Reflections on Innovation

Some observations after nearly four years of reporting on the City Accelerator
June 27, 2017 AT 11:00 AM
After being with City Accelerator since its inception, Ron Littlefield offers some observations on the characteristics of innovation. David Kidd
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Editor’s Note: Ron Littlefield has been the voice of the City Accelerator since its debut in May 2014, providing continuing commentary on the work of the Accelerator and issues of civic innovation. His work has helped explain and animate the work of the cities that have sought to create a culture of innovation, meaningfully engage their residents and bring a sense of equity to the procurement process. He filed this retrospective on what he has seen over the years.

During my (nearly) four years with City Accelerator, the effort to encourage innovation in government has involved more than two dozen cities, including those offering proposals and those that went on to become participants. As a group, this collection of very different and diverse communities has explored a broad range of topics and initiatives. By any measure, it’s impressive.  Looking back over the course of the work and in a somewhat personal attempt to sum things up, please permit me to offer the following thoughts and observations.

It’s all about leadership, not lip service. Innovation is by definition: The introduction of something new (per Merriam-Webster). And as most true innovators will tell you, that introduction of anything new often involves change, and change is often not well received. It’s one thing to introduce something new and quite another to get that new thing fully accepted and adopted. The process requires leadership -- a strong, dedicated and determined champion (or team of champions) -- to move things along from beginning to end. The road to successful innovation is often rough and tortuous. The cost in political capital or even personal popularity can be quite high.

Observation: when making the choice to pursue innovation, it’s essential that the leadership accept the task with eyes wide open -- fully aware that it might sound interesting and exciting at the outset, but at times it might not be all that much fun.

Time is of the essence. Since innovation is rarely quick and easy, the process must move along with all due speed. Talented leadership and staff members tend to come and go. When smart and creative workers are assigned to an innovative task, the very value of their unique skills, abilities and commitment might suddenly result in a promotion or lead to a totally new career path outside of government. The effect of such a staff change can be devastating in the course of a long-term project.

Alternately, the winds of politics can change abruptly. Sudden controversy can prevent the most courageous champions from making the necessary moves to drive innovation forward. Term limits and challenging elections can cause a loss of momentum or even total reversal. Even the best of mayors and city managers don’t remain in their positions forever. When looking back at the group of City Accelerator communities that started down the path of innovation with us, it’s remarkable just how much change in staff and leadership has occurred in a relatively short period of time.

Observation: The window of opportunity to effect innovation and to successfully implement positive change can slam shut suddenly and without warning. So, move quickly.

Resistance is inevitable, and even essential. If there is no push back, then there is most likely no innovation. I have never seen anything worth doing that did not generate some resistance. Late in my last term as mayor, I decided to resurrect what seemed like a minor issue that had been sidelined a few years earlier: the city flag. The city’s old flag was almost identical to the State of Tennessee flag and, as a result, was rarely used due to the confusion between the two. The city had designed a new flag in the 1990s and had even held public hearings to set the stage for adoption. For whatever reason, the process was never completed. So, I brought it forward and members of the council predicted quick and easy passage. I disagreed and figured there would be push back and resistance. Sure enough, people who had never seen the old flag suddenly came forward and proclaimed their allegiance to it. It’s a long story, but we managed to secure enough council support for adoption of the colorful new flag and now everyone seems to remember that they were in favor of it in the first place. 

Observation: It’s human nature to hold fast to the status quo and if anything is worth doing, someone will resist it.

It’s important to employ new technology. Seattle’s mayor made the right call when he moved the city’s neighborhood organizational structure toward a greater use of social media and away from traditional meetings. He took a strong and courageous stand and probably felt the sting of adverse public opinion as a result. He was quickly targeted by those who were tied to the old system and did not fully understand the new. But he noted that by narrowly aiming our civic engagement resources at citizens willing and able to attend meetings, we might be missing a much larger part of today’s population. He was right. And while another example was not a City Accelerator community, I could not help but be impressed that Roanoke, Va. -- a city of 90,000 -- has 180,000 Facebook followers.

Observation: It’s the Digital Age and social media is here to stay. Let’s use the new technology.

But one shouldn’t overlook the tried and true. And yet, we are not all Millennials. In the course of pursuing its City Accelerator project, Philadelphia confirmed that citizens -- particularly the elderly and low income -- are much more likely to pay attention to something that comes in the mail if it is in a large brown envelope that has been hand addressed. Furthermore, simple forms that are easy to read and use everyday language are more often completed and returned. 

Observation: It should have been obvious, but it was worth the investment to confirm that sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.

Transformational is better than incremental. If you’re going to stir things up, do it right. The necessary commitment of time and energy might as well serve some greater purpose. This isn’t the best example of innovation, but it’s still a good example of human nature: In the 1950s, two major thoroughfares in Chattanooga were made into a one-way pair of streets to facilitate east/west traffic movement through downtown. When much of the heavy traffic and practically all the large trucks began to use the newly constructed Interstate Highways in the late 1960s, dramatically reduced traffic volumes enabled the city to rethink the earlier action. Over the years, a number of adjustments were made in intersections and traffic signals to address serious safety problems.  Finally, the decision was made to restore the streets to a full two-way configuration. Adverse reaction was swift and dramatic. A committee to “Save our Streets” was formed that included among its leaders a former mayor, a former city traffic engineer and a current member of the city council. Even some property owners and businesses that had resisted making the streets one-way in the 1950s showed up to challenge the new plans half a century later.

Despite predictions of disaster, the council majority held firm and the streets were restored to two-way status. The transformational action accomplished what decades of incremental efforts had failed to achieve. Suddenly, the streets were safer and the properties along the way became more desirable and prosperous. Even some of those who had opposed both changes 50 years apart admitted that the disruption of the most recent action was worth it. 

Observation: While baby steps might eventually get you there, giant steps are faster and usually more effective.

We should call it what it is (and what it isn’t). The term “innovation” has become such a buzzword that we often see it misused in referring to something old and familiar -- something that has been around for a long time. We have all seen leaders -- especially elected leaders -- mislabel something as an “innovation” when it really isn’t. Traffic cameras and police body cameras are no longer innovations. LED lights were an innovation 10 years ago, but the ability to use that technology in new and different ways might still qualify as an innovation now. It can be dangerous to try and pass something off as an innovation when a few key strokes in a Google search can quickly determine that it’s really not so new after all. 

Observation: It might not seem to be a very important point to some, but in the business of change, please let us not diminish the value of the term “innovation.”

As we are passing through this particular time in history, let’s make the most of it. “Innovation” might be a buzzword, and in some cases it might accurately be characterized as more marketing hype than actual substance, but for now it’s useful. As a city planner for the last 40+ years, managing change has always been a constant challenge throughout my career. It has always been my belief -- confirmed by decades of observation -- that there can be no true progress without true change. So let’s call it innovation and make it popular. At the very least, it gives license to those who are reluctant and encouragement to the faint of heart. Perhaps by making innovation something to be sought after, something to be capitalized upon and ingrained in the culture, those timid and reluctant leaders that might otherwise cling tenaciously to the status quo will be moved to relax their grip just a bit and accept something new, different and better. 

It’s an exciting time to be in the business of cities, and City Accelerator is helping to make it a successful and productive “Age of Innovation.”

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.