You can’t cook dinner in the living room. For starters, you don’t have the right equipment and tools, and furthermore, the furniture, kids playing, and other obstacles and activities that happen in the living room will just get in the way, slow you down, and lead you off track. It’s not a space that supports the kind of work you need to do to make a meal. The same can be said for any project or piece of work: you can’t play soccer without a field and others to play with, can’t write a novel without something to write on, with, and about.
The right space and the right equipment are the basics to any project. As energy mounts around the importance of innovation in the 21st century, special attention needs to be given to this truth. Consumers have come to expect rapid prototyping of new products and services, and the private sector knows that to deliver on these demands, they must ensure innovation is prioritized, and given the space to flourish. Major corporations from Google to 3M have intentionally carved out space- both literal and figurative- to allow this work to happen.
Government, on the other hand, has been slower to innovate. The public sector is an especially hospitable environment for well-developed processes and systems to produce and re-produce the outcomes they are designed to create. Space, individual and shared, exists for completing tasks, holding meetings, etc. and even for things like increasing efficiencies and reducing waste. But true innovation and the attendant creative thought and inspired disruptive ideas, doesn’t have a good place, or the right tools, to sprout and flourish within this routinized, bureaucratic atmosphere. And as a result, any efforts at innovation and creating change in government are asking its most valuable resource- its staff- to try to make a meal without the kitchen, and without pots and pans.
At least in most cases.
Around the world, we are starting to see examples of government catching on. In Denmark, a collaboration between the Ministries of Education, Employment, and Business and Growth has produced MindLab which, “involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society. [MindLab is] also a physical space- a neutral zone for inspiring creativity, and innovation, and collaboration.” The lab has tackled public sector challenges ranging from procurement to unemployment, bureaucratic service delivery to worker safety. What’s unique about this type of government agency is that it is not organized around a particular agenda or body of work. It is a place with the resources and space to develop new ideas and methods for tackling a variety of challenges faced across the spectrum of government agencies.
Similarly, in Mexico, recently elected mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has spearheaded the creation of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad, (Laboratory for the City). This new initiative is intended to create an “area of civic innovation and urban creativity” housed within the public sector and modeled after Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Like MindLab, it is driven by principles of collaboration, creativity, and experimentation and has a mandate to tackle problems by applying this frame.
Australia’s DesignGov, housed within the Department of Industry and developed for the Australian Public Service, is similar in mission to the Laboratory for the City and MindLab. DesignGov is intended to provide space within Australian government to “apply strategic co-design processes and thinking on complex issues which lead to improved outcomes, efficiencies, and effectiveness of public solutions.” It has focused its pilot period on improving communication between the business community and the government.
These three initiatives demonstrate a rising understanding in government of both the importance of innovation and the need for intentionality in supporting it. Rather than hope that creative thinking and new methods of problem solving will spontaneously appear, governments are beginning to deliberately nurture innovation by creating space for it to thrive: they are building the innovation kitchen and stocking it well.
But developing strong innovative ideas and projects for solving particular problems is only one piece of the broader culture shift we need to see in government, and they alone aren’t going to suddenly transform bureaucratic public sector agencies and the outcomes they produce. Instead, creating intentional spaces for innovation can serve as a meaningful first step. With stories of success and meaningful impact being felt on the ground, the work, ideas, and impact coming out of these spaces should help to legitimize and pave the way for this transformation. As government begins to recognize the outcomes that more innovative thinking can produce, it will be easier to spread and adopt this kind of thinking throughout government, rather than just in a particular space.
And this is an important part of the story. If they do their jobs well, offices and departments of innovation like MindLab and DesignGov should make a persuasive case for adopting more innovative approaches to solving problems throughout government, and eventually become obsolete as their principles and behavior become infused and activated in the work of all agencies, offices, and employees. At Living Cities, our vision for an innovative public sector is one in which creative problem solving is ubiquitous, not siloed in a particular place. But getting to that point requires a set of deeply entrenched behaviors and mentalities to evolve- something that can’t be done overnight. Innovation offices can start to make the case and lay the groundwork, and in the meantime, bring impactful and creative solutions to bear on urgent problems in cities. It is an exciting time for governments and cities, and I look forward to seeing where else this catches on.