Case Study: Smart Cities Innovation Accelerators

Smart Cities NYC

In late 2016, Dr. David Ricketts, founder of The Innovators Forum, conceived the Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator initiative out of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH). This program would bring together executive leadership from cities (mayoral support was required) and industry partners to share ideas and solve problems.

The Accelerators were an experimental adaptation of Dr. Ricketts’ Innovation courses at Harvard but on a larger scale. They were envisioned to be different from the classroom environment and addressed an emerging technology space: Smart Cities. Multiple challenges faced by Dr. Ricketts included not having a firm definition of what Smart Cities were, lack of experience designing high-impact, industry-focused workshops, and the need to create a sustainable business model external to Harvard’s sphere of control.

The first event, held early in 2017 in Dr. Ricketts’ classroom at Harvard, succeeded in creating enough sense of need and accomplishment that he had no trouble recruiting the second round of participants to meet in NYC later that year. However, inexperience in creating an immersive workshop experience outside the Harvard classroom left participants asking if this were really worth their time. Spark Growth was present at both early events, simply as participants and not involved in event design.

Accelerator Workshop

Dr. Ricketts, evidently wanting to avoid an outcome similar to NYC, engaged Spark Growth’s support in designing the event program and workshop experiences for the third event, held in Dublin, Ireland, in early 2018. Adapting their Service Design and Experience Design backgrounds, the team created a series of in-event workshops that built successively from generating ideas, defining viable concepts to creating actionable plans that city leaders took home and put to use immediately. New energy was injected into the Accelerator workshop series, and additional work developed a sustainable business model for ongoing Accelerator programs.

The following several Accelerators iterated on the Dublin workshop success, introduced new problem spaces based on city leader inputs and visited emerging Smart City programs in San Diego, Toronto, and Las Vegas. The original one-off sponsorship model evolved into an ongoing co-creation program for key sponsors, brought in early-stage companies and local ecosystem players, and worked to solve city leaders’ core problems through high-engagement, hands-on workshops with industry experts.

Spark Growth Principals Sara Hand and Stan Schultes participated in the development process with Dr. Ricketts and The Innovators Forum.