David Graham: Pioneering Civic Innovation in San Diego, CA

“When I was a kid, my dad had a secret stash of magazines I wasn’t supposed to know about, hidden in the garage, buried in a box. But I knew where they were, so I’d sneak into the garage and leaf through the pages of those sexy Popular Science magazines because I wanted to know what the future would look like.”

CIO @DavidNGraham discusses how #cities are using civic #innovation to solve problems and improve life for citizens.

Flash forward and David Graham, formerly the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Smart and Sustainable Communities in San Diego and currently the Chief Innovation Officer for the neighboring city of Carlsbad, would find himself in the position of creating the cities of the future. Here is a look at his work pioneering civic innovation in San Diego. 

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse image

The concept of ‘smart cities’ means bringing technological advances to a city that will improve its operations and the quality of life for its citizens. “But I’m going to admit something to you right now,” he says. “Most of our cities are incredibly dumb.” Why? Because there are some major challenges holding them back.

“We have these great technological advances to create things like cleaner mobility,” says David, “but the fundamental building blocks of our cities are still flawed.” When thinking about the challenges that cities face, he likes to think of them as ‘the four horsemen of the metro apocalypse.’

1. Rapid Urbanization

We know that by 2030, a third of the world will live in cities of 500,000 or more. Rapid urbanization means cramming more people into less space.

2. Aging Infrastructure

Around the US, $4 trillion dollars of investment is necessary just to catch up with the underfunded infrastructure investments.

3. Climate Change

Climate change is something that is affecting the entire world. While there are still deniers, even corporate America has come on board. When banks and rating agencies for bonds look and ask about your city, they ask whether the city has sustainability officers, because climate change is a real and specific threat.

4. Cyber Security

The city of San Diego got a million attacks a month on their network, many from known malicious addresses and over a hundred thousand that are verified to be specific attacks on the city. “This is probably our number one threat that we’re facing in cities today, and the one that we are least ready to deal with,” David adds. 

Civic Innovation Is the Solution

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The solution to these problems is found in civic innovation, says David. Broadly defined, it’s the process of co-creating with outside parties in order to strategically use technology and data to solve city problems. To look at it more specifically, we can examine several components and key ideas within the philosophy and process of civic innovation.

Gathering Data

Gathering data is the key to figuring out what’s going on in your city. To do this, San Diego made use of the most mundane of urban objects—the streetlight. 

The streetlight is a fundamental piece of infrastructure that people walk by every day but rarely notice. It helps illuminate the night, thus providing safety and security for citizens. But the fact that streetlights are everywhere and are the perfect height to ‘look down’ on the streets and sidewalks below means that they can contribute so much more to the city than just light.

In San Diego, they decided to replace 14,000 streetlights with not only improved lighting but also a cellular network and sensors, thereby creating the largest municipal internet of things platform ever. Cameras, microphones, environmental sensors, all in one neat package. “The humble street light is now one of the most powerful sensing devices for civic learning that has ever existed,” says David. Some of the many uses are traffic congestion management, improving pedestrian safety, and parking optimization. 

Gathering data is important for civic innovation because it allows city officials to make data-empowered decisions. Data tells the city where it should invest money and can validate whether past money was invested properly.

Changing Bureaucracy from the Inside

Bureaucracy is not known for risk-taking. In fact, it is more known for regulations, restrictions, and lockdowns that prevent innovation. David mentions that to really change our cities, we have to shake that up, and that means “we have to change things from the inside.”

Getting help from outside innovation partners allows the city government to get ideas that they may not have (and possibly would never have) thought up on their own, for these outside partners are the true disrupters, not those within the bureaucracy itself. But truly embracing and implementing the ideas of disrupters means that the bureaucratic mindset has to change—departments and city officials have to be okay with taking risks and even accept the possibility that certain pilots will fail.

“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David. This requires a mindset shift and also a different way of viewing and operating the city.

Co-Creating With Outside Partners

As mentioned above, civic innovation requires the city to partner with individuals and entities that are true disrupters. “They’re the ones that are willing to push the hardest and the furthest, the ones that are willing to try new things and put themselves out there,” says David. While civic innovation happens within the bureaucracy, it must happen in collaboration with startups, academics, and others who have different visions of what a future city may look like. 

For example, David reflects on the changes that have come in the “last mile” transit within San Diego. Light rail and buses take people downtown, but how do these people get to their end destination? Bike share programs were once popular—first docked bikes, then dockless bikes. Now many of these bikes are gone because e-bikes and scooters showed up and have become popular with citizens. The government did not think of these last-mile mobility solutions—the private sector did. However, by embracing these solutions from startups and creative companies, a crucial urban mobility challenge is solved, and the city also reaps benefits such as less pollution and congestion.


“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David.


