When Jerusalem i-team Director Sharone April was speaking with her city’s General Director about agency plans for the upcoming year, she saw an opportunity to make major, lasting changes in her community.

Jerusalem is home to one of 19 i-teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies seeking to embed innovation as a standard process in government to address challenges facing cities. Tasked with addressing major issues in their communities and located within city hall, i-teams are ideally located to address multifaceted challenges that cut across government agencies. This unique positioning allows them to disrupt standard ways of thinking and develop new approaches to solving problems.

Following April’s meeting with the General Director, Jerusalem’s i-team launched two impressive idea generation efforts focused on economic development.

First, the i-team held an all-day idea generation boot camp for nearly 20 major nonprofit organizations in the city. The day-long event brought managers from these organizations together with graduates of their programs. This group focused on how city government can enhance the nonprofit sector’s work and attract talented young people to put their roots down in Jerusalem.

A community engagement session held by the Jerusalem i-team.

Community members attended a day-long idea generation boot camp to share their insights with the Jerusalem i-team.

The i-team also looked to city employees to determine how city government could expand the economy and attract human capital. A traditional model would have focused on feedback from top managers to see where improvements could be made, but the i-team thought it was time for additional avenues to be explored.

“Having input from high level managers is great, but they don’t have all the knowledge,” said April. “Employees know who is responsible for what, what the restrictions are, where things break down.”

Jerusalem’s i-team launched a full-scale marketing campaign promoting a contest to solicit big ideas from employees. The campaign included emails, direct requests for department managers to promote the contest, and banner displays around city hall entrances. The i-team even took over screen savers to encourage employee participation whenever a computer was idle for too long. The i-team also launched a website for the program on the city’s intranet, and posted new ideas to the employee homepage as they came in – all the while using analytics to monitor which ideas were generating the most conversation.

“It was literally everywhere,” said April. “People were talking about it, people were excited. It showed there was a real need to have such a tool for generating ideas.”

As time wore down for the contest, there were numerous requests to extend the program – a measure the i-team happily took. They received nearly 300 “good” ideas they are now sorting through to determine feasibility and impact potential.

Both of these efforts stemmed from the i-team having direct contact with the General Director, and being able to take a new idea and build on it.

“One of the strengths of having an i-team is the ability to take an idea that someone else has and say, ‘Stop. Wait a second. Instead of doing the regular retreat for managers, let’s do something different. We have different tools. We bring new things to the table; different ideas,’” said April.

Jerusalem is not alone. Tel Aviv and U.S. teams like Jersey City are also casting a wide net to get the best ideas.

“One of our main objectives during the idea generation process is to include in the process as many key stakeholders as possible, which includes business owners, residents, city officials, and anyone even partially invested in Jersey City” said Jersey City i-team Director Brian Platt. “Not only is it about getting the most ideas, there’s a lot of relationship building there too.”

In addition to seeking input from experts in city hall and around the country, Jersey City has engaged in a multi-faceted community outreach approach to generate ideas around its work to revitalize commercial corridors.

The i-team’s “Pop Up Idea Lounges” have been a fixture at street festivals, farmers markets, and other events across the city. Through the use of simple tools—a booth, some Post-Its and an easel—the Idea Lounges give the i-team an opportunity to have face-to-face conversation with citizens and ask them what they think of their business districts. Having residents publicly stick their ideas on a board shows passers-by how much input the i-team is getting from the community, and it is a tangible way for participants to validate their contributions. Those Post-Its not only end up on the i-team’s office wall, but also in a database they can mine for common themes and challenges.

Sticky notes with ideas from the community posted on the Jersey City i-teams wall.

Sticky notes with ideas generated at Pop Up Idea Lounges across Jersey City.

Jersey City’s i-team has also been working with Special Improvement Districts and business community groups in the city to speak directly with businesses and survey them on the greatest challenges they face, whether they are satisfied with their physical environments and city services, and whether they taking advantage of available government programs.

Smaller community groups in each of the city’s six wards have also provided the i-team with a tremendous amount of insight. They’ve visited the ward groups twice using design thinking exercises to understand on a granular level what the community perceives as challenges and what the possible solutions may be. By using a design thinking exercise that pairs them up with neighbors to talk through Jersey City’s challenges, community members are free to speak frankly about what is going on without the intimidation that comes from speaking in front of a large audience or an authority figure. The team plans on doing an additional final tour of these groups to revise draft initiatives.

“It’s been a long process. The biggest challenge for us is being patient and not rushing the relationship building and information gathering processes, but it will pay off in the end,” said Platt. “Even the best plan can fail without community buy-in.”

That push for buy-in is a consistent theme for i-teams across the program. Other innovative examples of how i-teams are engaging with the public include:

  • Long Beach has partnered with the Knight Foundation to work with City Mart, and will conduct a series of challenges that will crowdsource creative solutions from citizens and the global community aimed at making their city more business-friendly
  • Syracuse hitting the streets after the latest water main break to see how work crews dealt with the problem and talk to residents and business owners who were affected to learn how infrastructure failures hurt them
  • Tel Aviv’s team reaching out to both migrant shop owners and the Israeli residents of one of its most troubled neighborhoods to get their take on their vision for the future

The i-teams are showing the value the public brings to the process of idea generation. As the teams move towards implementing great ideas we will continue to monitor their progress and share experiences.