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Article October 26th, 2021

Design-based innovation in practice: reflections from 12 cities across North America

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The tools of the 20th century simply cannot meet the moment for modern governance. Learn how Innovation Training can.

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Learn about the complex and pressing challenges cities tackled with the power of design-based innovation in the inaugural cohort of Innovation Training!

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"The process of learning doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything wrong. It means we’re getting it right through learning."

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From March 2020 to June 2021, the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to deliver the inaugural cohort of Innovation Training, designed to help 12 North American cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with lasting impact. Now, with the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University, we are excited to launch applications for the second cohort of Innovation Training, open to cities across the globe with a demonstrated investment in innovation. 

Engaging youth in city politics in Elk Grove, California. Addressing resource barriers for unhoused communities in Paterson, New Jersey. Building neighborhood connections in Montreal, Canada. These are some of the complex and pressing challenges cities in the inaugural cohort of Innovation Training tackled with the power of design-based innovation.

CPI worked alongside these city teams as they strove to deeply understand their select challenges, generated hundreds of solutions, and tested ideas with residents. The twelve cities that participated in the cohort forged a new path for ways of working in local government that centered human relationships, complexity, and continuous learning. 

Though these cities were equipped with the power of Innovation Training – which includes the support of expert coaches, tailored curriculum, and peer networks – we have identified trends across the cohort that we believe are valuable for any city to consider when faced with a complex challenge. 

The problem focus: design-based innovation can’t be learned in a vacuum

Each city receiving Innovation Training identifies a priority problem to focus on for the duration of the program. Cities in the 2021 cohort prioritized complex challenges that required cross-departmental collaboration, resident partnerships, and a willingness to suspend ‘what teams thought they knew’ in service of ‘what they could learn.’ By pairing training and new tools with hands-on application, cities got to pressure test their skills in the real world – uncovering important lessons about how governments can and should approach problems with an understanding of complexity, an appreciation for identifying ‘the real problem,’ and a recognition that there are no ‘silver bullets.’

Expect complexity

As the world becomes more complex and hyper-connected, governments of the 21st century are taking on bigger, more nuanced, equity-driven challenges than ever before (think climate, racial equity, affordable housing, etc.) – and tools of the 20th century simply cannot meet the moment. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on local governments everywhere to deliver a new level of service, at an exceptional pace for their communities. 

When leading in complex environments, governments must put aside their ‘recipes’ for delivering services and truly design solutions that meet evolving community needs. In Aurora, Illinois, the core team quickly discovered the interconnected web that defines complex challenges when they tested a bold idea of offering free community college to help increase economic prosperity for low and middle income residents. Feedback from residents echoed similarly, with “great idea, but… as residents proceeded to explain the transportation, childcare, and income trade-off scenarios that would prevent them from being able to even take advantage of the city’s idea. 

Tools of the 20th century simply cannot meet the moment.

In that moment, the team reflected that “conversations with residents can generate ‘unlocks,’ helping us see things in ways we never had before.” Taking the human-first, feedback-led approach that design-based innovation teaches helped the team in Aurora pivot to instead develop an idea that would help residents navigate the complexity of the system to remove barriers to their chosen career paths.  

Understand the ‘actual problem’

Suspending the belief of ‘city as the expert’ helped teams look at their problems in new ways and recognize the power that sits outside of government, but within their community. Innovation Training asks cities to actively challenge their own assumptions about a problem and prioritize the varied perspectives of their communities, who bring the expertise of lived experience. 

This insight helped the team reframe their understanding of the problem from a short-term bandaid to a set of long term solutions

In South Bend, Indiana, the team initially set out to explore short term solutions to provide utility assistance to residents during the COVID-19 crisis. However, by talking to residents who were most acutely impacted by the problem during the pandemic, the team quickly realized that easily accessing assistance programs had long been a challenge in the city. This insight helped the team reframe their understanding of the problem from a short-term bandaid to a set of long term solutions aimed at re-imaging the experience of someone receiving assistance from the city. With ideas ranging from minimizing repeating and arduous paperwork to using thoughtful and inclusive language, South Bend hopes to destigmatize receiving aid. By taking time to deeply understand the challenge through the eyes – and voice – of their communities, cities can move towards addressing underlying root causes rather than symptoms of the problem, rendering potential solutions more powerful and impactful.

