Forward Cities is a cross-city learning collaborative designed to foster inclusive innovation and entrepreneurial development in traditionally underserved neighborhoods in Cleveland, OH, Detroit, MI, Durham, NC, and New Orleans, LA. The Urban Institute conducted research through October 2016 aimed to show that Forward Cities made progress on four interim outcomes intended to lay the groundwork for increasing the number of successful minority entrepreneurs.

The initial pilot ran from June 2014 to June 2016, though many activities have continued past the pilot’s formal completion. This report is intended to help people plan cross-city efforts to mobilize local leadership for community action and economic development. An interim report published in February 2016 assessed the progress of the Forward Cities pilot during the first half of the initiative, finding that the four participating cities made initial steps toward the intended final outcomes. The report looked ahead to the next year of the pilot and described steps that could make the initiative a success.

This report builds upon the earlier research to document the achievements of Forward Cities over the two-year pilot initiative. The authors provide an overview of the pilot’s goals and staffing. They also describe its main activities, including cross-site convenings and the local work of the innovation councils. They next assess how Forward Cities advanced four key outcomes that support minority entrepreneurship. Finally, the authors report on the innovation councils’ plans to continue efforts beyond the pilot and offer recommendations for designing future multicity networks to spur inclusive entrepreneurship.

Major Findings & Recommendations

  • Group discussions over the pilot featured many interesting programs, but without a focus on how to help organizations evaluate their effectiveness. Given the imperative to reduce economic disparities, local stakeholders should invest in the strategies that have the most payoff.
  • The Racial Equity Institute raised questions for some interviewees about how programs serving entrepreneurs should be adapted for minority individuals and communities in the face of structural inequalities, such as more limited access to capital and professional networks.
  • There is a need for more sophisticated measurement of entrepreneurship and the systems that foster innovation. Many exciting new data resources have improved our ability to measure Forward Cities desired outcomes at the regional or national level, including the Kauffman Startup Index, the Innovation Index, and the Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs. But local research partners in Forward Cities had difficulty assembling current neighborhood-level data on local businesses and minority ownership.
  • Local and state governments have a role to play in collecting business data and providing neighborhood-level indicators directly or indirectly through research partners.
  • More research is needed on measuring the components of the regional systems that support entrepreneurship. The report’s qualitative research provides some information, but it needs to be supplemented with quantitative measures.
  • The actions of city, county, and state governments can foster or hinder opportunities for entrepreneurs.
  • Similar initiatives in the future should share more examples of public policies that foster a supportive ecosystem and remove barriers for minority entrepreneurs and business corridors.
  • Local councils could provide a platform for advocacy for effective government action that would provide a solid foundation for other philanthropic and nonprofit efforts.