Eli MacLaren

Civic Innovation: Beyond Collective Impact

Living Cities, together with the Citi Foundation, recently launched the City Accelerator  a $3 million effort to fuel innovation in city government. Last Thursday, the City Accelerator announced the members of its first cohort, three cities (Nashville, Louisville, and Philadelphia) who will receive funding and technical assistance to build their innovation muscle. 

In parallel to the announcement, Living Cities convened the winning teams at Harvard University. I was invited to the join the meeting and speak about disruptive innovation, recognizing that while cities are getting better at incremental improvements, we need leaders who are better able to imagine, design, and play with transformational ideas.

After listening to their challenges, and reflecting on BIF's work in communities around the country, this was my advice:

Aligning around collective goals isn't good enough. We need to try more stuff.

Poverty, corruption, hunger: City problems are big and overwhelming. They are also complex and interconnected. As such, we like to believe that the answer lies in collective action  organizing diverse stakeholders around a common agenda, goals, and activities. 

This is not wrong. It will improve the performance of incremental improvements. It might even accelerate those improvements. But it won't generate the transformational concepts required to generate wide spread impact. 

Take post-secondary education for example. Sixty-five percent of US jobs will require post-secondary education by 2020. Currently, only 38 percent of Americans have some form of higher education. Getting to 65 percent in the next six years will require more than coordination  it will require new business models to serve populations for whom the current model is irrelevant, exclusive and unwelcoming, and prohibitively expensive. 

Collective action is not enough. We have to pool our capabilities, and collaboratively imagine how we might organize them in new and different ways  outside of our own proprietary business models. If we take our cue from the game of Scrabble, there would be infinite possibilities. Which is important. Because we don't have all the answers, and we can't get there from here. 

The transformation imperative is clear: try more stuff.

It's about the approach, not the solution. Build the transformation muscle.

Relatedly, we are a society that chases magic bullets. One day, we all want to build "incubators"; the next day, we are obsessed with "labs." One day, the "social entrepreneur" will save the day; the next, it's all about the "designer." 

The problem is that we organize and scale around singular ideas. This doesn't prepare us to work in dynamic social systems, where the turf changes the moment we hit the field. It doesn't prepare us for the interconnectedness of issues or for our rapidly changing world. The truth is, if we're trying to solve for income inequality, we won't see or be prepared to react when community violence comes rattling into town. 

We need city leaders who are adept at rapid transformation  which means they need to develop an innovation approach, and not organize specifically around innovative solutions. When we build our transformation muscle, we have a repeatable approach for dealing with complex emergent social issues. 

It's always a good time to engage citizens. Co-create the future. 

Finally, we have a propensity to separate users of the system from the "system" itself, e.g. citizens from government programs. It was my friends at the Presencing Institute who said:

"the quality of the results produced by any system depend on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate." 

The "system" is inherently human  it's designed by humans, operated by humans, and used by humans. We automatically get better outcomes (increased engagement, better design, and more utility) when we take all these behaviors and motivations into consideration. This is best done through participatory design, or the art of co-creation.  

We have any number of excuses why we don't engage citizens early on:

  • It's too political.
  • They're not ready.
  • They won't come.
  • They're not capable.
  • It's messy. 

Its important for leaders to have faith in all people with whom they work, especially citizens who have point of view experiences that offer critical insight to localized problems. Co-creation enables all participants to offer gifts (or capabilities as mentioned above) to collaboratively imagine new experiences and new possibilities. 

These are a few of the principles that will lead to more resilient cities and healthier communities. They are building blocks to transforming how we organize and behave both in our combined roles as leaders and citizens. I am excited to work with civic leaders, through BIF's Citizen Experience Lab, to explore how we apply these principles to reimagining the citzen experience. 

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