Innovate Memphis develops bold ideas for city

Innovate Memphis is charged with developing and delivering bold ideas that the Bluff City can implement to address some of its biggest challenges.

Social innovation is the broad mission, but for Innovate Memphis, the process is what really makes the whole endeavor unique in the city.

In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded Memphis a three-year grant to establish what then was called the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team. The city was one of five Pioneer Cities nationwide chosen to participate in what was the largest private-sector investment in social innovation in U.S. history.

The work didn’t stop when the grant ended. In fact, today that organization is known as Innovate Memphis and it’s charged with developing and delivering bold ideas that Memphis can implement to address some of the city’s biggest challenges.

Innovate Memphis focuses on neighborhood economic vitality, the Memphis Gun Down program, customer service and parks advocacy. There is a core innovation team that includes Director Justin Entzminger, and Project Managers Kerri Campbell, Suzanne Carlson and Megan Higgins. And Bishop Mays heads up Memphis Gun Down.

From its inception as the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team to today, Innovate Memphis has focused on whatever the mayor’s priorities are. The effort began under former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and continues under Jim Strickland’s current administration. When the organization first started, the initial focuses were the reduction of youth gun violence and neighborhood economic vitality.
Kerri Campbell, Suzanne Carlson, Justin Entzminger and Megan Higgins
Memphis Gun Down came from that effort. And the branded programs such as MEMShop, MEMFix and MEMMobile came out of the neighborhood economic vitality component. Those programs all have been taken over by partner organizations.

Today, one of the focuses for Innovate Memphis is blight, which is a big priority for Strickland. Public safety remains a concern so Memphis Gun Down continues as does the EMS Innovating Prehospital Care effort.

With the new city administration, there hasn’t been changes, per se, and certainly nothing that would have a negative effect. In fact, Innovate Memphis’ former director Doug McGowen is now the chief operating officer in Strickland’s administration.

“What that means for Innovate Memphis is there is someone who understands the day-to-day picture and its work and is an advocate,” Entzminger said. “If anything, that’s good news for us. Mayor Strickland believes in the work like Mayor Wharton did. We’re lucky. I’m not sure every city would have that buy-in with a new administration.”

A couple of key elements of Strickland’s platform align with Innovate Memphis’ work: the fight against blight and public safety. Strickland, in fact, mentioned using new eyes to address old problems when he was sworn in. That fits in nicely with the process Innovate Memphis follows to address problems.

When the Bloomberg grant started, the five pioneer cities helped build a playbook that created the process. It starts with doing as much research as possible and talking to people who are actually doing the work to gain an understanding of said issue. Looking at other cities to learn what has been done there also is an important element.
Director Justin Entzminger
“It’s our eyes and then we can get a second set of external eyes,” Campbell said. “That network is very valuable. Even though people say the grant ran out, our support network in the Bloomberg family will never run out.”

The overall network started with the pioneer cities of Memphis, Louisville, Atlanta, New Orleans and Chicago. It since has grown to also include Albuquerque, New Mexico; Boston; Centennial, Colorado; Jersey City; Long Beach, California; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Mobile, Alabama; Peoria, Illinois; Seattle; and Syracuse, New York. It also includes Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Innovate Memphis works with partners to build whatever the solution to a particular issue is. The program is built in concert with the partner, not for them. The hope is whatever is decided is something that can be sustained.

“It starts with the idea and feeling that making change is worth investing in,” Entzminger said. “We can all work together for Memphis to be a better place. If there is a belief that this element or idea of how do we make change, then how do we have new eyes look at an old problem? We sit down and help them understand the problem trying to be solved and how you work through the innovation process and bring new programs to bear to change things.”

And everything goes back to the process that the pioneer cities created.

“We’re always looking for ways to evolve that process,” Campbell said. “We’re looking to make a civic impact that’s workable. But we’re also looking for ways that are impactful on a regional and national level. When you have a global approach to a regional issue it matters.”

Campbell has been with Innovate Memphis from the start. Her current focus is an effort that looks at addressing response times that in turn affects access to public health care. This is an instance where Innovate Memphis relied on its network of cities to address the problem.

In this instance all eyes in Memphis looked to Louisville. That included a lot of observation to better understand what worked and didn’t work for that city.

“You have the benefit of looking at someone else’s lessons and bring them back here,” Campbell said. “Like with tech support. Everyone is always looking to hire the best consultants. The amount of tech support we get from other team members is invaluable. In looking at what they did in Louisville I’m not starting at square one. It’s square five. I didn’t have to call around the country. They’re all hands on deck.”

Now, Louisville has offered to visit Memphis to help set up a support system. It’s just one example of how partnerships work.

Memphis also pays the favor back. Innovate Memphis is sharing with Syracuse examples of ways the Bluff City is fighting blight. More than a year ago that work became a priority area here. It began with gathering data to better understand the problem.

Innovate Memphis looked to Cleveland as a model to learn how to compile a blight data warehouse of sorts. A windshield survey was conducted last fall where blight and litter scores were assigned to properties. From there, the data was uploaded to the warehouse along with data collected from city and county sources.

As that fight continues the team and partners are looking at ways to use analytics to predict blight and therefore prevent it.

“We’re trying to do neighborhood-level blight remediation,” Entzminger said, pointing to work near the South Memphis home of Advance Memphis where a public arts project is engaging the community to better understand the desired vision.

Today, Innovate Memphis’ mission includes working to improve blight, removing guns from the city’s streets, public transportation and any other effort the mayor’s office determines to be a priority. And at the heart of the work will be partnerships.

“We’re open to tackling projects for the city but also other projects when we have a good partner,” Entzminger said. “We’ll take on those as well where in the end we will have an impact.”
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Read more articles by Anna Mullins.

Anna is a local writer, editor and non-profit administrator. She serves as Managing Editor for High Ground and as the Director of Communications and Marketing for the New Memphis Institute. Share feedback and story ideas with her here.