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Freedom to Fail: 4 Takes on Government Innovation Labs

Running an innovation lab in the public sector can be a tricky prospect, here’s how four governments are handling the challenge.

Ask a technology executive what “innovation” means and you probably won’t get a fast, succinct or even very useful answer. Innovation is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Nevertheless, government has started to experiment with innovation labs. While there seems to be no hard data, most observers say the trend is growing. And it’s happening at all levels of government: state, county, municipal and even school districts. But the concept of an innovation lab — a place where risky, out-of-the-box ideas are given space to grow, succeed and sometimes fail — is at odds with traditional government operations. Government likes clearly defined missions and measurable goals. Because it’s responsible for spending taxpayer dollars wisely, it shies away from risky ventures. This all makes running an innovation lab within government a tricky prospect.

To explore how governments are handling the challenge, Public CIO looked at four labs at various government levels. Each has a different model, a different goal and different sources of funding. Each uses different criteria to select projects. Each measures success differently. The one thing they all have in common: Each is trying to push the limits of traditional government bureaucracy by infusing their organizations with fresh ideas and a greater willingness to push the envelope.

One man’s innovation ...

To begin with, government innovation labs struggle to figure out exactly what innovation is. That struggle affects how they operate and what they can, and cannot, do.

“Our innovation program has had to work hard to define what innovation is,” said Dan Hoffman, chief innovation officer (CInO) of Montgomery County, Md., and director of the county’s innovation program. After its launch in October 2012, Hoffman spent months meeting with other public-sector innovation officers around the country and found a wide disparity in their missions. Some had merely changed their titles to CInO for the coolness factor, yet the job had not changed. One CInO’s idea of innovation “was setting all of the printers to double-sided by default,” said Hoffman.

Where It's Done

California Innovation Lab
Government entity: California
Director: Scott Gregory
Launched: July 2016
Examples of projects: Green Buyer, SmartFLEET

Government entity: Pittsburgh
Director: Debra Lam
Launched: August 2016
Examples of projects: Pilots with startups HiberSense, TransitSource and Renergé Inc.

Montgomery County Innovation Program
Government entity: Montgomery County, Md.
Director: Dan Hoffman
Launched: October 2012
Examples of projects: Autism Communication and Technology Pilot, the Safe Community Alert Network

Government entity: Denver Public Schools
Director: Peter Piccolo
Launched: July 2015
Examples of projects: Virtual reality tours, mobile maker cart

Most agree that innovation involves taking some kind of risk, but the degree varies dramatically. The California Innovation Lab creates space within the state’s private cloud (CalCloud) for programmers to experiment with developing Web applications using open source code.

“It’s a place where people can come in, develop and fail,” said Scott Gregory, state geographic information officer and director of the program. If they succeed, California will become more efficient in developing code that can be repurposed.

At the other end of the spectrum is the imaginarium, an innovation lab launched last year by Denver Public Schools. Part of its reason for being is to counter traditional approaches to improving education, explained Peter Piccolo, director of innovation at the lab. “My colleagues are making sure the trains go down the tracks while I’m trying to build the rocketship,” he said.

There’s also a big difference in the amount of money that governments are willing to spend. Gregory couldn’t put a number on the cost of his program, but it probably amounts to little added expense. The cost of provisioning space on CalCloud is low. There is also the cost of the manpower of the developers. Currently, any other expenses are coming out of the state’s enterprise IT fund, which already supports approved IT projects that are developed in the lab. But the program is brand new, and the state is still discussing how projects might be funded in the future, said Gregory.

The imaginarium, on the other hand, is a big investment. It has a staff of 20 and a budget this year of almost $6 million, with about $3.8 million coming from the school district and $2 million from philanthropies, according to Piccolo.

The Montgomery County lab operates on less than $1 million, about 80 percent of which comes from outside sources including federal grants and corporate sponsors, Hoffman said. Funds for his salary and supplies are provided by the county executive’s office. Departments within the county that are co-sponsoring innovation projects also kick in some funding. In addition to Hoffman, staffing varies from three to four people, with various interns and fellows coming and going.

Different missions, different goals

Each lab takes a different approach in terms of goals and projects. The mission of the imaginarium is to explore and create nontraditional learning experiences for students. It actually grew out of the failure of an earlier approach, Piccolo said. Five years ago, he and his colleagues would identify things they thought needed changing, then try to alter them.

“We realized over the span of several years that top-down innovation was not the best approach,” he explained. “So we basically flipped the paradigm to bottom-up.”

Nevertheless, he believes that “the bureaucracy cannot help itself — it’s an uncontrollable organism that will smother innovation.” He hopes the imaginarium can be a safe space for students, teachers and others in the education community to try new things. In that way, “we are trying to plant seeds of innovation directly into the belly of the beast.”

The lab is structured and run like a consulting company, serving “clients” within the school district and helping to develop their ideas. In terms of selecting projects, the lab “casts a broad net,” but each project incorporates what Piccolo called “student agency.” In other words, students must have some influence on what they are learning and how, he said.

