate success and residents oversubscribed to its services as soon as its routes launched. Yet, Chariot was dependent on the government in San Francisco to operate within regulations. Given the ongoing battle with the taxi companies and services like Lyft and Uber, local government leaders were not exactly receptive to Chariot. It was easy to see them as yet another company poised to circumvent hard fought laws to protect residents. But Chariot was part of Tumml, an incubator focused on startups that solve social problems. Tumml had built strong relationships with the public sector and, through those relationships, government leaders worked side by side with Chariot to find an amenable solution.  Each organization was dependent on the other to drive change and the INTERDEPENDENCE allowed everyone to channel their assets and expectations towards what would deliver change.


In the midst of bankruptcy, Detroit had few resources to address a huge problem: abandoned properties falling into disrepair. The city was trying to attract residents back to its neighborhoods, which proved to be next to impossible with the volume of abandoned buildings, unkempt lots, and worries about safety.  So how do you address a huge problem with no money?  You tap your residents and ask them to “blext” or “text the blight.” In Detroit, it worked fabulously well. The city was able to access the information it needed to target properties, quickly to prioritize resources and reduce blight. By tapping into the INTRINSIC MOTIVATIONS of its residents--whether anger about the state of properties, pride for their city, or safety concerns--a public problem that may have taken years of government time and resources to address, took just months. Now, anyone can go and see the number of surveyed properties (375,573), the number unoccupied (48,672) and the percentage that should be demolished (10%).  

How will you ITERATE to continue to make progress towards IMPACT?

In Minneapolis and St. Paul (MSP), cross-sector leaders set out to achieve economic prosperity for their residents, particularly on employment opportunities. One of the major barriers was that many low-income residents could not get to jobs! MSP achieved legendary breakthroughs with their Green Line light rail because they worked ITERATIVELY to ensure that Transit Oriented Development (TOD) efforts landed equitably. They worked together to change federal policy. Now, across the country, transit systems must include stops in neighborhoods where residents have the highest need for public transit services. This was a huge win and the Green Line has been raised up as a model for the rest of the country. It would be easy to declare victory because, thanks to hard work, residents now had public transit options to get to jobs. But there’s more work to be done, and the next stops on the economic prosperity train are ensuring that jobs are available AND that residents, especially those of color, are hired.  So MSP ITERATED through the same questions above: “what is the IMPACT we are trying to achieve? How is that impact INTERDEPENDENT on others? Who is INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED to achieve that IMPACT?” And they did something unheard of!  They stopped requesting resources for the cross-sector partnership organized around the transportation piece of the problem, and transferred those resources to new leaders who were focused on job creation and hiring. Those leaders benefited from the previous partnerships’ lessons learned. They embedded the changes from the Green Line into the way the transit systems operated, while transitioning to achieve economic prosperity on a jobs and hiring front.

No matter the size of your city or the problem you’re trying to address, you can apply these 4 “I’s”- impact, interdependence, intrinsic motivation and iteration to find a solution. While the 4 “I’s” are straightforward on the surface, it takes hard work from a coalition of the willing to drive change.  When have you seen the 4Is at play in your work?