SOUTH BEND — In his final address to the Common Council earlier this month, Mayor Pete Buttigieg invoked a phrase he’s often used when highlighting his goal to spur innovation in municipal government and foster an environment that encourages new ideas.
“We are no longer called a dying city, but a beta city: a national model for innovative practices,” Buttigieg said then.
“Beta city” became Buttigieg’s catch-all for everything from the development of a 311 call line for residents, to new forms of statistical analysis in city functions, to the creation of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.
The term has its roots in software development — beta testing — and was later adopted by startup companies. A beta test is a limited trial where a piece of software is made available to the public or a limited group in an effort to find and eliminate bugs.
For Buttigieg, beta testing in South Bend meant a willingness to rethink the ways things were done in municipal government. His administration also embraced new pilot programs, such as reducing turnover for employers by helping workers find reliable transportation, and helping residents learn new skills and potentially change careers.
There was also the implementation of a program first developed under Buttigieg’s predecessor, Mayor Steve Luecke, to install sensors in the city’s sewer system. The sensors measure water levels and divert excess rainwater though the wastewater system, potentially saving millions of dollars in sewer projects.
In a recent interview, Buttigieg said viewing a mid-sized city such as South Bend as a testing ground for new ideas “in theory could happen anywhere.”
“We have a special combination of challenges as well as resources that make South Bend one of the best cities our size, in the world really, to try to do this,” he said.
Last year, South Bend was awarded $1 million from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge to pilot a program — now called Commuter’s Trust — that helps residents use ride-share services to get to work.
And there’s the ongoing work on a learning initiative — now being called Bendable — developed by California-based Drucker Institute, in partnership with design firm IDEO and the St. Joseph County Public Library. That project is expected to roll out in June 2020, with library staff serving as “the face of Bendable on the ground in South Bend,” said one of its leaders, Rick Wartzman, the former director of the Drucker Institute.
The idea is to curate learning options and support resources for individual users, both online and in learning centers. Support from prominent companies has been a key factor.
“Having Pete’s stamp was hugely important to get funding from Google and Walmart,” Wartzman said. “We’ve woven into the fabric of South Bend and we’ve been welcomed. I think that tone has really started at the top.”
The current head of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, Denise Linn Riedl, said it’s not just high-profile projects that illustrate the city’s embrace of new ideas.
It also comes in applying new models to longstanding city services. One example Riedl gave was a study of 911 call data that the South Bend Fire Department conducted.
“There was a small number of people calling 911 upwards of 20 times a year,” Riedl said. “So the fire department ran a pilot of a community paramedicine program” to gather and analyze data.
Ultimately, that pilot was able to justify the hiring of a full-time community paramedic in the 2020 budget.
Other projects include SB Stat, the Department of Innovation’s effort to gather and analyze data on city services, suggest changes and share the information with the public. That effort has been ongoing since the department was founded by its first head, Santi Garces, who now works for the city of Pittsburgh.
For the co-founders of the local statup generator INVANTI, which supports new ventures that want to tackle social problems, the “beta city” mindset has expanded beyond city government.
“You also have big institutions who are willing to try a pilot program,” said INVANTI co-founder Maria Gibbs. “I don’t know if that’s something they’d do in other places without leadership of a city.”
But her business partner, Dustin Mix, also said the beta city model hasn’t solidified yet in South Bend.
“It’s really nascent. I don’t think it’s self-perpetuating yet. I think our community needs a few more wins from it,” Mix said. “But we also need to take a few hits on the chin with it. We need things that don’t work and we see that it was a good idea that didn’t work out, but say, ‘Here is why it was worth doing.’ ”
One example that Buttigieg pointed to as a good idea that fell short of initial expectations: the consolidated 911 dispatch center, which also involves St. Joseph County and Mishawaka. Technical and software problems plagued the center for years.
There’s also LimeBike, a company that aimed to provide dockless bike-sharing at no cost to the city but later morphed into a electric scooter sharing pilot. The renamed Lime eventually pulled out of South Bend.
Still, Buttigieg believes the “beta city” mindset can stick in South Bend.
“It will be up to future administrations and other community leaders to decide what shape these efforts take on,” he said, “but I believe this will be part of South Bend’s story much longer than my time as mayor.”