How ‘Ideation’ Is Growing Business in Memphis

The Tennessee city’s Innovation Delivery Team launched a collaborative effort to generate and implement ideas to spark commerce in struggling neighborhoods.
by | July 10, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

City leaders face tremendous pressure to respond to crises quickly and decisively, and they frequently excel at doing just that. "What are we going to do about this?" or "What can we do about this?" are the sort of questions that drive policy. Too rarely, however, do city officials have the time and space to ask, "What should we do about this?"

In short, municipal policymaking is often a reactive process rather than an active one.

Through its $24 million Innovation Delivery Team Project, in which five cities have been given major grants to create and deploy systems for large-scale municipal innovation, Bloomberg Philanthropies is helping each of the participating cities to change that.

How? By charging each city's Innovation Delivery Team with setting better policy by rapidly generating a range of ideas through creative, collaborative thinking, testing those ideas, and then implementing the ones most likely to succeed. More specifically, this means looking to stakeholders, peers, experts and others for ideas and data about an issue and using that information to rigorously examine those ideas before choosing a direction.

This process is referred to as "ideation," and the Memphis Innovation Delivery Team started it with a road trip.

Charged with boosting businesses in struggling but transitional neighborhoods, the team kicked off its effort by filling a bus with 45 people from virtually every agency in city government, from deputy directors to frontline workers, and taking them to visit the targeted areas.

With the bus tour, the team hoped to accomplish several goals. Team members wanted to get participants to step away from preconceived ideas; foster relationships among agency staff members with varied points of view and responsibilities; and engage everyone in a shared experience. Participants walked away with a fresh sense of each community's very real struggles but also those areas' assets and opportunities.

Next, in an effort to hear what business owners perceived to be the barriers to progress, the team set up what it called "co-creation studios." The team convened local employers for a solid five hours in each neighborhood, encouraging them to describe the challenges they faced, dream about the future and get concrete about what new policies should be developed.

At the same time, the team looked beyond Memphis for ideas and advice, calling in a leading urban-retail planning specialist who set aside three days for a deep-immersion consultation. The expert drove around and observed the neighborhoods, spoke to business owners, residents and government administrators, and then presented key findings and recommendations.

For the Innovation Delivery Team, and for the city, the combination turned out to be revelatory.

On the bus tour, everyone had seen how bad things looked and had assumed that the economy was to blame. But what the team learned as it continued to look and listen was that demand was out there; residents had money and wanted to spend it locally, yet they were leaving their communities to shop. Why? There weren't enough businesses to meet residents' needs. The neighborhoods weren't appealing to shoppers or to potential merchants because of blight, poor property upkeep and fears about crime. Participants in the co-creation studios also noted that another key barrier to economic growth was the city's lack of support for entrepreneurs and existing businesses. The planning expert's report focused on these problems as well, but stressed that the city and the neighborhoods themselves had the tools to conquer them.

The data and the process led to a series of highly targeted initiatives to tackle blight and spark business development. Memphis' plan is anchored in a three-part formula that grew directly out of the ideation phase of the team's work: Clean it (first and foremost, eliminate blight); activate it (spark local ideas and action); and sustain it (align city hall and local resources, approaches and activity).

To clean it, the city is expanding its "25 Square Initiative," an intensive debris-removal and rehabilitation plan that aligns six agencies to revive 25 neighborhood blocks at a time. To activate it, the city is developing a series of creative strategies to spur new ventures including "pop-up retail," which will allow start-ups to test the waters in vacant and underused locations. To sustain it, relevant agencies will be better aligned with local activity, beginning with a major overhaul of the business development agency to provide improved market data and customized assistance.

Rather than simply reacting to the problems in the target communities, Memphis took the time to understand what was happening on the ground and to respond. The result is a plan tailor-made for the communities that it is meant to help-ideation and policymaking at its best.

This is the second in a series of monthly dispatches by New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service examining the Innovation Delivery Teams initiative. The next post, in August, will coincide with a report detailing the techniques and tools that Bloomberg Philanthropies' grantee cities have employed to generate policies that work.