Another example of partnering with outside parties has to do with solar panels. David recalls that the system for getting a solar panel permit used to be clunky and time-consuming. To improve this, San Diego decided to take a big risk and eliminate the front-end process, essentially relying on the private sector and engineers themselves to self-certify. By taking the government out of the process and “letting industry do what industry does best” solar panel permits skyrocketed, and the city has been able to benefit from less fossil fuel usage and less pollution. 

Co-creation with innovative partners—coupled with the bureaucracy’s shift to becoming more accepting of risk—helps civic innovation flourish.

Engaging the Community

For civic innovation to happen, citizens, themselves must also be part of the process. Younger generations have higher expectations regarding technology and the efficient delivery of services, expectations which are pushing the city to come up with solutions and make the city a more convenient place to live. But successful implementation and adoption require buy-in from the community, and so San Diego has tried many strategies.

One is their open data policy, where all data sets are out there for people to view and play with. Another is transparency. The city seeks to be transparent about what they’re deploying, so citizens understand not only what is happening but also why. For example, before installing sensors on the streetlights, San Diego sought fun and engaging way to bring the community into the conversation. Instead of doing a boring survey, they held a block party. “Basically, we told people to come co-create with us,” says David.

Another example is an app the city created called Get It Done, and which David says “harnesses the awesome power of grumpy people.” The app allows residents to report problems they see in the city, including broken parking meters, potholes, abandoned vehicles and even poop on the sidewalk. How it works is that the request comes into the department, the person who reported the problem gets a message back acknowledging the request and giving a window of time for it to be fixed, then after the problem is fixed, the resident gets a message that it has been fixed, along with a photo proving it. David says that this app increased civic engagement and creates positive interactions with the city. It also saves money and helps residents feel that they have a more responsive and agile government.

Moonshot Ideas 

David says that although San Diego is focused on “doing practical, pragmatic civic innovation” the city also goes for moonshot ideas. “Cities are piloting some of the most amazing ideas that are moonshot,” he says. 

What does David mean by moonshot? As he explains it:

“What do the CAT scan, baby formula, dust buster, computer mouse, memory foam, headphones, selfie stick, and digital camera all have to do with each other? They would not have existed without the space program. All of those things, the fundamental technology for them, came from our desire to go into space and go to the moon. So when you talk about a moonshot, these are the types of things that can come when you set your sights high and then see what innovation can follow.”

San Diego’s moonshot ideas are tied to their climate action plan, which includes 100% renewable energy, 90% diversion of waste from landfills, and 50% of single-vehicle trips changed to walking, biking or alternative modes of transportation. 

“This is really our moonshot,” says David. “And it’s driving a lot of our work. Ambitious big goals that are going to change the way we end up living.”

“What we’re doing in cities is life-changing,” adds David, as he reflects on the civic innovation work being done in San Diego and in other cities around the globe. “LIFE because of quality of life and the way we live. We’re not accepting the same old dirty, polluted, annoying, terrible way of living in our cities. And CHANGING because innovation is powering the next version of what our communities are and can be.”

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company from Formlabs Cofounder Maxim Lobovsky

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company Featured Image

“On the patio, Legal Sea Foods Cambridge, overheard two entrepreneurs pitching low-end 3D printing to VC,” read the tweet. It was sent out by a certain @mkapor, which happened to be Mitch Kapor, a notable angel investor and the founder of Lotus Software. Maxim Labovsky and cofounder David Cranor heard about the tweet that evening, after arriving home feeling discouraged about their 60th failed pitch attempt. Yes, Mitch Kapor was tweeting about them, and their big idea—Formlabs, a technology company with the mission of making 3D printing accessible for mass professional usage.

“We were pretty surprised,” says Maxim. “We laughed about it. Being my skeptical self, I said ‘You know, that’s funny!’ And David said, ‘No, let’s email him.’”

@MaxLobovsky, founder of the #3Dprinting company @Formlabs is sharing tips on how you can build a profitable #tech company too.

Somehow David found Mitch’s email address and sent him a message which asked “Did you hear anything you like?” Mitch responded within a few hours, and they quickly arranged a meeting. A month or two later, after showing Mitch their technology and ideas, he agreed to invest in the company. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, also became excited about the company, and shortly after everything just fell into place, with Formlabs receiving $1.8 million in funding.

As Maxim explains, the lesson for other entrepreneurs is that “you’ve got to put yourself out there and keep trying” no matter how many rejections come your way. This is just one of many lessons Maxim has gathered in his experience of growing Formlabs from an interesting concept into a profitable business of 350 employees worldwide. If you are looking to start your own business too, check out his advice below.

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company

Using fascinating examples from the Formlabs journey, Maxim Lobovsky shares these five lessons for all budding entrepreneurs who are dreaming of building a profitable tech company.

Lesson 1: Find the Gaps in Your Industry

Find the Gaps in Your Industry OG

Eight or 9 years ago there were only a few thousand 3D printers in the world. They were as big as refrigerators, incredibly expensive, and only used in labs of large companies and universities. Then MakerBot emerged on the scene, offering a desktop version marketed to hobbyists and sold at a fraction of the price. What Maxim noticed, though, is that there was still a huge gap in the market.