Recognize there are no silver bullets

One of the key skills cities learn in Innovation Training is ideation – a central principle to design-based innovation. Ideation is a structured process by which city teams generate hundreds of ideas in partnership with the community. One of the only ‘rules’ we teach is that in ideation, quantity is more important than quality because we fundamentally believe more ideas from a variety of sources will lead to better ideas in the end

It’s so important to not build the solution that I think someone should want and instead work with our residents to build the solution they need

With this rule in mind, the cohort of cities generated more than 4,000 ideas for how the cities could make an impact on their identified challenges, ranging from robot-built smart homes to ‘Let’s Taco-Bout It’ youth engagement food trucks to universal applications for assistance programs. Teams ultimately prioritized the 4,000 ideas down to a portfolio of 80 (about 5-7 per city) that they plan to implement, but were left challenging the common belief that there is a silver bullet idea just waiting to be discovered. 

As a team member from Bend, Oregon said, “It’s so important to not build the solution that I think someone should want and instead work with our residents to build the solution they need – I’ve done customer service jobs my entire life so I thought I already knew that, but I didn’t.” 

Empowering individuals to lead change from where they sit, at any level of government

Each of the 130 individual core team members that participated in Innovation Training brought their own unique experiences and perspectives to the program. Many walked in the first day skeptical about whether design-based innovation would add value or be a waste of time. Others came in with an open-mind and excitement for the professional development opportunity. 

After 9 months, 99% of participants believed the program equipped them to generate deeper impact in their communities – developing a set of skills and mindsets that encourage anyone to be an ‘innovator,’ at any level of government. Team members developed an appreciation for deep learning, equitable collaboration, and grounding purpose to bring into their future work across City Halls.

Prioritize the value of learning

During Innovation Training, teams conduct a multi-month sprint to develop and test prototypes of their most promising ideas with residents, before committing to implementing them at scale. For an industry where the mere concept of failure is worse than ‘a four letter word’, flipping the script to share a work in progress with residents can be massively uncomfortable. However, building a culture and practice of learning is critical to driving impact in complex environments – and ensuring that our final programs, policies, and services truly meet community needs. 

Rather than conducting research that ends up on a shelf, the research is alive - residents get to touch it, change it, make it better!

During the testing process, one team member reflected, “The process of learning doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything wrong. It means we’re getting it right through learning. It gave us the road signs for where to go next” with another commenting, “our second prototype failed, but in that failure we learned so many valuable things that will allow us to create a better solution.”  

Key to these reflections is a focus on action learning, driving insights to develop a culture of experimentation and continuous improvement through learning from and alongside the community. 

As Deanna Baker in Tallahassee reflected, “Rather than conducting research that ends up on a shelf, the research is alive - residents get to touch it, change it, make it better! The transparency of the process also builds trust. Knowing that their government cares and not only listens to their concerns, but actively seeks input, is exactly what our residents need.” 

Focus on equity

With challenges like food insecurity, career access for immigrant communities, and homelessness, a thoughtful approach to ‘equitable governance’ was critical to co-designing interventions for impact – from outreach to residents closest to the problem, to creative and inclusive digital engagement, to designing solutions that specifically target elements of inequitable systems. Thankfully, cities got to work with a set of brilliant design coaches who had deep insights on how to question one’s own assumptions, build humility, and truly value and honor the lived experience of residents.

A thoughtful approach to ‘equitable governance’ was critical to co-designing interventions for impact

In Kingston, Canada, the team started with a broader focus on workforce development for post-pandemic recovery; but after engaging deeply with their residents, they zoomed in to focus specifically on solutions to support their ‘newcomer’ and immigrant communities. They realized that newcomers faced more compounding barriers to job access than any other group and recognized the systemic challenges that contributed to this, including the uncomfortable truth that their Kingston community wasn’t always inclusive. In building the humility to recognize their own exclusion, the vulnerability to share it out loud, and the commitment to work hand-in-hand with newcomers across language barriers (the team used translators!), they were able to co-design solutions that prioritized building human connections between newcomers and city staff to improve resource and job access.  

