How to Innovate on What Matters Most

For a local government innovation practice to be relevant, cities should focus their innovation efforts on their communities' greatest needs.

by Nigel Jacob, Urban Technologist in Residence, Living Cities / December 10, 2014

One of the first questions that an innovation team faces is “What do we work on?” This is the central question of government-led innovation teams since it determines where an innovation team spends its time and the sort of impact the team can expect to have. Often these teams may start out working on problems in the “low-hanging fruit” category. This may be useful for building momentum, but it can also pigeonhole the team into certain kinds of work in the eyes of their executive, peers, the public, etc.

An innovation team cannot afford to be seen as irrelevant. Rather, it should be central – not marginal – in the advancement of the administration’s agenda and city residents’ highest priorities.

 In the City Accelerator, a program that is part of a national conversation about how to best generate and sustain innovation, cities each focus their work on issues that are key to their mayors and to their constituents. Louisville’s innovation practice, for example, is deeply aligned with Mayor Greg Fischer’s strategic plan. Its Office of Performance Improvement (which focuses on continuous improvement), Office of Civic Innovation (focused on internal/external innovation partnerships) and its Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Team (focused on specific substantive or operational issues) all focus on various facets of Mayor Fischer’s 21 strategic goals.

Part of their work with the City Accelerator is to create a clear process for bringing these different pieces of their innovation practice to bear around particular issues. Their substantive work with the City Accelerator focuses on delivering better fire protection (including in lower-income communities) and better serving people suffering from both mental illness and substance abuse.

Sourcing Initial Projects Ultimately, it’s important for an innovation practice to have a robust pipeline of ideas and projects to maximize its impact and produce a steady stream of wins for the city. But the first projects you pick can matter because they set the tone for the innovation practice. So where do you start?  Here are three easy things you can do:

  • Go to the people. Create opportunities for residents to be a part of determining what good services and programs look like. Go to community meetings to understand the issues and to engage residents in real conversations. Look for ways of using technology (e.g., social media) to encourage participation that builds on top of (and not just instead of) the community meeting model.
  • Connect with colleagues in departments that align with the city executive’s priorities. Look for people who are fired up about what needs to change and who have a track record of working well with others and delivering results.
  • Articulate your criteria for projects. What’s doable or not doable for you? What does impact mean for your team? By saying your criteria out loud or writing them down, you help your team develop consistency around, and continually test your hunches about, what kinds of projects really work.

These steps are roughly what we followed as we got New Urban Mechanics off the ground, but they will likely look a little different in every city. That said, if we as a field are going to break the perception that innovation is just a buzzword, we have to intentionally point it at the issues that directly affect the lives of our constituents. We can’t afford to settle for easy but non-essential wins.

This story was originally published by Governing.

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