The desktop machines, although more affordable, were really only for hobbyists; they otherwise didn’t have any professional uses. Seeing this gap, Formlabs set out to build something in between—a best-of-both-worlds 3D printer that was affordable, accessible and could be used in professional applications.

Identifying the gap in the market helped Formlabs raise initial funding, and when they later put the product on Kick Starter, they found there was a huge demand. Identifying a similar in-demand gap in your market could be your ticket to a profitable company.

Lesson 2: Plan Your Company Vision

“You’ll hear a lot of times in startups that you should expect to evolve, pivot, and go through many iterations,” says Maxim. “My view on this ‘pivot and move fast’ thing is that you need to be prepared to do that, but it’s not actually something to strive for.”

As Maxim looks back at his initial pitch deck, he points out that the core of what Formlabs is doing today is essentially the exact same thing they laid out six years ago before they had even built anything. Their sales pitch from those earlier years pointed out that same gap in the market, it discussed the same applications for their 3D printer that are still the major applications today, and it talked about selling the printer to many of the same companies that are Formlabs key customers today. “I’m definitely a fan of slowing things down and really being convinced about your plan rather than just going all in.”

Lesson 3: Buckle Up, It’s a Rollercoaster

Buckle Up, It’s a Rollercoaster OG

In September 2012 Maxim and his co-founders decided to put their product on Kickstarter and as he recollects, “we quickly exceeded even our most optimistic expectations.” Even though Kickstarter was historically more consumer-oriented and lower-price-oriented than their company, they ended up locking $450,000 in pre-orders on the first day, and by the end of the month, they had raised $3 million. Thousands of inquiries were pouring in from potential customers, and the biggest tech media caught wind and started to write about them.

Four to 6 weeks after the Kickstarter experience, things swung in the entirely opposite direction. “We were still recovering,” says Maxim, “then this happened: we got sued by the largest 3D printing company in the world, 3D Systems. The company was suing Formlabs (in a lawsuit that was literally only based on their Kickstarter video) for infringement. 

“People talk about the rollercoaster of startups, that there are emotional highs and lows. I think we had that times ten with that whole series of events,” says Maxim. Becoming an entrepreneur and launching your own company can be unpredictable. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to experience both wins and losses.

Lesson 4: Don’t Let “Advice” Hold You Back

Advisors and investors had a gloomy outlook for the company because of the lawsuit. Maxim and his co-founders were told that they can’t really do a lot when people are afraid about the future of the company. They were told that they couldn’t raise money, hire key people, and acquire more customers because all parties would be worried that the company may go out of business. 

“The advice from all sides was ‘You have to settle immediately. You can’t fight this. You don’t have the money and resources to win,’” says Maxim. The Formlabs founders didn’t like that option because it felt like 3D Systems was essentially telling them to go away or to be acquired for no money. That was not what they were looking to get out of their entrepreneurial venture, so they decided to handle it differently. While the lawsuit was going on, they kept moving forward as if it was business as usual. They sold a lot of machines, hired a lot of people, and even raised a large amount of funding by the end of 2013.

In the end, they won the lawsuit because 3D Systems did not have rights to the stereolithography technology used in the Form 1 3D printer made by Formlabs. The company’s success today can, in part, be attributed to the founders NOT taking the advice of the ‘experts.’

Lesson 5: If You See Opportunities, Jump on Them

At the beginning of 2013, Formlabs made an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an annual event where several hundred thousand people come to learn about new consumer electronics. At CES that year there happened to be a documentary crew that was walking around and had decided to focus on 3D printing. There were a lot of 3D printing companies at the event, and for some reason, the documentary crew found Formlabs and wanted to film them. After the event was over, they asked if they could continue filming.

“We were very close to telling the documentary crew to go away because we were busy building our thing,” says Maxim. However, they agreed to let the documentary crew come to the office to spend more time with them. Over the course of the next year, the documentary crew filmed countless hours of footage of 3D printing companies including Formlabs, 3D Systems, and MakerBot. 


“You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 


The documentary, titled Print the Legend, came out in 2014 and got a coveted first-page spot on Netflix. Suddenly thousands of people interested in 3D printing became aware of Formlabs, a lesser-known company competing against giants. As Maxim calculates, it would have cost $2 million in Google ads to drive the amount of traffic to their website that came from those who saw the documentary. Although some may say this was just luck, Maxim says that they learned a valuable lesson: “If you see opportunities, jump on them.”

Maxim admits that there were a few times when he thinks the company could have accelerated faster than it did, but he wouldn’t really change anything that happened in the process of creating Formlabs. He adds that “You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 

By sticking to the company vision, seizing opportunities, and listening to instinct, Maxim and his co-founders have built a profitable business in one of the hottest areas of modern technology. Follow his advice and you could start building a profitable tech company, too—just make sure to buckle up and hold on for the ride.