Civic Innovation: An Ecosystem Bigger Than Tech Tools and Expertise

The field of civic innovation can only flourish if it successfully includes non-traditional contributors.

by Rachel Burstein, Data-Smart City Solutions / July 3, 2013

Chances are that if you’re reading this you’re engaged in the civic innovation space, even if you don’t use that term explicitly. Perhaps you’re a technologist who hopes to create civic tools based on datasets publicly released by a city. Maybe you’re a local government staffer who seeks to create greater efficiencies in service delivery based on a comprehensive evaluation of performance metrics. Perhaps you’re a community organizer pushing for the adoption of more participatory models of governance in local government. Or you might be a foundation professional hoping to leverage your investment in a community initiative by soliciting matching grants from local businesses. Maybe you’re a resident passionate about increasing social connectedness between neighbors.

If you occupy any of these roles, you’re part of the civic innovation field. But what precisely does that field look like, and what value does defining it as a cohesive space have? What is its potential as a conceptual framework? These are the questions that the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project set out to answer in our recently released white paper, The 2050 City: What Civic Innovation Looks Like Today -- and Tomorrow based on interviews with nearly twenty leading thinkers and practitioners in the field.

The answers are not simple. After all, the term “civic innovation” can be alienating to key constituencies. The local government staffer often associates it with tech tools that are outside of her budget and that do not always address the problems that she is trying to solve. In the term, the community organizer may perceive an outsized role of a government that has historically marginalized the groups that he is trying to empower. And the resident rolls her eyes at yet another instance of the use of the buzzword “innovation” in public discourse.

Given such reactions, it’s difficult to develop a single, cohesive definition for civic innovation. Yet the space -- whatever we choose to call it -- can be an enormously powerful one in improving the lives of residents’ through deepened relationships with a more adaptive and responsive government. The trick is to recognize that the field is a vast ecosystem in which different groups assume prominence in relation to the value that they offer at any given moment and the specific goals that the larger whole are trying to achieve. Civic innovation is not a collection of projects or people. It is a mess of interrelated, sometimes warring parts whose unique skill sets, experiences, perspectives and visions can complement one another.

Understanding civic innovation as an ecosystem requires a rethinking of who can offer value in this space. Too often civic innovation’s promoters focus on one-off projects requiring technical skills -- the opening of data to a public that can’t always make use of it, or the sponsorship of a hackathon at which a host of new apps are developed, for example. But the civic innovation field can only flourish and grow if it also includes the resident, the community group, the non-tech focused governmental worker, the local business leader and others as equal partners, consulted not as a formality, but because these other groups have something to contribute.  

While this model of interaction and collaboration between actors in the civic innovation ecosystem is still far from the norm, a number of initiatives demonstrate the potential of this approach. The City of Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund program provides grants for community-driven projects to address the digital divide and empower underserved communities to participate in civic life. Community groups must demonstrate their own commitment to the work through assigning resources to the initiative. The result is a real partnership between government, residents and non-profits. The City and County of Honolulu’s project to turn the traditional hackathon on its head by enlisting residents in a “write-a-thon” to crowdsource the development of answers to frequently asked questions about city government and services demonstrates the powerful role that citizens can play in improving their communities and resulted in a better and more useful product than would have been possible if technologists or government staffers were the only ones consulted.

These civic innovation initiatives are more than stand-alone projects. Rather, they are the products of deep relationships with the power to create real institutional change beyond the specific outputs that they aim to deliver. By engaging different stakeholders, celebrating the contributions that each can offer, and acknowledging the resources that are required to make such work successful, they suggest a path forward for the civic innovation community. We need to think beyond the introduction of tech tools and toward a vast, varied, and evolving civic innovation ecosystem capable of employing technologies and other tools to improve residents’ lives.

This story was originally published by Data Smart Solutions.