Recently, I was on the public radio program “Innovation Trail” in Rochester, N.Y. to talk about “public innovation.” The station posted the following statement on its website about my appearance: “Two recent interviews by Innovation Trail served 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 though now long-suffering company best known for making camera film and now 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, the tendency among community leaders, funders, activists and others is to focus on specific education reforms, local tax policy, or maybe infrastructure plans and the like. 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 potentially important. Each possibly necessary. But, I believe, they miss a larger point.

When the public radio hosts from Rochester 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 intentional choices and judgments about how to move a community 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 is working with partners in Battle Creek, Mich. – including the local United Way, Chamber of Commerce, Kellogg Community College, Project 20/20, BC Pulse and the city government. These entities are focused on addressing issues concerning vulnerable children in a way that altogether changes how they and others work together in the community.

Indeed, the very output from being innovative may be so simple that it hardly seems to be an innovation. Consider, for instance, the following example: innovation can involve changing the way we talk about a common concern in a community. Is the discussion framed in terms of “problems,” which usually degenerates into people pointing fingers and placing blame for what’s wrong in the community? Or is it about our shared aspirations for what we are trying to do right?

The public innovation I have in mind starts with an orientation, a mindset: Are we turned outward toward our community? Put another way, is the community our reference point for our efforts, or is our reference point our conference room? This is a vital distinction. The danger here is that we innovate in a vacuum, based on our own wishes, our own beliefs on what we need, our own personal desire to increase our notoriety.

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 of the community. 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 necessary for productive change to emerge, take root and spread. Such conditions include norms for interaction, layers of leadership, networks for learning and innovation. The civic culture of a community – like the culture of an organization – is critical to whether a community can move forward.

Innovation is about knowing that while creating measurable impact is essential, so too is whether people hold the belief that they and others actually can produce something meaningful together. Engendering belief in a way that is authentic, real, and lasting requires us to rethink how people can feel part of something larger than themselves, how to engage people so that we work together, and even how to celebrate ways that lead to greater confidence within a community.

Innovation is understanding that stories and narratives play a critical role in signaling to people that change is even possible – and that their own engagement is pivotal to that change ever occurring. How to discover and construct such stories, and then weaving them into a naturally unfolding narrative requires innovation.

The type of innovation I am speaking about 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 own 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 we must be ready to re-calibrate those ideas as conditions around us change.

Public innovation starts with a turn – of ourselves.  We must be turned outward. Then we must engage differently so that we can move forward together.

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One Response to What Does Public Innovation Mean?

  1. [...] We saw yet another great piece recently from our friends at the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, an NCDD organizational member – this time reflecting on the meaning of “public innovation”. We encourage you to read the piece below or find the original here. [...]

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