Heavyweight international players from the OECD to Bloomberg Philanthropies and the United Nations have in recent years prescribed “innovation” as a solution for the many challenges city governments face.
Innovation is a notoriously slippery term. For city government it generally involves deliberately questioning how things are done, leading to new and hopefully better ways of working. Innovation is meant to help resolve the world’s thorniest public policy challenges — from housing affordability to the climate crisis — but also to make cities more liveable through more effective, responsive and efficient city government.
But what do these innovations involve? Who do they involve? How do they work? Indeed, do they work? And what are the implications for city government?
3 keys to successful innovation
Our research identified three dimensions as critical for city government innovation:
- new institutions that are “licensed to innovate”
- approaches based in design thinking
- nurturing more creative bureaucracies.
First, urban innovation units have become a poster child for innovative city government. Examples include the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) and Bologna’s Office of Civic Imagination.
These units are usually modestly sized teams within city government. They are licensed to experiment with new processes, new services or new ways of developing urban policy.
These units generally aim to unsettle “business as usual” and work across habitual divisions of labour between departments and functions. They tend to draw in new partners, whether in the private, community or philanthropic sector. The emphasis is on collaborating to get things done, rather than following well-established rules and routines to deliver public services.
Such approaches challenge city government norms. They work with an explicit tolerance of failure and learning until a version of a policy, or a way of delivering a service, begins to work better. As one of our interviewees said:
Our return on investment here is [… ]so much greater if we fail and then change ‘fail’ to ‘learn’.
There’s an emphasis on building trust between the various partners, within and beyond government. As another interviewee said:
Trust and social networks turn out to be the greatest lubricant for innovation.
Creating a narrative about what innovative approaches can achieve is also important. “Showcasing the wins” demands new storytelling resources and skills for city staff.
There is no predictable template that transfers smoothly across all locations. These units need to navigate unique local circumstances, conflicting priorities and political sticking points that crop up in different ways in different places.
The bigger question, then, is how effectively can the wider “warts and all” lessons from these units be scaled up across the full scope of city government functions?
Design thinking that goes beyond ‘usual suspects’
While we may not traditionally associate city government with design, our participants often described their work in terms such as human-centred design, co-design, co-creation and prototyping.
Experimental and iterative practices underpinned their work: that is, testing a policy or service-design idea, seeing what works and what doesn’t, tweaking and testing again, and so on. Learning from the process is a priority.
And that learning was derived from input from more than “the usual suspects”. At its best, design thinking is unashamedly focused on people, whether they work in city departments or are citizens impacted by the problem in focus.
This type of thinking, one participant said, is
about new ways of including and engaging people in program design and policy design […] folks who I think traditionally are either not involved in the design process or haven’t been engaged in a way that feels really authentic.
Developing a creative bureaucracy
Our research revealed practitioners commonly understand innovation in city government as being about creative problem-solving. This is some way from the stereotype of the rule-bound city government bureaucrat.
In response to perceptions that city governments aren’t adaptable, effective or open enough, we see efforts to unleash the creativity of their workers to solve problems. Berlin even has an annual Creative Bureaucracy Festival.
We found evidence of a wider shift towards a creative problem-solving mindset. One interviewee described her job as:
always just solving problems and putting yourself in the shoes of whoever you are dealing with […] They have a problem and our obligation is to solve it, by whatever means necessary.
The desire for adaptive, responsive, open city government is changing recruitment priorities. Our interviewees told us about seeking staff with qualities like empathy, persuasion, charisma, agility and a history of enabling teams to create solutions. Recruiting for so-called soft skills, not the hard skills of domain-specific expertise, is part of an effort to change the culture and bureaucratic capacities of city government.
As the saying goes, personnel is policy. Who city government employs largely dictates what it can do.
Beware ‘innovation washing’
Much remains to be learned about the long-term implications of city governments working in “innovation mode”. Clear-eyed evaluation is needed to avoid “innovation washing”: the notion that innovation is always a good thing and always delivers improvement.
Our research has found city government innovation most often concerns changes to the everyday business of running the city. This includes more efficient processes, new ways to gather ideas from the community, new collaborations that allow resource sharing.
These innovations may not be a silver bullet for intractable urban problems or save the planet, but they matter for everyday life in the city.