It is widely understood that the pandemic has interrupted every facet of our lives and that countries around the world are struggling to find a footing. Some, like New Zealand, enacted strict stay at home orders, effectively shutting down their countries for numerous weeks, while the U.S. finds itself in a culture war and offers conflicting advice between various federal and local authorities. Other countries like Sweden have released consistent messaging throughout the pandemic but have largely left it up to their citizens to decide what is best for them. It will be many years before we fully understand the breadth and scope of this crisis and what the best course of action would have been.

For those of us in the U.S., state and municipal governments have largely been left holding the bag in terms of sourcing equipment, finding additional public health and safety professionals, and balancing the economic instability now caused through unprecedented rates of unemployment.

Community organizations and citizens, as a result, have rallied to fill in the gaps where local efforts and federal stimulus packages can’t. For example, the building of new supply chains, the reimagining of classroom and workplace engagement through new channels and supplemental support from parents and neighbors, and the creation of community projects or programs meant to support those affected most by COVID-19.

Now after months of uncertainty, intense mitigation strategies and policies, states are being asked to develop concrete plans to reopen their economies and ensure social distancing guidelines and preventative measures are maintained. On top of all of this, the once stable and burgeoning hubs for innovation and opportunity have now slowed significantly—if not come to a complete halt.

The Innovation Balancing Act

Municipalities have always walked a fine line between pursuing innovation projects and programs and addressing immediate needs. Cities are accountable to their residents and how they spend their funds is often under intense amounts of scrutiny. Additionally, the structure of local and state government can pose unique challenges in terms of the prioritization and stability of innovation initiatives. This includes election cycles and change management struggles due to governance transitions when newly appointed representatives and leaders take office.

What does this currently mean for emerging and established hubs of innovation that are at the mercy of the pandemic and the dramatic but understandable repositioning of focus for cities?

Civic innovation and smart city solutions in general are notoriously difficult to deploy and achieve at scale. Most often, the burden has been carried by the private sector to create models and pilot projects that help cities test, pivot, and adopt new and sometimes untested solutions in a rapidly shifting landscape. But it can’t go unmentioned that the only way that these successes come to fruition is through collaboration with cities and the continued opportunities to do so.

Early and later-stage startups have stepped up to offer agile and unique solutions and models to help cover the gaps left by large industry partners. Two primary examples of these gaps are lengthy project timelines and negotiations, and restrictive municipal or state policies and processes. Bolstered by investor and equity markets and strategic partnerships with industry leaders, startups have created channels of outsourced information and rapid prototyping. This model is beneficial for cities on limited string budgets for untested solutions. It’s also lucrative for startups as they gain customer validation through pilots and potential contracts that are signed as proof of their success and viability.

However, many of these efforts are now deemed non-essential. Cities are aggressively pruning expenses and freezing future projects to focus on core services and lessen the impact of revenue lost during COVID-19.

Doubling Down on Local and Regional Partnerships

Because we are in crisis, creative and lean processes and models should be top of mind. Traditional models and institutions are no longer capable of meeting the needs of the “new normal” and the only way forward is through innovation.

Shelving or dismantling existing projects could prove disastrous later on when inertia sets in and the market has evolved more rapidly than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic forced our hand to actualize solutions that fit a global, remote economy since communities, businesses, and schools are irrevocably changed. This is our tipping point. We need to leverage it to the fullest extent and build resiliency through iterative, actionable solution channels.

Innovation hubs have laid the foundation and proved the value of public-private partnerships in agile venture markets. Now is the time to look critically at the relationships they’ve built and streamline clunky operational processes to create models that make it easy for cities to plug in.

This includes strengthening projects in higher education with students poised to enter the workforce, taking advantage of the academic resources and rigor, and tapping into community and entrepreneurial organizations, such as coworking spaces, incubators, and accelerators.

Texas for instance, has several hubs of innovation including the Geekdom coworking space through its CivTechSA Program and its newly formed Incubator. Others include the Dallas Innovation Alliance’s Civic Innov8 Incubator, the North Texas Innovation Alliance, the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator in Houston, the Impact Hub Austin, and Experimental Civics in Austin.

Yet, Texas is not alone as entrepreneurial and technology innovation hubs have popped up all over the world and cities should look to deepen those relationships as the path to recovery and resiliency unfold. By leveraging agile, iterative partnerships and unique models, innovation hubs consisting of education, startups, and industry partners can maintain or increase traction during this crisis. In distributing the burden of lift, cities can focus more fully on their most important assets—their residents’ safety and economic stability no matter the crisis at hand.