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Philly, let’s steal an idea | Opinion

Cities have become the last bastion of practical problem-solving. That's why we're awarding $50,000 for the Jeremy Nowak Urban Innovation Award.

Community members and leaders gathered in November 2018 for the Philadelphia Citizen's first annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival, to identify promising ways to tackle issues like gentrification and abandoned lots across the city.
Community members and leaders gathered in November 2018 for the Philadelphia Citizen's first annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival, to identify promising ways to tackle issues like gentrification and abandoned lots across the city.Read moreSABINA LOUISE PIERCE

By the year 2050, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will live in cities. By necessity, then, at a time when the federal and state governments seem to be increasingly AWOL, cities have become the nation’s best hope for innovation and progress. We don’t have the luxury of ideology. By default, cities have become the last bastion of practical problem-solving.

That’s why the Philadelphia Citizen, the nonprofit solutions-oriented news site I co-founded three years ago, convened our first annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival before a packed crowd last month at Drexel University. Sponsored by, among others, Comcast NBCUniversal, FS Investments, Campus Apartments and the United Way, we brought in innovators from cities across the nation and around the globe, to share what’s worked elsewhere.

There were some bold-faced names you’d recognize: Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) and former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman (a Republican) made us nostalgic for a time when Democrats and Republicans didn’t vilify one another, and the Reverend Michael Eric Dyson talked about hope as a balm in these troubled times. But there were also folks you’d never heard of, who are making real inroads on seemingly intractable problems like the opioid epidemic, gentrification, and income inequality.

Our mission is not just to chronicle what’s wrong, but also to air how to fix things. To that end, we asked all in attendance and all who visited our site since to vote for the top three ideas presented at the Festival. And now we’re announcing a Request for Proposals from individuals or groups who want to steal one of those ideas and bring it here. We’ll award one proposal $50,000 for the Jeremy Nowak Urban Innovation Award, named for our founding Chairman, courtesy of social impact venture Spring Point Partners.

Over 3,000 Philadelphians voted, and here are the three ideas that carried the day:

1) Mitigate Displacement in Developing Neighborhoods. In Portland, activist Cat Goughnour involves existing communities in how their neighborhoods develop, as a way to help keep people in their homes.

2) Ease the Tension of Gentrification with Storytelling…and Bikes. Detroit-based Pedal to Porch recruits residents to share stories about their neighborhood to participants traveling by bike from house to house.

3) Fight Gun Crime with Pocket Parks. Penn professors and the Horticulture Society have turned abandoned lots in North Philly into pocket parks, reducing crime and improving mental health. “Make it a citywide program,” suggested Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

The award process behind the Nowak Urban Innovation Award will summon the spirit of the late Jeremy Nowak, a civic icon who was all about practical problem-solving. The “business for good” mantra might be all the rage nowadays, but Nowak was ahead of the curve. With a $10,000 grant, he founded the Reinvestment Fund in the 1980s, a financial institution that raises money from corporations and wealthy individuals and lends to developers who build affordable housing and grocery stores in distressed neighborhoods. The result? Over $1 billion of equitable urban development.

Philadelphia needs more of that kind of disruptive, moonshot thinking, which is why we want to highlight, and invest in, a new generation of Jeremy Nowaks. “The future belongs to the problem-solvers,” Nowak wrote, with Drexel’s Bruce Katz, in The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive In The Age of Populism.

Prove him right by applying for the first annual Nowak Urban Innovation Award. To apply, send a two page overview to that includes who you are and who you plan to partner with; what problem you seek to solve, and which of the three solutions from above you want to bring here; the scope, scale, and key benchmarks of your project; a budget; and how you’ll measure impact.

Applications are due by the end of the day on January 18, and we’ll announce a winner February 1, chosen by a committee that includes The Citizen, members of the Nowak family, and civic and philanthropic leaders. Find out more at

Larry Platt, former editor of Philadelphia Magazine and the Philadelphia Daily News, is co-founder of the Philadelphia Citizen.