Forward Cities is a cross-city learning collaborative designed to foster inclusive innovation and entrepreneurial development in Cleveland, Detroit, Durham, and New Orleans. Launched in June 2014, the two-year initiative brings together a diverse group of stakeholders in each of the four cities to work collectively toward the goal of inclusive innovation. Forward Cities contracted with us to examine the interim progress of the initiative through September 2015, gathering information from formal interviews, document reviews, and observation at the convenings. As detailed in our recent report, the initiative has made progress on its intended outcomes and offers lessons for other cross-city efforts seeking to strengthen local entrepreneurial ecosystems.

A Forward Cities Innovation Council leads local activities in each of the four cities. The council group is made up of volunteer entrepreneurs, funders, corporate leaders, and representatives from economic development and business support organizations. Council members contribute a wide range of time to the initiative, from 1 to 30 hours a month. In some cases, they have day jobs that align closely with the Forward Cities mission are able to commit substantial time and resources to the initiative. Forward Cities also contracted with a local partner in each city to provide data and research to inform the decisions and support the efforts of Innovation Councils.

A first step for the councils was to select neighborhoods or corridors where they would identify new ways to direct and coordinate resources in order to increase entrepreneurial and small business activity and connectivity. The selected areas are all located in underserved areas with potential for entrepreneurial growth and small business development. Analysis about these neighborhoods by local research partners (available under the “Forward Cities Research Products” category) helped in selecting the area and understanding baseline conditions in order to choose appropriate next steps.

Our national research revealed that the initiative expanded community interest in advancing entrepreneurship for minority owners and underserved neighborhoods. It also brought a broader group to the table than the players typically involved in “inclusive innovation” discussions. Some organizations that have been working city- or region-wide now consider strategies tailored for individual neighborhoods. In a few cases, Forward Cities has facilitated access to new grants or heightened visibility with donors for council members’ own programs.

One key component of Forward Cities is cross-site convenings. Thus far three of the four cities have hosted a convening. These events, along with the shared Forward Cities work in each place, have shifted how participants within a city relate to one another. Some council members were generally aware of each other before but got to know each other on a deeper level through this initiative.

Convenings are also the primary driver of cross-city learning in Forward Cities. Council members felt energized and inspired and brought concrete ideas back to their city. Most participants made a connection with someone from another city during the convenings. They felt they could call upon a fellow Forward Cities participant if they had a specific need, but very few actually reached out during our study period to their peers in other places between meetings.

Council members will gather for a final time in Cleveland in June 2016 to discuss outcomes achieved during the two year initiative and lessons learned along the way. They have moved into a critical stage: identifying and developing the activities and interventions for their focus neighborhoods or corridors. Establishing a common understanding in each city about concrete, realistic goals for the remainder of initiative will help focus the council’s efforts and set up mutual accountability. While all networks face challenges sustaining interaction between convenings, more opportunities for cross-city exchange of local progress and resources would further Forward Cities goals.

We are excited to watch the progress of the councils over the next few months. Almost all of the Council members interviewed for our research said that the activities started under the auspices of Forward Cities will continue beyond June, but may possibly be carried out in a different format. Whatever the structure, the Forward Cities’ network and local activities will offer lessons for those who are interested in promoting inclusive entrepreneurship to enhance local economies and advance the cause of equity. 

Kathryn Pettit, Senior Research Associate, and Rob Pitingolo, Research Associate, work at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.  For a copy of the entire Forward Cities brief that Urban Institute prepared please click here.