Fifty years ago the intellectual pioneer Jane Jacobs wrote in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “designing a dream city is easy… rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Those words capture the essential challenges faced by government leaders entrusted with managing how communities are built. The remarkable relevance of these words stayed with me over the past decade in my work with governments across America, and as I embarked on a research endeavor focused on how government leaders finance the infrastructure of communities and the role civic technology can play to lend transparency to that process.
The two protagonists at the center of this story are: a government leader and their community. Government leaders are charged with making decisions about how critical infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools) is built and paid for. Citizens see the fabric of their communities change over time but often lack an understanding of the process behind strategic decisions. This lack of transparency has heightened importance when a city declares bankruptcy, as occurred in Detroit, and an ethos of confusion over the magnitude of fiscal distress and future capital investment becomes tenable.
I asked myself – how could I develop a body of work that empowers communities and citizens to bridge the information gap with each other? I answered that question by writing a book that explains how communities finance America. It presents an inside view of the decision-making process when leaders finance and build projects, and ways to understand the fragmented data points for communities as financial actors. Fueled by my desire for this book to be a living resource, I developed technology simulations, powered by Microsoft, that place the reader in the seat of a government leader to experience that process.
The technology simulations offer dynamic visualizations of communities as engines of growth and change. For example, the following PowerMap® simulation presents public projects financed in communities, their funding source, and the community’s fiscal profile (i.e. pensions, taxes, expenses, debt):
The time-lapsed trajectory presents a community as a market participant, visualizing fiscal hotspots, disinvestment, impending challenges, revenues, credit quality, and other elements alongside its peers. The PowerView® simulations I developed complement that; by providing a single screen that communicates the story of a community’s infrastructure financing history for a ten year horizon:
The simulations have the potential to be living histories of communities across America. My goal is to provide the simulations as stand-alone resources that governments can use to transform the static narrative of their community in dynamic ways. With these tools communities will be empowered to share their discoveries with each other, present how they make decisions to meet critical needs, and engage citizens in a dialogue around their trajectory of change.
These resources have the potential to dissolve information divides that appear insurmountable and allow remarkable results to occur: citizens can learn about the foundation of their communities; governments can learn from each other; and strategic government finance policy decisions can be informed by a new perspective. In this way, civic technology can engender government transparency globally, allowing for a highly fragmented landscape of data and information to be transformed.
For the past 10 years, Lourdes German has led initiatives for global companies, with a steadfast commitment to municipal government finance, and the transparency and integrity of that market. After starting her career as an attorney advising government leaders in the public finance group at the international law firm Edwards Wildman, Lourdes joined Fidelity Investments as a Vice President to help create a new national business division focused on government public finance, where she first discovered a passion for entrepreneurism and civic engagement. As a natural self-starter, Lourdes leveraged her expertise and capacity to execute large scale initiatives following Fidelity in a number of settings, including: developing the strategy that guided an investment management company’s entry into sustainable investing for the municipal securities asset class, as Vice President and General Counsel at Breckinridge Capital Advisors; creating and teaching a graduate curriculum in government public finance as a professor at Northeastern University; advising non-profit organizations focused on urban economic growth and social impact investing; and founding a software company singular in its commitment to bringing transparency and access to municipal securities data. Following these experiences, Lourdes translated her capacity for innovation and passion for government into a manuscript for the book, How Communities Finance America, which will present a comprehensive understanding of how the public finance market works and offer a unique window into how government leaders make decisions via technology simulations, powered by Microsoft, that can enhance the future of government transparency. Technology simulations in development include a visualization of the global Green Bonds landscape for environmental projects developed with World Bank data, and a visualization with NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) Group data that examines the architecture and structure of the markets communities rely on for liquidity when they finance capital projects.