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Commentary Article January 19th, 2022
Cities • Innovation • Delivery

Reaching for What’s Next in Scottsdale, Arizona

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.@ScottsdaleReads participated in @BloombergDotOrg @CPI_foundation Innovation Training, helping cities adopt innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting & scaling ideas w/ potential long-term impact

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.@ebkriley shares that Innovation Training "equipped me with skills I needed so that I could deal with pandemic limitations, letting go of the way I’d always done things, to building an innovation team for the city to come up with new approaches to issues"

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"I was unfamiliar with the concepts of #humancentereddesign, but the idea seemed so reasonable. When I explain it, I boil it down to this: ask real people what they really need and deliver it in the way that serves them best." @ebkriley #ScottsdaleReads

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From March 2020 to June 2021, Scottsdale, AZ participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Training. Delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), Innovation Training is designed to help cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact.

“Let us not return to normal, but reach for what is next” Amanda Gorman

When I started Innovation Training in August 2020, I had just wrapped up a stint with our city’s Economic Development department, working remotely with a team of colleagues temporarily diverted from their regular jobs across the city to answer questions about pandemic financial rescue programs for small business owners and self-employed contractors. Every day I researched local, state, and federal programs and shared that knowledge with people who were in the middle of a waking nightmare, watching their life’s work wither and die while trying to figure out how to maintain an income and possibly avoid losing everything. I am a librarian, so the research was no problem, but the heart-wrenching phone calls with people in my community who were struggling with well-founded existential dread was not in my everyday wheelhouse. The best I could do was walk people through the PPP application process, fielding questions about the constantly evolving policies and commiserating about the wish to “get back to normal.”

While I worked with the small business assistance group, I was also somewhat frantically trying to do my own job at the library. Right up until February 2020, I’d worked with library staff to develop a smorgasbord of book discussions, computer classes, film series, and creativity workshops. When the libraries locked down briefly, maintaining temporarily limited drive up services, I optimistically rescheduled everything, thinking we would be back on track in no time. By summer, when we had just one branch open with very limited hours and our circulation of electronic materials was the only positive statistic, I realized I had to scrap everything for 2020 and stop clinging to the hope of resuming “normal operations” on some un-named magical date when the coronavirus had been vanquished sufficiently to allow people to gather in groups and ‘do stuff’ again. So, I confess, I went into Innovation Training with a weary skepticism and a recently pervasive dread about the future, not an invigorated beginner’s mind and can-do attitude. I went into it thinking it was something to do until I could get back to what I was used to doing.

What I didn’t know was that Innovation Training was going to be the opposite of a distraction until life went “back to normal,” because it would equip me with exactly the skills I needed so that I could deal with pandemic limitations, letting go of the way I’d always done things (goodbye “back to normal”) to reinvent library services and now, to begin to build an innovation team for the city to come up with new approaches to issues identified by departments across the city.

My re-education started with the first Bloomberg Philanthropies/Centre for Public Impact training boot-camp, a lively day-long zoom meeting (yes, really!) which included the whole cohort of teams from 16 cities across North America and offered a chance to talk with people working in many municipal government departments and hear some excellent tunes in the background while we worked. The team offering the training had just been through their own COVID-driven “innovation on demand” as they retooled the program to accommodate remote collaboration, something I deployed just months later at the library as we offered online computer learning classes and job search assistance for people who were struggling to learn new skills and find work in the new remote-only world. 

That first day we were introduced to the format that would shape the training for the following nine months—shared screens, genuinely engaging webinar presentations, and opportunities to reflect on the techniques we were learning as we began to put them into practice. I was unfamiliar with the concepts of human centered design, but the idea seemed so reasonable. When I explain it, I boil it down to this: ask real people what they really need and deliver it in the way that serves them best. To start, we were given a high-level overview of the whole process, based on the infinity shaped diagram which breaks the innovation journey into three key phases: Understand, Generate, Deliver. Then, for the rest of the day, we flew through a super accelerated version of the design process, during which I collaborated from my dining room table with a lovely man from San Antonio city government on an extremely low fidelity prototype of a public transportation app. I have kept the piece of copier paper I folded into eighths and decorated with hand drawn app icons to remind me of how remarkable this process can be if you just let yourself work the through the steps and don’t try to edit yourself or your team too much in the early stages.

I was unfamiliar with the concepts of human centered design, but the idea seemed so reasonable. When I explain it, I boil it down to this: ask real people what they really need and deliver it in the way that serves them best.

When our city team met virtually the following week, I was energized even though I had no idea how to approach the challenge that had been set for our team. We were asked to develop a strategy to decrease the number of non-emergency calls made to 911 in Scottsdale because they were diverting resources and expertise from genuine emergencies, identified as crimes in progress, fires, and medical emergencies requiring immediate care and transport.

