Civic Labs: Improving Public Services From the Bottom Up

Innovation platforms are springing up all over, engaging citizens in the process. Government's challenge is to manage and nurture them.
January 13, 2016
By Kendra L. Smith  |  Contributor
A post-doctoral scholar in Arizona State University's College of Public Service and Community Solutions
By Kevin C. Desouza  |  Contributor
A Foundation Professor in Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs

There is a wave of new innovation at the local level of government, and much of it is coming not from government but from citizens. This is happening through a rapidly proliferating ecosystem of civic innovation labs, platforms that connect citizens with each other and with government to share ideas, define community problems and find solutions. For cities, the challenge will be to learn from, adapt to and manage these new pathways to more effective government.

The central premise of civic innovation labs is that they are "bottom-up" problem-solving tools. Their value is in the fact that they live outside of the structured, rule-bound worlds of government and nonprofits. Their freedom from bureaucratic constraints on creativity is likely to be a central source of innovation.

Another strength of these labs is in their variety in models. They can be initiated by governments, nonprofits, universities, private companies, citizens or, through partnerships, some combination of the five. So far, there is no clear consensus on which model has the best impact, but clues are beginning to emerge.

In Chicago, for example, the two-year-old CivicLab is a co-working space focused on social justice and civic engagement. The lab was created by a private citizen who makes the facility open to whichever individuals and groups would like to rent space, and they work on projects specific to Chicago, such as Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, Chicago Votes, and the Young Invincibles project.

The city of Los Angeles partnered with two existing collaboration organizations, Impact Hub Los Angeles and Learn Do Share, and with the city controller's open-data portal to launch L.A.'s Civic Innovation Lab. In a recent innovation session called #DroughtHack, more than 600 designers, data scientists, technologists and others came together to work on issues of water conservation, transportation and community. A partnership of 15 government, nonprofit and community organizations hosted, judged and awarded prizes.

We are seeing large successes in labs that leverage partnership among universities, industry and government. In 2014, Chicago's UI Labs (which stands for University+Industry Labs) received $70 million from the Department of Defense to fund manufacturing innovation. Although pilot projects with manufacturers have just begun, the project reflects years of planning and early funding.

As these innovation labs spread, some effective strategies for nurturing them are emerging. Here are five of the most important:

Engaging the community: Synergy among citizens, technologists, private industry, government officials and data scientists provides fertile ground for ideas and innovation.

Defining spaces for brainstorming and idea sharing: Many individuals can be innovators but are likely to need the process to be facilitated, which can be as simple as providing a room that's free of distractions and equipped with whiteboards.

Seeking a good fit early on: Just because an idea is innovative doesn't mean it will solve the problem at hand. To optimize the process, it's important that the problem be defined early on by as many groups as possible to avoid wasting time on ideas that simply would not work.

Long-term planning and consistent focus: Facilitation that is not sporadic and is well focused is likely to increase innovation, productivity and impact.

Partnership and collaboration: The inclusion of several partners from varied sectors ensures that problems are defined in a nuanced way that takes into consideration as many essential elements as possible.

As innovation labs continue to pop up, it will be important for governments to do a number of things, including tracking whether the innovations that are developed are making an impact -- which includes developing metrics to evaluate investments -- and finding ways to replicate successful models as they emerge. Managing the next generation of civic innovation platforms will itself require innovation.