In June 2015, Nashville’s Chief Innovation Officers sat down to discuss improvements to the government’s innovation program, Ideas to Reality (I2R). Kristine LaLonde and Yiaweh Yeh had designed I2R to engage government partners in working on key challenges facing the community. They knew that many government employees hold great, potentially innovative ideas, but never have the time to process and build momentum around them. Through their conversation, they recognized the need to continue the I2R program and deepen its impact in three areas: professional development for participants; solid business plans and pitches for each idea generated to ensure implementation dollars; and a strong project team to move the work forward.
The third year of I2R would come at a time of both risk and opportunity: it would launch just a few months after a new mayor would take office. New administrations often come into power with lots of energy and ideas, but little process to support that energy. I2R would be ready to provide some of that structure and support in a nascent administration. To take advantage of that moment of opportunity, Kristine and Yiaweh decided that this year’s I2R cohort would focus on key priorities of the Mayor’s administration and examine ways to create and sustain structures that would forward the collective work of the city.
The Budget team implemented many of the new transparency procedures they identified through I2R. One of these was creating an innovation fund and pitch competition, called PIP (Public Investment Project), which allows Metro departments to pitch ideas to leadership (including the mayor) who decide where to invest. Criteria included the potential benefits for citizens, feasibility of proposal, sustainability of implementation plans, and depth of community-based collaboration. In this way the Budget group immediately took their concept to scale and started spreading their innovative approach to other departments.
As Kristine outlined, "Best practice in leadership development is that training is done, not in a theoretical setting, but in the real setting in which people have to work. The budget process in Nashville changed in large part because they went through an innovation process where they worked on their budget process, not on some unrelated project."
The Neighborhoods and Community Engagement team ended up pitching their idea to PIP called “The Hub.” The Hub is a new online dashboard designed to provide citizens with real-time information and responses to their concerns. Nashville’s existing system of constituent interaction was outdated and scattered, the need for something new was clear. The I2R process supported a thoughtful and sustainable solution that was clearly articulated to public
In addition to the project outcomes, another benefit of the I2R program was the opportunity for teams to collaborate across agencies. For example, an Economic Opportunity team member from Juvenile Court built a new relationship with a Neighborhood Liaison from the Mayor’s office during the program. A result of this partnership is that constituents who contact the mayor’s office about juvenile court issues are now connected directly to Juvenile Court and quicker service is provided, better serving the needs of citizens.
A third outcome of the program is the introduction of new problem-solving approaches within the Nashville government. While difficult to measure over time, these types of mindset changes are perhaps the most important outcome of the program due to their ripple effect. Evaluation data from the program showed that the majority of program participants now have a deeper understanding of the role creativity plays in problem solving, know more about innovation, and feel they can apply creative and innovative tools they learned throughout the program.
One participant summed the program up best: “We are not going back to the way it used to be. We have been able to engage the public, we have changed hearts and minds, and people are going ‘wow, I can’t believe that’ . . . We are starting to shift government and citizens’ expectations”.
How the city got here
The city hoped to get teams to think beyond the usual lines of authority, question the usual constraints, and develop systems and ideas that would increase Metro government’s impact. They wanted to incorporate Design Thinking methodologies, and knew they needed a partner organization that would help them drive creativity and community voice into the work. They also knew from experience that this partner would have to understand this work as inherently different from a corporate design space and have deep working knowledge of complex social change.
Enter Design Impact (DI). As a nonprofit social design firm, DI’s strength lies in facilitating creative and inclusive processes that help teams address complex community issues in new ways. Kristine notes, “Our collaboration with Design Impact was key at this stage. In order to design the right program, we needed their external point of view and expertise in design thinking to help us frame the program, while they needed our on-the-ground perspective of the landscape, history, and potential pitfalls. In addition, much of this work was about finding the right balance of things,” says Kristine. “We knew we needed to give teams sufficient time to process, share ideas, and discuss--but also knew we needed to push them forward, challenge their thinking, and drive their ideas into new, potentially uncomfortable spaces”.
While Design Impact generated the content for the first six weeks of the program, Kristine worked to formulate the right teams, help them identify a key area of focus, and work with the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center (the EC) to design the last two weeks of the program on business plans and pitching. The EC has been a central partner in I2R since its inception, working with teams to perfect their business plans and pitches. Pitches—the ability to succinctly define a problem, solution, and plan—has now become embedded in the culture and process of Metro Government.
The following teams participated in I2R from November 2015-February 2016, each made up of 4-6 key government leaders:
Neighborhood and Community Engagement Budget Transportation and Infrastructure Economic Empowerment
Week 1: Orient and Relate. The goals of this week were to introduce the process, people, and goals of I2R; create a space to share program expectations, hopes and fears; build teams’ ability to collaborate; and frame their initial research questions.
Week 2: What We Know, What We Don’t Know. The goals of this session were to introduce the concepts of “insights”, have teams generate insights on their opportunity or “How Might We” statement, read best practice research and draw insights from it, analyze the systems that affect their question through dynamic visualization techniques, and draft interview questions to be asked in their fieldwork for Week 3.
Week 3: Questions Answered + Fieldwork. The purpose of week 3 was to give I2R participants an opportunity to listen to key stakeholders and document key insights from these conversations. The majority of the day for each group was spent conducting interviews out in the community and debriefing them afterwards to uncover insights.
Week 4: Synthesis to Ideas. Week 4 offered participants the chance to synthesize insights into opportunity spaces, develop many ideas for each space, and down select based on design requirements. Each team wrapped up with 1-2 key ideas they were ready to refine and test.
Week 5: Ideas to Prototype. The goal of week 5 was to look back at ideas generated in week 4, push boldness in thinking, refine the concepts, and explain and plan prototyping for the top ideas. Teams also had the opportunity to run their top concepts past key stakeholders in order to get their feedback before they were too far down the road.
Week 6-8: Pitch and Business Plan Preparation. Weeks 6-8 were intended as flexible time for the teams to take their final concept and add detail and refinement. During these weeks, teams built their concepts into business plans that articulated their central ideas and next steps. In addition, teams were given coaching and feedback by members of the Nashville Entrepreneur Staff on their pitches.