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Innovation Councils Connect Governments with Entrepreneurs

Palo Alto, Calif.'s new Innovation Council mirrors the culture of the region, inviting entrepreneurial, innovation-based creative spirit to inform city decisions.

by / March 21, 2013

Innovation is the name of the game in government today, as leaders are tasked with fueling government efficiency and interagency collaboration, and delivering impactful citizen services through various technologies.

With some of the world’s most well-known technology corporations and scores of start-up businesses — and cities and surrounding areas that are tasked with supporting a culture that is constantly changing — California’s Silicon Valley is considered by many as the heart of innovation.

One such Silicon Valley city is rising to the occasion — Palo Alto is calling together an Innovation Council that mirrors the culture of the region, inviting entrepreneurial innovation-based creative spirit to inform city decisions.

“We want to create a relationship that could have tech leaders advising us about where things are moving in the world — how we can continuously improve as a city,” said City Manager Jim Keene. “It’s a way to directly get business leaders better engaged and involved in the city. And then we can spin off national initiatives and results. We’d like to be able to leverage value as a government by being able to crowdsource solutions.”

Though innovation councils aren't yet widespread, they have been established at various levels of government. In 2007, for instance, then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced the launch of a comprehensive initiative that included establishing the state's first Innovation Council to spur advances in the state's tech sector, and in 2009, the first meeting of San Diego County's Innovation Council — formed to increase and accelerate the identification and incubation of innovative IT solutions — was held.

Palo Alto's council is still in pilot stage, and has an initial roster of 20 local innovators, who belong to such organizations as the Institute for the Future, Xerox Corp and Aeris Communication, to name a few.

Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental says that as the city evaluates issues with high-speed rail, challenges finding desirable city office space and solving parking problems, and other matters that are valuable to the innovation community, these individuals will support the decision-making process.

“We want to avoid that it feels like a government-pushed initiative — we want to partner with these people and, together, create opportunities,” Reichental said, adding that there are enough commissions and councils that have strong government oversight, and they are very different than this new Innovation Council. "Structure is the opposite of creative innovation; innovation comes from everywhere, having no constraints," he said. "We have to create that environment to have any likelihood of success.”

From the beginning, the idea to create an innovation council was less about structured results and more about organic opportunity. The inspiration came from a hackathon that brought together government and entrepreneurs, many of whom did not typically interact with the public sector but expressed passion about innovation and city involvement. This set the wheels in motion to bring together motivated community members interested in collaborating on a variety of civic issues.

Currently in a soft launch, the council will convene next month to determine specific responsibilities, and part of the focus will include how to encourage a cross-section of society to participate in the democracy for better civic innovation.

“It’s our role to be a convener of different groups — folks who may or may not already be connected,” Keene said. “People have to meet and talk about what they’re doing, and share their stories and perspectives, and out of that, there’s a potential about what new endeavors can take place that result in tangible products.”

A hypothetical product might include something to solve the city’s parking problem: As more people who drive to the city’s downtown area are unable to find parking spaces, they park in nearby neighborhoods. If an individual or company is interested in civic innovation, a solution can be co-created with the municipality by looking at the issue mathematically, analytically and with various data sets.

Although such collaborative products have not yet been realized, Reichental said that the act of connecting people around innovation is inherently valuable.

“[Government entities] bring people together very well,” he said. “People connect, and then we step out of the way, and often, we don’t know what the result is. You do a lot of convening because you know there’s something magical about connecting people together, but you can’t put a metric together.”

As the Innovation Council develops, the city has plans to identify CEOs and leaders to attend a twice per year session with the Council. It will build on existing relationships and extend the invitation to key companies in Palo Alto. Future iterations of the council could include tiers with various entry levels and senior executives.

“It’s important that the city stay progressive, because people want to live and work in cities that mirror the creative and entrepreneurial spirit that they have,” Keene said. “So we see this as a synergetic relationship.”

Initial Roster, Palo Alto Innovation Council

 Tim Bonnemann

 Curie Marie Chao Stay Curious Travel
 Jacques Darakdjian Silicon French
 Jake Dunagan Institute for the Future
 Kyle Else Keller Williams Realty
 Markus Fromherz Xerox Corp
 James Fruchterman Benetech
 Neal Gorenflo Shareable
 Brett Hetzer  Wham Stack I.T.
 Diego May  Junar
 Jean-Bernard Rolland  SAP
 Timothy O'Reilly  O'Reilly Partners
 Margarita Quihuis  Stanford University
 Lindsay Russell  Stanford Graduate School of Business
Siejen Yin-Stevenson  US-Asia Technology Management Center - Stanford
 Eric Tubman  Ronald McDonald House at Stanford
 Lisa Van Dusen  Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce
 Leah Vaughan  The Health Policy Group
 Natalie Venuto  Aeris Communications

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.

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