National Learning Collaborative

In an effort to accelerate learning and collaboration within and between cities across the U.S. that are trying to build out their respective entrepreneurial ecosystems, Forward Impact is helping launch a national learning collaborative starting with the cities of Durham, New Orleans, and Cleveland.   

The scale and complexity of the social challenges facing our world and inner cities are outpacing the innovative solutions to address them. We are in need of catalytic environments that inspire a new breed of community change-makers, and strengthen and accelerate the impact of their ideas.  Fortunately, several cities are trying to build out these “innovation ecosystems”- cities like New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Durham, Providence, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, and Louisville to name a few.  Yet, as each of these cities experiments with strategies to catalyze their local innovation economies, they are often working in isolation from one another.

Recognizing the opportunity for cross-city collaboration, a group of national partners led by Forward Impact and including the Urban Institute, the Aspen Institute, SOCAP, and Urban Innovation Exchange, are launching a robust learning collaborative between a small number of committed cities that will: a) strengthen networks and entrepreneurial activity within the participating cities, b) foster best practice sharing, relationship building, and entrepreneurial activity between the cohort cities, and c) serve as a dynamic knowledge resource for other cities that are looking to build out their innovation ecosystems.

Through the collaborative we will wrestle with such questions as: What are effective strategies for developing, recruiting, and retaining next generation problem solvers in a city (including engaging a diverse cross-section of local citizen problem solvers)? What programs, physical spaces, events, and investment strategies spark innovation and help accelerate the growth and connection of local civic entrepreneurs? What are the appropriate metrics and realistic methods to measure impact? How can we better connect policy-makers, the media, universities, think tanks, and corporations, to the entrepreneurial conversation? And, how can we tell these stories better locally and nationally through new media? As several of us have tried to address different aspects of these questions, we have learned a lot, stumbled a few times, and seen promise in the road ahead – but now it’s time to come together and learn from one another to answer these questions and realize our cities' fullest potential.

Proposed Learning Collaborative: While we are collectively committed to intentionally cultivating our local entrepreneurial communities, the approach each city is taking to eco-system building is different. With this in mind, we are developing a two-year pilot program with the following aspects:

1. Cross-city convening:

Learning, networking and collaboration always begin with relationship building. With this in mind, we plan to convene small teams of the top innovative leaders and successful change entrepreneurs from each of the participating cities. This will take place through four different facilitated retreats that will rotate between each of the participating cities. These convenings will have several goals: 1) allow the host city to showcase its own innovation ecosystem (the good, the bad, and the promising), 2) establish relationships between like-minded innovators in respective participating cities; 3) share current strategies, models and visions for each city’s future community and economic development; and 4) explore ways to share this knowledge with other cities in the US, and beyond. To enrich the conversation and broaden perspectives, these convenings will include our national thought-leading partner organizations such as the Urban Institute and the Aspen Institute, in addition to others interested in this type of work such as IBM Smarter Cities, Living Cities and CEOs for Cities, as well as entrepreneurial support organizations working in, and across, cities such as Ashoka and the HUB. Based on input and interest, we will also explore other opportunities to connect and collaborate including follow up gatherings and meetings with content area experts, as well as potential site visits to other cities that would enrich the design of these community change models (particularly within a global context). 

2. Open Knowledge Platform: 

To facilitate shared learning across a global network of cities and regions, we plan to launch an open knowledge platform that will document lessons learned from the collaborative including multi-media profiles of each of the participating cities (see as a model for a city profile of local innovation). The site will also include a discussion of best practices gleaned from other communities developing innovation eco-systems such as Indianapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Helsinki, London, Toronto, and others as well as community building models, tools, and strategies. Gained knowledge will be curated, shared, and continuously contributed to, and through, an online forum. In addition, this learning will be shared, and the most successful innovative leaders will be showcased, on a national and international scale through various conferences around the country such as the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival and the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference in San Francisco (country’s largest social impact conference). 

3. Entrepreneurial Collaboration and Networking:

The more we understand each other’s communities the more we can help connect the dots. Given that we are all working with a robust cluster of civic innovators and social entrepreneurs, opportunities to connect them with one another and start up new collaborations abound. For example: education reform leaders in New Orleans will connect and work with education leaders in Detroit; health care and bio tech entrepreneurs in Cleveland will connect with those in Durham. This collaborative effort will also be on the constant look out to expand our entrepreneurs’ networks by looking for business development opportunities, talent recruitment, potential board members, and/or investors. 

4. Collaborative Programming: 

As we learn from one another, we will also explore opportunities for collaborative programming. For instance, is there an investment challenge that might receive entries from entrepreneurs across cities? Is there an opportunity to create a multi-city social innovation fellowship program? There are several creative possibilities in this area. 

5. Advocacy and Measurement:  

 The impact of this collaborative and the economic and community impact will be measured through a partnership with Urban Institute and its National Neighborhood Indicators Partners (NNIP). Through rich local economic and community development, there are opportunities to educate respective key stake-holders, who can become powerful advocates for this movement (i.e. city officials, universities, chambers of commerce, local foundations, etc.), on relevant best practices from all of the participating cities. And, there are many opportunities to share tools/technology/ideas about how to gather data on the positive economic and social impact local entrepreneurs and change-makers are having on our cities. 

Project leads, Forward Impact and Friends of New Orleans, have established working partnerships with the Urban Institute, the Aspen Institute's Forum for Community Solutions and Issue Media Group/UIX, to carry out this project. In addition, Social Capital Markets (or SOCAP - the largest social impact conference in the U.S.) has committed to featuring the collaborative at their September 2013 conference in San Francisco, on their web platform and across their network. 

For more information, please contact:  

Christopher Gergen, CEO of Forward Impact (

Denise Byrne, Founding Board Member and Acting Exec. Director of Friends of New Orleans (