One project is focusing on developing a mobile maker space. Most public schools do not have the space or funds to create maker spaces, in which kids can experiment with 3-D and other technologies. So this project puts 3-D printers and other equipment on a cart, similar to the roving computer carts schools use when they can’t afford a laptop for every student. In another project, two guidance counselors developed a virtual-reality-based product that can give underprivileged students an economical and engaging way to experience job shadowing, visit colleges and explore careers.

The PGH Lab, launched in August as a partnership between Pittsburgh and the city’s nonprofit Urban Redevelopment Authority, aims to forge stronger connections with the local startup community.

“I get a lot of ideas from local startups. But under our [previous] structure there was no way to try out their products or services and provide feedback,” said Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer for the city. “We launched PGH Lab specifically for that purpose.”

Startups whose projects are approved test their product with the city for three months. They get a chance to learn how it works in a real-world environment. The city, in turn, gets plugged in to new technology developments that may be useful.

Projects are chosen based on several criteria, including their extent of innovation and feasibility, as well as potential benefit for the city and its citizens. The first three startups began pilots in August and were expected to be completed by October. HiberSense is testing a network of sensors and smart vents for micro-zone climate control in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s office. TransitSource has built a box that can be mounted on a bicycle to record “close calls” to help identify potentially dangerous spots in a city. It works with a cyclist’s smartphone to record location, time of day and other details, and sends them to a central database. The company is working with city transportation planners to show how the aggregated data might highlight problem areas and help them make better decisions on infrastructure improvements. Renergé Inc. has invented the Water Horse, a transportable piece of equipment that can generate electricity in a novel and environmentally sustainable way from rivers. It is wo
rking with the city’s sustainability manager and small-business department.

The most important aspect of each project, said Lam, is matching it with a “city champion” in an appropriate department that will ensure good communication between the innovators and Pittsburgh.

The mission of Montgomery County’s lab is to explore new ideas, processes and technology to improve its citizens’ quality of life. Project ideas come from citizens, the County Council, companies and other outside sources such as universities. In addition, Hoffman is trying to build a mix of projects that will create an innovation ecosystem and inspire more ideas.

Brandon Bedford

Brandon Bedford is an innovation program specialist for Montgomery County, Md. Photo by David Kidd/Government Technology
At the same time, the lab had to develop criteria that would encourage innovation but screen out ideas that were not appropriate. As Montgomery County defined the kind of innovation it wanted, it developed three criteria by which to choose projects. “We needed a very clear definition and criteria for what was innovation and what was not innovation,” Hoffman said. First, it must be testable in a lean, iterative and entrepreneurial manner. Second, there must be potential to scale the idea if it proves successful. Third, it must be experimental and risky.

Picking winners

Having operated for four years, the lab in Montgomery County now sponsors a wealth of projects. One of the most successful is its Safe Community Alert (SCALE) Network, a prototype showing how the Internet of Things (IoT) might help vulnerable populations. At a senior living facility, the project installed a network of sensors that could monitor things like smoke and carbon dioxide, as well as some facets of residents’ physical health, such as heart rate. The network transmits this sensor data to the cloud. If a problem is detected, the system dispatches an emergency response team.

SCALE is a collaborative partnership between the county and researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with multiple vendors. The project received national attention when it was showcased at the SmartAmerica Challenge, an event sponsored by the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the National Institute of Standards and Technology last year. SCALE’s success led to the creation of an entire focus area specifically on the IoT, called the Thingstitute.

The goal of California’s program is to encourage the use of open source software. Launched in July, it is the first major initiative by the state’s newly created Office of Digital Innovation and Technology Engagement. Employees pitch ideas, which must be approved by their manager and innovation program staff. Then a virtual machine is provisioned where the developers can build, test and deploy applications.

The idea for the lab came partly from the state’s Green Gov Challenge, a code-a-thon in fall 2015 to inspire ideas for software to help California adopt more sustainable practices. Gregory and his staff had already been exploring how open source could benefit the state. While open source is commonly used in industry, the state did not have many open source projects except in “a few pockets,” he said. “This is our first step forward in providing a formal environment for organizations to experiment with [open source].”

The lab’s first two projects are winners of the Green Gov Challenge. One, Green Buyer, helps identify how many sustainable products California agencies purchase. Another, SmartFLEET, is a dashboard that shows environmental statistics, such as carbon dioxide output, on the state’s vehicles.

Another problem innovation labs present government is how to measure success. Government likes quantifiable results, which can be hard to get when you’re experimenting with new technology and novel approaches. Still, some labs do have specific yardsticks.

The imaginarium, for example, uses a common one for education: standardized test scores. But Piccolo said the lab is also trying to track other, hard-to-measure information, such as whether projects help students develop emotional and social intelligence.

Montgomery County considers a project successful if it carries through on all three of its criteria. One such success, said Hoffman, was a pilot in county schools that used technology to improve the performance of autistic children. The idea originally came from parents. It was risky, and it was iteratively testable. Four of five kids in the initial pilot started to perform at or near grade level. It is also scalable, and therefore is being handed off to the county’s public school system for growth.

But the ultimate test for these government innovation labs will be the test of time. Will government continue to support programs where more projects fail than succeed? After all, the idea of innovation is much more attractive than the messy business of innovation. “Everyone wants to innovate; no one wants to be a dinosaur,” Piccolo said. “That is, until it’s time to innovate.” ¨