The Kind of Innovation That Can Move a Community Forward

It's not about new technology, policy or specific reforms. It's about how all of the players take ownership of a common concern.

Recently I was on the public-radio program "Innovation Trail" in Rochester, N.Y., to talk about "public innovation." Afterward, the station wrote on its website that such interviews serve "as reminders of how often the 'innovation conversation' is framed in terms of technology and economics." But as we discussed on-air, there's another way to define it.

Rochester is home to Eastman Kodak, the venerable, now-suffering company best known for making camera film that is feverishly trying to transform itself into a digital-technology company. To Kodak, innovation is about developing new product lines that generate high profits. But Rochester also is trying to transform itself from a town once dependent upon Kodak to a community with a more diverse economic base, a revitalized downtown and stronger public schools, among other goals.

Even when talk turns to innovation regarding community goals, as it has in Rochester, the tendency among community leaders, funders, activists and others is to focus on specific education reforms, local tax policy or perhaps infrastructure plans. Other conversations about innovation often center on the use of mobile devices, development of new online platforms or the launch of new citizen-participation processes.

All are potentially important. Each is possibly necessary. But, I believe, they miss a larger point.

When the public-radio hosts asked me to define public innovation, I said that it is about how we choose to see what is around us in a community and to make choices and judgments about how to move forward. In other words, public innovation isn't necessarily about something shiny or new or complex but about something that works better, leads to better results and creates a better pathway forward.

It is about how communities generate and re-generate themselves. For example, the Harwood Institute (of which I am president) is working with several community institutions and the city government in Battle Creek, Mich., in an effort to address issues concerning vulnerable children in a way that altogether changes how these institutions and others work together in the community.

What's happening in Battle Creek illustrates this: Innovation in a community is about how that community comes to take ownership of a common concern and how strategies are developed that fit the local context. And yet so often we rush to plug-and-play solutions that may have worked elsewhere but aren't right for our particular community. That's not innovation.

Innovation is about how to actively create a community's enabling environment: focusing on what it takes to generate the underlying conditions - such as norms for interaction, layers of leadership and networks for learning and innovation -- that are necessary for productive change to emerge, take root and spread. Innovation is about knowing that while creating measurable impact is essential, so too is whether people hold the belief that they actually can produce something meaningful together. And innovation is about understanding that stories and narratives, and how they are discovered and constructed, play a critical role in signaling to people that change is possible.

This type of innovation demands that we each step forward ready to engage in a different way. We must be willing to see and hear people around us, especially those who are different from us and who challenge our comfort levels. It means that we must be willing to make choices and judgments about where to place limited resources.

Being "ruthlessly strategic" is at the heart of public innovation. We can't be all things to all people. We must be willing to place a stake in the ground about the change we think is necessary and must be ready to re-calibrate those ideas as conditions around us change. But it must start with turning ourselves outward, learning to engage differently so that we can move forward together.

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

Rich Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md.