Across the cohort, team members recognized the value – and necessity – of working with communities closest to the problem and honoring the lived experience of residents to guide their work.

Emphasize purpose

Public servants enter local government because they care deeply about their communities and want to make an impact. While that sentiment remains true, the day-to-day realities of government jobs can make it difficult for public servants to keep their eye on that vision. This has only been exacerbated over the past year as governments focus shifted to respond to the rapidly evolving context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many participants, Innovation Training can help re-affirm the value of public service and remind us all that this is ‘why we do what we do.’  

But working collaboratively with residents, across departmental silos, and towards a shared mission can have a powerful effect. For many participants, Innovation Training can help re-affirm the value of public service and remind us all that this is ‘why we do what we do.’  

As Juliana Baldwin-Munoz shared in El Paso, Texas, “To have the opportunity to feel reenergized in our work in public service and to feel connected in conversations, especially during a pandemic, was cathartic, game changing and validating at a personal and professional level. This work matters because it underscores valuing people in how we show up for our organizations and communities.”

Changing the operating system of city government from the inside-out

While Innovation Training is undoubtedly important in terms of creating solutions for the specific problems teams sought to address, we believe the culture shift it can spark within government to be equally important. Innovation Training helps cities reframe the value proposition of innovation from a peripheral ‘nice to have’ to a critical skill-set for every public servant. In the inaugural cohort, we saw this take shape as cities broke down historical silos of operation, focused on dispersing innovation to the front lines of city hall, and ultimately prioritized continued investment. 

Break down silos

In Innovation Training, each city formed a diverse, cross-departmental team to tackle the challenge from varied perspectives and skill sets, helping break down silos in traditional government working models. This enabled team members to both embrace their ‘expert hat’ knowing they brought a unique perspective, and take it off – knowing that their perspective was only one specific point of view. They had much to learn about the challenge, from their colleagues and residents alike. For many city teams, this was the first time these staff had met each other or got to work with city employees outside their departments.

In Glendale, California, the Chief Innovation Officer intentionally developed a diverse team representing 7 city departments, from a GIS manager who could consider the challenge of food insecurity and food bank access through geography and mapping, to a City Attorney representative who can consider potential risk management strategies. As one team member shared, “It was fun to collaborate interdepartmentally and get new ideas, meet new people, and have new experiences.” 

For many city teams, this was the first time these staff had met each other or got to work with city employees outside their departments.

For many, it was energizing to become more connected to the city and its mission, helping them generate interconnected solutions and build their network of peers to call on for future projects. Building on their experience in Innovation Training, more and more cities are looking at ongoing strategies to replicate teaming models across departments and silos.

Make ongoing investments in innovation

The last year has taught us that innovation is more important than ever as cities need new ways of doing things to deliver the services – and tackle the wicked challenges – their residents need to thrive. 

After the training concluded, cities are making meaningful investments in scaling this way of working:

  • Scottsdale, Arizona is developing a design-based innovation unit within their High Performance and Innovation Team to place a stronger emphasis on community collaboration and co-design, led by a team member and librarian. 

  • San Pedro, Mexico has replicated the methodology to reimagine their public consultation process for major development projects, and is already piloting new ideas to further amplify community voices closest to the problem. 

  • El Paso, Texas and others are investing in innovation capacity development across their organization, with the goal to train all city employees in design and innovation. 

Meeting the moment requires a recognition that any public servant can be an innovator, if empowered to do so and aided by core skills and a supportive culture. Innovation Training supports teams to disseminate innovative ways of working into the daily work of thousands of city hall employees. 

Moving forward

During the inaugural cohort of Innovation Training, the scope and breadth of issues tackled by the participating cities was astounding - teams generated more than 4,000 ideas and tested almost 50 prototypes with residents. While we learned much about the distinct challenges of each community, we also learned about the power of innovation – 99% of last year’s participants would recommend a colleague participate in the training.

Innovation Training represents the evolution of a more human and intentional system of government that devolves power to the frontlines and (most importantly) to the people. This approach to governance is what will allow communities across the country to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and continuously rise to the complex, ever-evolving challenges of our time.


Learn more about Innovation Training and apply to participate in our upcoming cohort. If you have any questions, please reach out to our team. Applications are due November 19, 2021. 

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