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Philly Teaches Officials with New Innovation Academy

Philadelphia officials invent a city Innovation Academy to put structure and longevity behind innovative government.

Philadelphia has been on the razor’s edge when it comes to innovative ideas in civic tech. But now, the city of Brotherly Love is raising the bar again with the addition of its first Municipal Innovation Academy.

The new school, which kicked off on Jan. 29 with 19 officials from multiple departments, was invented in partnership with Philadelphia University (PhilaU) and aspires to institutionalize some of the processes and ideas driving government innovation.

“Innovation is not something that should be left to a single role or individual," said Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid. "It really is a mindset."

The class, crafted by Ebeid and Philadelphia University’s Vice President of Innovation D.R. Widder, is designed to provide a structural backbone behind the often obscure processes of creative thinking, a topic not usually found in the municipal lexicon, Ebeid said.

The eight-week academy program is broken down into seven intensive courses. The program starts with an introduction to innovation before moving into more advanced lessons. As a sampling, principles taught include design thinking, a problem solving strategy; systems thinking, a type of analysis that factors relationships between an organization’s many parts; and the use of analytics, a tool to develop data-driven ideas for potential city projects and initiatives.

Widder, who personally oversaw a similar undergraduate innovation program within the university’s design, engineering and business departments, said the program could be called a pilot, one with potential to become a full fledged Master’s Degree at PhilaU. The most unique aspect of the program is its power to dispel common myths around innovation.

“It teaches that innovation is a process, it’s not the light bulb going off while you’re taking a shower,” Widder said.

Highlighting Apple, Widder said, the company didn’t build its empire through a single technological epiphany or even through a single person. Year after year, iteration after iteration, the company has introduced multiple offerings of innovative products and enhancements. And these, he said, are driven by a process of innovation.

“You can teach innovation. You can teach someone to be an innovator. Everyone is on a spectrum, it’s not a binary condition — as in, 'are you an innovator or not,'" Widder added, "and you can bring people along on that spectrum."

Taking the approach to government, Widder said a cultural shift is needed. Too often government operates with a decision-making process that prizes risk aversion over value creation. The objective with the academy, he said, is to change the perspective with people who will propel this shift in a lasting way.

“What we’re looking for them to be is really a force for good,” Ebeid said of the academy’s first class.

“There’s not a formal job description, but you’re basically deputizing somebody and teaching them as many innovation principals as possible,” he said.

The 19 officials were selected through peer-to-peer reviews and supervisor recommendations that identified individuals on the front lines of city departments. Most desirable attributes for the program were those with the creative potential to innovate and those who had a finger on the pulse of department and municipal trends. In the future, Ebeid said, the vision for these first recruits is to be the ambassadors of city innovation.

“It builds a network of peers that really allows the bump and connect [of ideas] to take place,” Ebeid said.

More than just an education and outreach effort, the academy is backed by about $100,000 in funding for tangible problem solving projects. Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s Director of Innovation Management, said the money has been set aside through The Mayors Fund for Philadelphia, a piggybank earmarked by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to support philanthropic and innovative city projects.

In March, Buss said, the city will also include a lab that will supplement the coursework. The hands-on training offers a way for the academy to connect its theoretical concepts with real-world tools, skills for implementation, and most importantly, concrete results.

“We are really trying to create a network of innovators within the city," Buss said, "and when you get enough people who can think and work this way, that’s when you get changes."

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Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.