Selected Readings on Cities and Civic Technology

By Julia Root and Stefaan Verhulst

The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of civic innovation was originally published in 2014.

The last five years have seen a wave of new organizations, entrepreneurs and investment in cities and the field of civic innovation.  Two subfields, Civic Tech and Government Innovation, are particularly aligned with GovLab’s interest in the ways in which technology is and can be deployed to redesign public institutions and re-imagine governance.

The emerging field of civic technology, or “Civic Tech,” champions new digital platforms, open data and collaboration tools for transforming government service delivery and engagement with citizens. Government Innovation, while not a new field, has seen in the last five years a proliferation of new structures (e.g. Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics), roles (e.g. Chief Technology/Innovation Officer) and public/private investment (e.g. Innovation Delivery Teams and Code for America Fellows) that are building a world-wide movement for transforming how government thinks about and designs services for its citizens.

There is no set definition for “civic innovation.” However, broadly speaking, it is about improving our cities through the implementation of tools, ideas and engagement methods that strengthen the relationship between government and citizens. The civic innovation field encompasses diverse actors from across the public, private and nonprofit spectrums. These can include government leaders, nonprofit and foundation professionals, urbanists, technologists, researchers, business leaders and community organizers, each of whom may use the term in a different way, but ultimately are seeking to disrupt how cities and public institutions solve problems and invest in solutions.

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Annotated Selected Readings (in alphabetical order)


Goldsmith, Stephen, and Susan Crawford. The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance. 1 edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

  • The Responsive City, a guide to civic engagement and governance in the digital age, is the culmination of research originating from the Data-Smart City Solutions initiative, an ongoing project at Harvard Kennedy School working to catalyze adoption of data projects on the city level.
  • The “data smart city” is one that is responsive to citizens, engages them in problem solving and finds new innovative solutions for dismantling entrenched bureaucracy.
  • The authors document case studies from New York City, Boston and Chicago to explore the following topics:
    • Building trust in the public sector and fostering a sustained, collective voice among communities;
    • Using data-smart governance to preempt and predict problems while improving quality of life;
    • Creating efficiencies and saving taxpayer money with digital tools; and
    • Spearheading these new approaches to government with innovative leadership.

Townsend, Anthony M. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. 1 edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

  • In this book, Townsend illustrates how “cities worldwide are deploying technology to address both the timeless challenges of government and the mounting problems posed by human settlements of previously unimaginable size and complexity.”
  • He also considers “the motivations, aspirations, and shortcomings” of the many stakeholders involved in the development of smart cities, and poses a new civics to guide these efforts.
  • He argues that smart cities are not made smart by various, soon-to-be-obsolete technologies built into its infrastructure; instead, it is how citizens are using ever-changing and grassroots technologies to be “human-centered, inclusive and resilient” that will make cities ‘smart.’

Reports + Journal Articles

Black, Alissa, and Rachel Burstein. “The 2050 City – What Civic Innovation Looks Like Today and Tomorrow.” White Paper. New America Foundation – California Civic Innovation Project, June 2013.

  • Through their interviews, the authors determine that civic innovation is not just a “compilation of projects” but that it can inspire institutional structural change.
  • Civic innovation projects that have a “technology focus can sound very different than process-related innovations”; however the outcomes are actually quite similar as they disrupt how citizens and government engage with one another.
  • Technology is viewed by some of the experts as an enabler of civic innovation – not necessarily the driver for innovation itself. What constitutes innovation is how new tools are implemented by government or by civic groups that changes the governing dynamic.

Patel, Mayur, Jon Sotsky, Sean Gourley, and Daniel Houghton. “Knight Foundation Report on Civic Technology.” Presentation. Knight Foundation, December 2013.

  • This reports aims to advance the field of civic technology, which compared to the tech industry as a whole is relatively young. It maps the field, creating a starting place for understanding activity and investment in the sector.
  • It defines two themes, Open Government and Civic Action, and identifies 11 clusters of civic tech innovation that fall into the two themes. For each cluster, the authors describe the type of activities and highlights specific organizations.
  • The report identified more than $430 million of private and philanthropic investment directed to 102 civic tech organizations from January 2011 to May 2013.

Open Plans. “Field Scan on Civic Technology.” Living Cities, November 2012.

  • Commissioned by Living Cities and authored by Open Plans, the Field Scan investigates the emergent field of civic technology and generates the first analysis of the potential impact for the field as well as a critique for how tools and new methods need to be more inclusive of low-income communities in their use and implementation.
  • Respondents generally agreed that the tools developed and in use in cities so far are demonstrations of the potential power of civic tech, but that these tools don’t yet go far enough.
  • Civic tech tools have the potential to improve the lives of low-income people in a number of ways. However, these tools often fail to reach the population they are intended to benefit. To better understand this challenge, civic tech for low-income people must be considered in the broader context of their interactions with technology and with government.
  • Although hackathons are popular, their approach to problem solving is not always driven by community needs, and hackathons often do not produce useful material for governments or citizens in need.

Goldberg, Jeremy M. “Riding the Second Wave of Civic Innovation.” Governing, August 28, 2014.

  • In this piece, Goldberg argues that innovation and entrepreneurship in local government increasingly require mobilizing talent from many sectors and skill sets.

Black, Alissa, and Burstein, Rachel. “A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work.” IBM Center for the Business of Government, October 2014.

  • In this report, Burstein and Black examine the recent trend toward the creation of innovation offices across the nation at all levels of government to understand the structural models now being used to stimulate innovation—both internally within an agency, and externally for the agency’s partners and communities.
  • The authors conducted interviews with leadership of innovation offices of cities that include Philadelphia, Austin, Kansas City, Chicago, Davis, Memphis and Los Angeles.
  • The report cites examples of offices, generates a typology for the field, links to projects and highlights success factors.

Mulholland, Jessica, and Noelle Knell. “Chief Innovation Officers in State and Local Government (Interactive Map).” Government Technology, March 28, 2014.

  • This article provides an overview of how different cities structure their Chief Innovation Officer positions and provides links to offices, projects and additional editorial content.
  • Some innovation officers find their duties merged with traditional CIO responsibilities, as is the case in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City. Others, like those in Louisville and Nashville, have titles that reveal a link to their jurisdiction’s economic development endeavors.


Bloomberg Philanthropies. January 2014. “Transform Your City through Innovation: The Innovation Delivery Model for Making It Happen.” New York: Bloomberg Philanthropies.

  • In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies funded a three-year innovation capacity program in five major United States cities— Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans – in which cities could hire top-level staff to develop and see through the implementation of solutions to top mayoral priorities such as customer service, murder, homelessness, and economic development, using a sequence of steps.
  • The Innovation Delivery Team Playbook describes the Innovation Delivery Model and describes each aspect of the model from how to hire and structure the team, to how to manage roundtables and run competitions.