Maine’s image as a mostly rural state, made up of farming towns and coastal villages, should not obscure the equal importance of our urban hubs to the state’s economic and social well-being. Maine has over 500 municipalities, but nearly a quarter of the state’s people and almost half of the jobs are in just 12 of them. These 12 communities also have the highest rates of homelessness, crime and racial tension.

Political leadership of Maine’s largest cities and towns is key to the future of the state, and a whole crop of leaders will be chosen on Election Day next month. Voters will pick the mayors of Portland, Augusta, Biddeford, Lewiston, Auburn, Saco and Westbrook and elect councilors in other communites.

Local elected officials around the world are experimenting with new ways of governing. What can Maine learn from this growing global movement? What can we do to make our communities more innovative, more engaged and more vibrant?

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR INNOVATION?

In today’s global economy, you can’t succeed without innovation. Businesses that fail to keep improving their products or services don’t survive. But those same competitive forces are usually absent in government. Even in the most extreme cases – think Detroit – cities don’t go out of business. They merely stagnate.

City services impact our lives in more ways than just the tax bill. Without trash collection, snowplowing and street maintenance, a city breaks down.

Parks, recreation and libraries enrich our lives. Policing can make a community feel safer or, as we have sadly seen in our nation recently, tear it apart. And our airports, seaports and rail terminals are vital for commerce and tourism. The fact is that city services make or break a city’s quality of life, its safety and security and its commerce.

But now our cities have to respond to new threats such as rising sea levels, international terrorism and increasing immigration.

In response, a growing number of cities in the U.S. have borrowed an idea from the business world: the “chief innovation officer,” or CINO. These cities recognize that innovation requires someone to lead the charge.

Silicon Valley technology firms invented the CINO, but businesses as mainstream as Citibank and Coca-Cola have joined the movement. And it has more recently spread beyond the corporate world. More than two dozen cities across the country have appointed CINOs, as have states including Massachusetts and Colorado.

San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation was launched in 2012, headed by Jay Nath. In the past three years, his office has created “Living Innovation Zones” to pilot new civic projects, while a “Startup in Residence” program enlists entrepreneurs to create technology-based solutions to civic problems. Innovation round tables bring local and national leaders together to help the city “keep pace with what’s next.” And the city’s “open data” program provides the public with unprecedented access to city information. Some cities are using a team approach to innovation called the “i-team,” pioneered by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Startup funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies has helped jumpstart i-teams in several U.S. cities, with measurable results reported by those cities’ mayors. Atlanta’s i-team has reduced homelessness, Chicago’s team has streamlined business licensing, Louisville has sped up rezoning processes, Memphis has revitalized neighborhoods and New Orleans has cut murder rates.

Can Maine’s relatively small cities afford these big-city approaches? We have no choice; we are competing against those very cities for businesses and jobs. What’s more, we should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Maine’s cities and towns together spend more money annually than the entire state government; small increases in local government efficiency, adopted broadly, could pay back the cost of innovation programs many times over.

But Maine can also create its own approach to civic innovation. It might be a shared CINO for a group of cities, such as Portland, Westbrook and South Portland. Or perhaps a CINO shared among our 12 largest communities. Or even a statewide CINO or innovation team to support all of Maine’s municipalities. Our cities also could partner with local colleges to use the skills and creativity of students and faculty. And we can look to Maine’s philanthropic sector to help launch these efforts, just as the Bloomberg Philanthropies has done nationally..

THE CROWD, THE CLOUD AND COMPETITION

Going hand-in-hand with CINOs is the growing use of online innovation contests that unleash the power of competitive crowdsourcing to solve difficult problems. These contests are transforming the way that businesses innovate, from Google to Pepsi to General Electric, and scores of smaller companies, too. They are increasingly used in the federal government, from NASA to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Philadelphia was one of the first U.S cities to launch an on-line innovation contest, called FastFWD, to meet critical public safety needs through entrepreneurial approaches. Contestants anywhere in the world could compete. Ten finalists each received $10,000, training and access to city data. Three winners were then funded from a $100,000 funding pool to pilot their programs in the city: Jail Education Solutions, a computer tablet-based self-driven prison education program; Textizen, a digital platform that enables “anyone with a minute and an opinion” to participate in civic dialogue by text; and Village Defense, which alerts community members of threats through text, phone or email.

