Defining Urban’s Next50

The Urban Institute was founded during a time of crisis. In the late 1960s, many Americans were suffering profound hardships and injustice. Youth activism, civil disobedience, protest demonstrations, and outbreaks of violence dominated the news and drove deep divisions along lines of age, race, gender, and political affiliation.

But many believed in the government’s potential to tackle big problems. It was in this spirit that Lyndon Johnson founded the Urban Institute. “This is an exciting day for the Nation and for me,” the president said on April 26, 1968. He continued:

You have launched something America has needed and wanted for a long time. It is a new Urban Institute. It will promise to give us the power through knowledge to help solve the problem that weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us—the problem of the American city and its people.

Over our first 50 years, Urban has lived up to this promise, bringing evidence to bear on discussions in city halls and the halls of Congress and in neighborhood centers and corporate headquarters. Our work has helped reveal discrimination, expand access to health care, support progressivity and fairness in the tax system, and improve the efficacy of hundreds of programs that support the well-being and life fortunes of Americans and their families.

Fifty years on, in 2018, our country faces an equally fraught moment. Despite significant achievements in the battle against poverty and racism, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. Many Americans face steep barriers to economic security and see few prospects for their children to do better. And a level of polarization not seen for a century threatens progress on injustices so long at the center of the American story.

As Urban looks ahead to our next 50 years, we’re asking ourselves what our nation will need from us in the decades ahead. How can we continue to give changemakers inside and outside government the power through knowledge to help solve the problems weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of Americans?

We want to stretch ourselves beyond what we already know. So we’re focusing on the implications of accelerating changes in technology, in the global economy, in climate, and in the increasingly diverse composition of our population. With generous support from the Citi Foundation, we’re exploring issues and ideas beyond our current expertise to learn how these forces of change play out across four key areas:

  • Learning, earning, and work
  • Individual and family well-being
  • Where we live
  • Democracy and governance

And we’re homing in on big questions that challenge us to imagine what it would take to boost mobility and equity. Across each question, we’re asking the following:

  • Who are the exciting changemakers?
  • What solutions are they designing, testing, and advocating?
  • What knowledge gaps stand in their way?

And what might success look like? How can we create the power through knowledge to ensure millions more people benefit from the dynamism that the future promises and that their ideas and priorities shape solutions?

We’re not doing this work by sitting in our offices reading the research literature or going to academic conferences to talk to other scholars. Instead, we’re reaching out to on-the-ground practitioners, state and local governments, private business leaders, advocates, and philanthropists. Over the coming months, we’ll share what we learn from them and offer ambitious ideas for knowledge building that can accelerate solutions in the years ahead. And we will use this blog to engage top thinkers, learn from leaders who are testing promising solutions, and highlight important emerging trends.

Next50 is an exploration. What we learn and share here builds on our knowledge and experience and ventures beyond the boundaries of where Urban has been before to shape our approach and our contributions for many years to come.

An America that asks questions—that faces up to challenges, embraces new ideas and evidence, and follows the most rigorous thinking wherever it leads—will be well positioned to thrive. Such curiosity defines us at our best. Urban is a direct outgrowth of that questioning spirit. Welcome to the conversation.