Innovation Does Not Take Place in Just One Place

Working with Living Cities, Governing has identified a set of seven elements that constitute a framework for fostering the innovation cities need.
September 5, 2016
Arthur JS, Flickr
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
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The mayor’s office can be a lonely place. Begin with the challenges of limited resources when it comes to serving the needs of your residents and businesses. Layer on issues such as climate change, income inequality, social injustice, opioid abuse and cyber security, and the job can be downright overwhelming. Given these pressing needs, it may seem like government leaders have no time to spend on innovation. But innovation is exactly what governments need in order to equip themselves to deal with these challenges and to seize opportunities.

I lived with that tension as a mayor for a small diverse city for eight years.

After graduate school studying economics, most of my classmates entered the private sector, the majority of them going to work on Wall Street, and for tech and global consulting firms. These were the areas for exciting and innovative work, they claimed. The handful of us who went into the public service were told that government innovation was an oxymoron. They envisioned us still doing the same thing for the same agency at our 25th or even 50th reunion. In reality, the public and private sectors both have their fair share of stagnation and innovation. And both sectors have a lot to learn from each other.

First and foremost is that innovation isn’t the purview of a single sector. Governments support private-sector innovation by putting together attractive financial packages, creating spaces for mentoring and networking, and subsidizing or leading training for skill sets the workforce needs to be competitive.

Cities from Atlanta to Austin, Seattle to Boston have created offices dedicated to innovation. A 2013 study by the National League of Cities shows that almost half of municipalities with populations over 300,000 already had innovation offices and more were being formed every year. This can be a great start, and it certainly sends a signal that cities are bought into new ideas. However, an innovation office alone is not enough, especially if it lacks a clear vision, poorly communicates its activities, fails to reflect the population it's serving or lacks resources to achieve sustainable outcomes.

Living Cities and Governing are tackling this problem by creating a list of key elements that cities need in their toolbox to foster Innovation. The people, partners and businesses that cities serve are major drivers of innovation. Just as businesses and professionals like to network in similar physical and virtual spaces to achieve better results, governments would be well-served by integrating a broad spectrum of people and ideas into the fabric of the community and into any plans that they create.

City government, as one of the largest employers in small cities like mine, also can provide expertise and buy-in that’s critical to successful implementation of innovative community initiatives. When I took office in 2007, data informed us that children in our community had the second highest obesity rates in the state. When our City Council balked at the idea of government getting involved in this issue, we sought buy-in from city employees and partnered with the major anti-poverty agency in town. Having champions within city government and throughout the community helped us create a plan that was innovative and did not require a lot of resources, and ultimately lead to a significant drop in obesity rates. Even better, the partnership that was formed to address childhood obesity broadened and began to tackle other socio-economic issues in the community.

It doesn't take the 24-hour news cycle to highlight tensions involving race relations in our country. Innovation, as well as social justice, requires that communities fully engage all residents in plans and activities. Public-sector employees need to be sensitive to and informed about racial diversity and racial disparities.

Inclusion is fundamental to building support for new ways of addressing community issues. For instance, when I was involved in designing a citizen engagement initiative called "Mayor of Your Street," critics claimed I was creating a program that allowed residents to usurp the power of elected officials. Working with residents who volunteered for the program, we ultimately renamed the initiative "Alcalde de su Calle," as most of the participants were from and wanted to help the city’s large and growing Latino community. Focusing on residents who felt long ignored and were hard to reach alleviated fears that the program was a duplication or waste of resources, and the criticism went away.

The ideas, support and collaboration that spark innovation can come from anywhere in the public sector, especially given local government’s broad range of responsibilities. Cities that have developed a clear vision and built inclusive and realistic plans have a head start in harnessing the power of new ideas. By being prepared and being open to working with partners across sectors, cities will be ready to launch and support innovation.