The Innovation Equation

October 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

In his book Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers writes that innovation “presents an individual or an organization with a new alternative or alternatives, with new means of solving problems.” The key words here are alternatives and problems. Every organization is presented with problems. The standard way of addressing them is to provide more resources. An innovation is a means of solving problems that is an alternative to adding resources.

Since local governments will continue to face severe fiscal constraints for the foreseeable future, their ability to solve problems through increased spending will be limited, creating what many call an innovation imperative. The conundrum for government leaders is that innovation cannot be created on command. There isn’t much that is useful in simply telling city employees to go forth and innovate. What leaders can do is establish the conditions for innovation to flourish.

So what are these critical conditions? Working with the nonprofit Living Cities, Governing has identified seven elements for fostering the innovation cities need. We believe that the work of cities should be dynamically planned, race-informed, resident-involved, employee-engaged, broadly partnered, data-driven and smartly resourced.

To get an idea of how well cities are actually equipping themselves to innovate, we’ve begun surveying mayors, city managers and chief innovation officers in each of the nation’s 250 most populous cities, asking them to rate their performance on about 10 specific outcomes for each of the seven elements. We’ll identify the top performers in a report next year, and recognize their achievements at the annual Summit on Government Performance and Innovation, which we jointly host with Living Cities. You can find lots more information about the report at

This work will also allow us to identify and then focus on areas in which cities are having more difficulty. We are confident that we will gain robust data that will later inform presentations and discussions around the whole concept of urban innovation.

Innovation is more important than ever for our cities, caught as they are in a vise between residents’ rising expectations and growing distrust of government. The cities that measure what they do in comparison to their peers, and that experiment with and improve their systems and operations, will be developing and embedding a new urban practice that will enable them to improve the lives of their residents regardless of the challenges they face.