So, where are the winners now? Jail Education Solutions successfully piloted its program in Philadelphia’s 8,500-bed prison system, and the company has expanded its work to Pittsburgh, as well as prisons in California and Illinois. An unexpected and welcome result has been that not only are inmates better prepared for life after prison, but prison behavior also has changed for the better. Inmates who either milled around all day, lacking activities, or crammed in large classes around a single TV screen are now quietly engaged in heads-down learning.

Textizen’s Philadelphia pilot gave the city a way to use texting to communicate with released inmates to assist their reintegration into the community. Chicago has since used Textizen to get feedback on a public art plan, and in Palo Alto residents around construction sites and passersby can use Textizen to report problems and get updated info on construction activities. In July, Textizen was acquired by GovDelivery, a provider of cloud-based digital communication solutions to over 1,000 government organizations worldwide.

Village Defense went live nationwide in late 2014 and within two months was being used in around 500 neighborhoods in 160 cities. It’s being called the digital version of the old-fashioned “neighborhood watch.” Community members and police alike are seeing positive results, with more engaged citizens, reduced crime and increased awareness of public safety threats.

POWER OF THE PURSE

While innovation contests may attract inventors and entrepreneurs, getting the average person to engage in civic life is increasingly difficult in today’s fast-paced, information-overloaded world.

One way that cities have drawn their residents into civic involvement is by giving them a role in crafting the city’s budget. The process, known as “participatory budgeting,” was invented in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. Since then it has spread to over 1,000 cities around the world, as well as higher levels of government, schools, universities, housing authorities and other organizations.

Participatory budgeting typically works like this: each city district is allocated a small – but not insignificant – portion of the city’s budget for community development. Neighborhood workshops are held where community members can brainstorm ideas for projects, things like dog parks, free Wi-Fi, bike-sharing, school improvements and such. Volunteer teams are formed to create detailed proposals over a period of weeks or months. Community members then get to vote on which projects will receive funding from the money available.

In the U.S., Chicago paved the way when it adopted participatory budgeting in 2009. Vallejo, California, has been the first to use participatory budgeting citywide, rather than by neighborhood, to direct the use of over $2 million from a dedicated sales tax. New York City started using participatory budgeting in 2011 and now provides over $24 million to nearly half of its 51 districts for participatory budgeting programs. A growing number of other U.S. cities have either adopted or are exploring similar approaches.

An exciting aspect of participatory budgeting is its potential to engage the next generation. Some processes allow community members as young as 12 to participate, from the brainstorming of ideas through voting on the projects. In New York, among residents ages 18 to 24, nearly twice as many participated in participatory budgeting as voted in local elections.

Here in New England, Boston has taken the involvement of youth in participatory budgeting to a new level with the country’s first all-youth initiative. Bostonians ages 12 to 25 are eligible to participate, and the final voting takes place at Million Dollar Vote Fest, an event that is one part democracy in action and one part youth party, with food, entertainment and prizes. The event also includes a voter registration drive to bring young people into the democratic process. Boston’s youth-based participatory budgeting project is part of a larger movement to involve youth in civic life, something that Maine would do well to encourage.

WORKING TOGETHER

These are some of the ways that city leaders can be on the cutting edge. There are others. City ombudsman positions are increasingly used to resolve conflicts and serve as citizen advocates. Some cities are appointing chief resiliency officers to engage community members in addressing threats from sea-level rise to terrorism to disaster preparedness. Some cities have embraced the “lean management” principles that transformed companies in the manufacturing sector. And youth advisory councils are springing up in cities around the U.S.

New ways are emerging for community members to get involved in government, from online methods to moving city council meetings out of City Hall into diverse venues in the community. Why not have the mayor and city council visit every district or neighborhood in the city once a year for an on-the-ground look at problems and opportunities? And end the visit with a neighborhood party?

And last, we must remember that cities rarely exist in a vacuum; they are the hubs of broader metropolitan regions. Here in Maine, we value our independence and local control, but we also need our leaders to reach out to neighboring communities to work together more closely. Maine’s mayors have begun to work together occasionally on common issues; these efforts should continue and be expanded.

If all of Maine’s mayors were working together on a regular basis, they might collectively begin to be a force on a par with state government. In fact, they need to be. Maine is a small state with big challenges. We need our elected leaders learn from the best ideas from around the world, sharing lessons with each other and remembering that all communities in Maine are in this together.