If you ask Peter Pirnejad to pinpoint the moment innovation in cities started happening on a much larger scale, the Development Services Director for the city of Palo Alto, California, has a ready answer.

"From my perspective, it seems that cities have made a definitive shift to embrace technology over the past five years. This can be seen in the increasing number of Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Data Officer positions as one indicator. The rise in civic tech enabled engagement. Open data, mobile applications, and social media have enabled cities to be more responsive to constituents and customers." 

Entrepreneurs as Urban Innovators 

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But what is pretty cool is that you actually can ask Peter this question - well, you can if you're one of the 39 University of Chicago MBA students enrolled in what is believed to be the country's first university-level course specifically designed to address the issues surrounding entrepreneurship for urban innovators.

Because of my role as CEO of APPCityLife, a startup that is considered an early civic tech innovator, I was recently invited to Chicago to serve alongside Peter on a panel which included an entrepreneur, investor, and civic leader, allowing students to witness first-hand the differing viewpoints of the various stakeholders within the industry.

Fostering Collaboration

The panel was rounded out with Stonly Baptiste, who makes the weekly commute between San Francisco, where he is cofounder and Principal of Urban.Us, a venture fund that invests in urban technology startups, and Chicago, where he is making his initial foray into academia as Course Consultant.

"It is an extension of the Urban.Us mission to help support and encourage entrepreneurs solving our greatest urban challenges," he says. "Working with the University of Chicago to break new ground has been a fantastic journey."

Unprecedented Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

The visionary behind the new course, Dr. Abbie Smith, who is a Professor at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, says that launching a new class which would need to balance the principals of entrepreneurship with the unique challenges facing startups solving social and urban problems was definitely a challenge and that collaborating with Stonly was essential.

"Entrepreneurs have an unprecedented and expanding opportunity to participate in an emerging ecosystem for developing urban solutions."

Abbie says inspiration for the class came after listening to a speech given by University of  Chicago's President, Dr. Robert Zimmer, on identifying accelerating urbanization as one of the key challenges and opportunities facing the world today, adding that the lab class is one of many urban initiatives at the University of Chicago and was a natural addition to entrepreneurship course offerings at the Booth School of Business.

"The array of pressing urban issues, the increasing role of cities in solving global problems, and the demand on cities to do more with less suggest that new approaches to solving problems and new players are needed."

Abbie adds that bringing in someone from within the industry of urban innovation has been invaluable. "Collaborating with Stonly was a vital because of his insights, network, commitment and leadership in the urban entrepreneurship space. It made the course possible."

Growing Network of Urban Innovation Experts

Through a series of weekly private TED-style talks and interactive panels, students are gaining one-on-one access to an incredible lineup of entrepreneurs, investors, leaders and innovators from across the country. In addition, students are required to form teams, identify an urban challenge and develop a potential solution with an innovative business model. To help the students with their project, the University has flown in several entrepreneurs of companies addressing urban challenges, including 

While many students are participating solely for the intellectual exercise, many say that the class has challenged their views of their own city and has inspired them to consider their own role as a potential contributor to their communities after graduation.

For a few, the class is the proving ground for fledging ideas of new civic tech startups, like one former school teacher who believes that today's discussions about education include parents, teachers and administrators but far too often leave out the most important participant - the student. He hopes the class will help him understand how to find the right support and collaborators to develop a solution.

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His chances of success as an entrepreneur are now much higher, since his network of influencers and innovators has expanded significantly. Along with the business card I shared with him in case he needs advice, he now has access to the founders of other civic tech startups and nonprofits like MuniRent, Rally Bus, NextDoor, Recyclebank, Edovo, SmartProcure, OpportunitySpace, PeakXperience,  Kasita, MeterHero, and Design Thinking Miami

But more importantly, he can reach out to influencers and government leaders like Peter, Detroit's CIO, Jill Ford, as well as several within his own community like serial entrepreneur Ron Packard, artist and entrepreneur John Michael Schert, as well as Tim Knowles, who heads up the university's Urban Labs, and Chicago's own CIO, Brenna Berman.  

And it can't hurt at all to be in possession of business cards of people like Google's Product Manager, Marlo McGriff, or Sascha Haselmayer, whose company, CityMart, helps cities across the globe find startups to collaborate on civic projects, as well as David Gilford, who heads up the New York City Economic Development Corporation or Shaun Abrahamson, who is Stonly's cofounder at Urban.US.

By helping students build a network prior to launching startups, this new generation of urban innovators will begin their journey as entrepreneurs with better access to capital and customers, the key to survival for every company.

Published on: Mar 3, 2016