Looking Back, Looking Forward with the City of Carlsbad Office of Innovation & Economic Development

January 28, 2021

Innovation is a key to success at the City of Carlsbad. As the new year begins, the Office of Innovation & Economic Development (OIED) is reflecting on how civic innovation has been critical to the city’s COVID-19 response. And in that spirit, the team reviews what lies ahead for the City of Carlsbad and how continuous improvement and increased investment in innovation can be extremely beneficial for the future of the city, its businesses, and its residents.


Businesses, residents, and city staff value innovative solutions as a way to continuously improve the city. The City of Carlsbad’s Chief Innovation Officer, David Graham, notes that “innovation is about curiosity, understanding, and approaching, and by fostering innovation, cities and businesses together can create an environment that encourages advancement and improvement.”



Engage, Engage, Engage

An area of prime opportunity for innovation is improving methods of civic engagement. Community participation guides the city’s decision making, often illuminating things that need to be changed and how the city might develop the most effective responses. As we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the needs of a community can change quickly and dramatically. and being one of two cities in its population range in California to win this award.


Graham suggests “having a high degree of civic engagement leads to being able to better identify challenges and deploy innovation principles and technology to solve those problems.” Innovation through civic engagement has been a driving force within the City of Carlsbad. Increased investment in innovative civic engagement techniques look to be a part of the city’s core mission in the long term. He also highlights that the most innovative aspect of a city is its people, who bring important perspectives, feel valued when they are able to join the conversation, and notice key changes based on their needs. It’s all about democratizing ideas, stresses Graham, which is what the city has worked to achieve so far and will continue to pursue.



Tech as a Tool

One significant tool that the City of Carlsbad uses to foster innovation is the creative use of new technologies. City departments rely on advanced technology solutions to meet the unique needs and challenges of the organization. Graham notes the importance of data and using it to guide what the city needs to attend to and how it should focus its efforts. By acquiring emerging technologies and utilizing useful systems already in place, city employees can analyze data to promote effective and efficient decision making. The city’s Business Intelligence and Data Science Manager, David van Gilluwe, and his team utilize emerging technology and established data tools to effectively harness and visualize key metrics. He notes that technology can help the city’s teams use information and data collected throughout the organization to drive innovation, which in turn improves the services the city provides to residents and businesses.


Looking Back: Innovation Everywhere

Needless to say, 2020 posed major unforeseen challenges. People around the world were forced to make significant changes in the way they live and work. As COVID-19 turned the world upside down, the City of Carlsbad turned to innovation to quickly pivot and meet the needs of residents. Days into the first mass closure of Carlsbad businesses, OIED collaborated with other city departments, including GIS, Communications, and the Emergency Operation Center to stand up a current map of restaurants still open that had adapted for COVID-19. One of the first maps of its kind in the region, it included which restaurants and local businesses were open and their operating hours. The map was promoted through social media and was hosted on the city’s website, proving to be a valuable tool for residents and local businesses.


Using feedback from community surveys, coordination with the city’s partners, and innovative thinking, OIED partnered with the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, Visit Carlsbad, and the Carlsbad Village Association to set up the Gift Carlsbad, which encourages the purchase of gift cards from local businesses with an economic multiplier effect bringing immediate and direct relief to businesses.


The OIED team was also able to quickly set up the City of Carlsbad Business Loan Program (The Carlsbad Small Business Loan Program, which was created as a COVID-19 pandemic relief program, concluded on Feb. 28, 2023), allocating over $4 million to local businesses in a fraction of the time it would have taken banks to create a similar program. Recommendations for the structure of the loan program came directly from the business community. Rapid change and innovation in the government space requires clear goals, engagement, and continuous communication. The OIED team used regular Zoom workshops and online surveys to get feedback on what products would be most effective. Matt Sanford, City of Carlsbad’s Economic Development Manager, says that “Carlsbad companies shared their biggest challenges related to COVID-19 and the city listened. Through surveying and directing conversations, businesses said they needed financial relief more than anything else to get them through the pandemic. In response, the city quickly setup a small business loan program, committing $4.4 million to go to loan products.” The city’s innovation efforts have shined through in this program with the use of ongoing surveying, data collection, and quarterly economic analysis to determine business needs and provide effective and timely solutions.



Not only has the city been innovative in its approaches to COVID-19 response, but it has also used unique approaches to develop improved services for residents and businesses. For many different purposes, OIED forms cross-departmental teams to evaluate problems and use mixed datasets to gain insights and develop solutions. For example, city employees from different departments collectively coordinate to understand fire department data. A team was formed to assist the fire department in better understanding fire station utilization and average response in real-time. This data informs city staff on how to most effectively use the city’s resources to provide a more efficient fire department response to incidents throughout the city. By combining data collection and analysis with the use of mapping programs and tools, the city has been able to understand its fire response within a relatively short amount of time and take actionable steps to best improve the response based directly on the data.


The city also created a live Capital Improvement Dashboard, where the community can see exactly what capital projects are in the works and where they are located, as well as developed a traffic management system that is completely connected and centralized at one location, allowing for better flow of traffic and improved mobility and congestion analysis throughout the city. These are just a few of many innovative projects that were developed in large part due to community engagement and collaboration that continue to make Carlsbad a great place to live and work.


Innovation in Carlsbad is truly a community characteristic, as ideas and solutions come both from the city residents and city staff. Within the city, departments have continued to bring in new talent and interns just beginning their career. New and old faces collaborate and learn from each other in order to constantly foster new innovative insights. Van Gilluwe says that “one of the bright spots of 2020 was that city employees were able to teach over fifteen of their colleagues to better command their data and develop their own insights. We are already starting to see improved effectiveness and better decision making internally when data is democratized.”



Looking Forward: Innovation Never Stops

Looking forward, the city will continue to use innovation to develop new solutions with emergent tools and technology in an effort to continually provide what residents and businesses need.


Van Gilluwe believes that the city’s long-term goals will involve continuation of its current philosophy of constant process and services improvement, all while listening to and engaging with the community to understand what they need and the priorities. To be able to do this, city staff are focusing on innovative ways to sustainably and efficiently use existing resources and emerging technology as community needs grow and change. There are many civic innovation projects already in the works for early 2021, including a project that allows city staff to engage more directly with local businesses. This will be used to work with new businesses as strategic partners as they start or continue operations in Carlsbad.



City teams are hopeful for the future based on the trajectory and value of community engagement as has been experienced through such a unique year as 2020. From pivoting to a completely remote workforce within thirty days, to providing critical programs and assistance for small businesses, to focusing on new services for the community, the City of Carlsbad has proven that innovation can change the way a city operates.


David van Gilluwe says that “one of the things that’s so amazing about City of Carlsbad is its ability to want to be better, to want to think outside of the box, and to want to push forward with new innovative solutions. It’s a unique place that not only fosters innovation but also actively supports it. It’s an exciting place to be, an exciting place to work, and an exciting place to collaborate with local businesses because they also have that same spirit. Carlsbad is the place for innovation. We see it in the private sector, government sector, and within the fabric of our community.”