With the initial training under our belt and the guidance of an excellent coach, Erin Huizenga, we hit the ground running and started the Understand phase. As we dug into the problem, looking at city call statistics, it became clear that most of the non-emergency calls came from our older population. Talking with stakeholders ranging from seniors who had called 911 to dispatchers and first responders to social workers who offer senior services, we learned that many seniors (and their informal caregivers) in our city were dealing with a lack of medical, financial, and social resources and were also experiencing real disconnection from the community.

This gave us a frame for the problem and allowed us to move on to the Generate Phase where we gathered more input and had some great ideation workshops with residents and city employees in several departments. We’d learned that the city has many resources available, but the community is often unaware of them. This led us to a portfolio of ideas ranging from a pet adoption project to a non- emergency panic button. From there, the team analyzed the portfolio with the help of our coach and staff from CPI and decided to prototype projects which would focus on the need to increase community connection and the accessibility of resources. There were two projects: a network of neighborhood volunteers who could check in on seniors in their area and a curated, updatable list of available resources to share with city staff and make widely available to seniors and caregivers.

As we eased into the Deliver phase, we mocked up very low-fi prototypes for each project which could be tested in a Zoom environment. We then incorporated testers’ suggestions into a second round of prototypes which we tested again at a higher level of fidelity to get more detailed feedback. A few weeks later, we delivered a plan for implementation of both projects and presented it to mayor, council, and city managers.

To try to capture the nine-month Innovation Training program in a short article is almost impossible, because each step offered so many lightbulb moments-- chances to learn new ways of thinking that moved me further and further away from my wish to get “back to normal” and closer and closer to breaking new ground. It was an existential shift because it became clear to me that moving forward was so much more sensible. As someone, maybe Socrates, said, “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” In that sense, this training couldn’t have come at a better time, when the opportunity to leave the old behind was thrust on us by the global pandemic.

To try to capture the nine-month Innovation Training program in a short article is almost impossible, because each step offered so many lightbulb moments-- chances to learn new ways of thinking that moved me further and further away from my wish to get “back to normal” and closer and closer to breaking new ground.

I’m happy to say I have used this method multiple times, launching projects at the library this year. Just thinking of pandemic driven “innovation on demand,” I lead a team to establish a virtual library branch so that patrons can register for and renew library cards and access many library services safely from the comfort of their own computer or phone. We were already answering reference and account services questions online, but those services were overhauled and moved to a more user-friendly platform based on staff and patron feedback. These possibilities had been discussed before the pandemic, but COVID drove the need to offer contactless services into high gear.

For each service, we developed the access for patron interaction, tested it with a limited number of users to see where the bugs were, and improved the access on both the staff and patron side based on the user feedback. As a pilot, we launched the public interfaces with a small team of staff and gathered more ideas for the improvement of the reply process. Once the best practices were incorporated, we scaled the program and rolled out training for the whole staff so that everyone who worked at a public service desk in the library system could also work at our virtual service desk. With the basics constructed, we built additions by developing ways to offer more individualized services such as book recommendations and assistance with computers and devices for patrons who needed help to dip into the world of electronic books streaming media.

Each time, we piloted an idea with a small group, learned from feedback and improved the user experience. Not everything worked though, so it was also important to be able to let go sometimes and know that we could not simply reiterate for success. For a time, we piloted a virtual job help program in partnership with volunteers from one of the city’s community assistance centers, but we found that the offering the services with registration through the library’s calendar only slowed down the process for our patrons. The volunteers themselves came up with an easier system for making appointments with people who needed assistance and bid the library adieu. They won the city’s award for biggest volunteer impact of 2020.

Which brings me to the present and the preparation I’m doing for the first meeting of a citywide Innovation Team (I Team) this week. As our city program wrapped up, I was offered the amazing opportunity to join the city’s High Performance and Innovation Team and build a Scottsdale innovation team to develop solutions for problems facing the city using the methods modeled in the training. Happily, I’m joined by a couple of members from our city training cohort as well as some new faces, people who are excited by the idea of inclusive human-centered innovation put to work to solve a range of problems in new ways. I am lucky to be in a city embracing innovation on many fronts, such as the Smart Cities initiative, I’m looking forward to the first meeting, knowing that we have been trained in how to make effective change, and make difference.

So even though I began the Innovation Training to get “back to normal,” the thing I’ve really learned is that back is not a direction we want to go. Poet Amanda Gorman just released a poem, New Day Lyric, for the new year and I’ve read it and listened to her deliver it many times in the past week or so. The line that I hear over and over in my head is: “Let us not return to normal, but reach toward what is next.” With the innovation mindset I’ve acquired, I know I will be able to deal with the need to continue evolving as the city and the world keep changing. I have the tools and the permission to stop thinking about getting back to normal and keep reaching for what is next.

Written by:

Erin Krause Riley Adult Services Coordinator, Scottsdale Public Library system
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