Akron's Chief of Staff Tells Cleveland Leaders to 'Get Your Shit Done' at FlashStarts Event


  • Flashstarts
Clevelanders need not look longingly to the coasts for dynamic civic leadership. Indeed, just forty minutes south, a new cadre of Akron leaders are shaking up the city and pitching old-school leadership to solve new problems.

"The disruptive innovation that needs to take place in Northeast Ohio," said James Hardy, Akron's Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff, "is common sense. It's as simple as checking one's ego at the door and recognizing that we're not going to solve infant mortality with an app. We're not going to solve economic despair with some sort of innovation that comes out of anywhere but the systems that created it. We have to change the systems, radically, if we want to see innovation."

Hardy spoke as part of the Flashstarts "Pitch NEON" event Monday night, a Tedx-style series of presentations featuring local start-ups and innovators in the civic and corporate spheres. Both Bernie Moreno and Jon Pinney were on the roster, speaking about the Blockland initiative. MetroHealth's CEO Dr. Akram Boutros presented too. He was the only speaker without an accompanying PowerPoint and spoke, unexpectedly, about the innovation on display at the Bernie Moreno Companies. The Urban League of Greater Cleveland's Marsha Mockabee and Kent State University President Beverly Warren were among the other high-profile presenters.

A few of the early-stage companies that have participated in the FlashStarts accelerator — Vlipsy, Hedgemon and Unbox the Dress — gave slick presentations that showed real promise and potentially game-changing innovations in their respective fields.

But the star of the evening — from Scene's perspective — was Hardy, who admitted that he could barely use his cell phone but stressed that civic innovation generally isn't about technology.

James Hardy, speaking at Flashstarts' Pitch NEON event, (9/10/18). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • James Hardy, speaking at Flashstarts' Pitch NEON event, (9/10/18).
"I always hear that tech can solve 90 percent of my problems. An app will solve 90 percent of Akron's problems," he joked. "But when I see cities innovating in the modern economy, it's more like 10 percent. The other 90 percent is getting your shit done."

(The title of Hardy's presentation was "G.S.D.," i.e., Getting Shit Done.)

He cited a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Enquirer, which suggested — his paraphrasing — that "one of the most subversive and innovative things cities can do is maintain their shit."

He offered the Akron Civic Commons project as evidence, an example of multiple public agencies sharing their budgets and strategizing how to spend effectively with public input.

"There's this obsession with collaboration," Hardy said, admitting he's grown weary of Summit County leaders touting how well they collaborate. An identical situation exists in Cuyahoga County. Leaders love celebrating the region's collaborative spirit, despite the dismal outcomes their collaborations have produced. ("Rhapsodizing about public private partnerships," we wrote this summer, "is more or less [the Greater Cleveland Partnership's] posture in repose.")

"It sounds wonderful, doesn't it?" Hardy said. "If only we had shared interests and efforts, everything would be fine!"

But he said collaboration wasn't enough. For cities to succeed, they must move from collaboration to coordination, not just sharing interests but organizing people and groups so that they actually work together.

Brad Whitehead, the President of the local Fund for our Economic Future, was on to something similar when he opined in the Plain Dealer in July that what the region needed, more than new big ideas, was "greater civic alignment and commitment to implementation at scale."

Hardy said that Akron's recent systemic changes have been spurred by "once-in-a-generation" shifts in regional leadership. There is now a new mayor, a new Summit County Executive and a new president of the local chamber of commerce.

Under this new triumvirate, Akron has completed a joint strategic plan across all three entities that "de-duplicates, strategizes how we're going to deploy our funds so that no one spends money that somebody else is spending, and reorganizes ourselves to focus on local growth — innovation and entrepreneurship — in an inclusive economy." 

Just being willing to be transparent about one's budget and coordinating with other agencies' budgets, Hardy said, has been pretty transformative. 

Lastly, Hardy suggested that the region should dispense with its "ridiculous notion" that each city in the region is its own entity that competes with its neighbors.

"No one else does this," he said. "We've got to get over this generational bull that says that whatever happens in Cleveland can't happen in Akron and whatever happens in Akron can't happen in Cleveland and oh, by the way, at least we're not Youngstown. That's never going to build this region. We're in it together."

It was a Ted-style talk, and Hardy offered a slam-dunk conclusion that we won't try to improve upon. "We've seen a lot of apps today, and that's wonderful," he said. "But in the civic space, nothing replaces systemic change that's aligned, coordinated and focused on real people solving real problems." 

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