Prototyping Change I Municipal Journal

‘This is not like a normal council’s so much more’, words from an attendee to the recent launch of Comoodle by Kirklees Council; their response to a growing appreciation of the merits of the sharing economy, and the use of radical innovation to address complex social challenges.

Comoodle is an online platform that facilitates the sharing of ‘stuff, skills and space’ by citizens and for the community, and forms part of the winning cohort of projects involved in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge - an ideas competition designed to encourage and support European cities to generate big, innovative ideas that tackle acute social problems, and have the potential to spread to other cities around the world.

Cities including Barcelona, Warsaw, Stockholm, Kirklees, and Athens are implementing very different ideas, from addressing political disengagement to ageing populations, but they are coming together as a group to share their experiences. Through face to face events and a virtual community, Innovation Unit are supporting this process by facilitating the cities to share their stories, reflect and learn from one another's experiences, and, crucially, build on the potential for those ideas to spread to other cities.

Most recently the Comoodle event, designed to engage stakeholders in informing the development of the project, provided a perfect opportunity for reflection via an international teleconference, complete with a film of the day to help the Mayors Challenge Community to co-critique the pros and cons of doing things differently. The conversation was wide ranging and expressive of the different cultural contexts each city is working in; however it prompted recognition of some common themes in engaging people (citizens and colleagues) across cities and tips for how to approach these challenges.

Engaging citizens: building a social movement

In developing innovative projects that seek to deal with social issues, citizens will always need to sit at the heart of a solution. This is not just about listening to and understanding needs, but actively harnessing citizen support, skills and passion to improve community life.

Engagement is therefore an important part of each city's delivery plan and all have had to think long and hard about how they do this in an effective and meaningful way that challenges the reputation of tokenistic consultation in local government.

While there was a shared sense that people like to participate and are pleased to be asked, most cities expressed a concern about the level of scepticism from citizens. Indeed, when ‘government’ has been talking to ‘citizens’ in much the same way for a long time and citizens don’t see a positive outcome or benefit, why wouldn’t they be? User engagement is not a quick fix, it is hard.

Tips on how to overcome scepticism:

  • Segment your audience and understand their motivations. 
  • Think about why different people get involved in community activity, and how you can create distinct opportunities that appeal to these different motivations. 
  • Provide people with a framework, such as an outline process, structure, or timeline, so that they can see what they are contributing to, when and how. 

Embedding new ways of working: culture change and professional identity

Across the public sector, providers and professionals are seeking to change the nature of the relationship with people and communities, with a view to engaging in mutually reciprocal partnerships for the design and delivery of services. Such a shift is commonly held as being critical to the long term sustainability of the public sector.

Different forms of interaction, where we not only ask citizens what they think, but, more radically, give them a practical role in testing and delivering new ideas, is the start of changing that relationship. Prototyping represents a practical manifestation of that ambition, a set of tools and methods that allows public servants to work directly with communities to test new ideas.

Tips on how to adopt and embed new approaches:

  • Demonstrate the value by applying prototyping in practice in some relatively bounded ways 
  • Build in a feedback loop that connects this work to city administration structures and processes 

Multi-disciplinary teams: working at the boundaries of partnerships

Innovation projects that are successful in tackling challenges, such as obesity and social isolation, require knitting together those people with a range of skills from a variety of different backgrounds. This is particularly challenging when city officials are often constrained by the organisational structures in which they work. When resources are scarce and the pressure to deliver against a set of prescribed priorities mounts, it can be difficult to persuade public servants to focus on a different set of collaborative priorities which distract from their day to day responsibilities.

Tips on how to bring teams together from different departments or contexts:

  • Create energy. Work with those that are interested to generate momentum and the others will come. You might find those early allies and co-conspirators in unusual quarters. 
  • Use intrigue to draw people in. If something looks and feels unusual and exciting, it will act as a magnet, sparking people’s interest and drawing them towards you. 
  • Create both formal and informal spaces for people to convene around the work. 

It’s clear that Bloomberg Philanthropes’ Mayors Challenge winners are challenging entrenched assumptions about the way in which local public services should operate. Over the next year, Innovation Unit will continue to bring the cities together at crucial points in their project delivery lifecycles to develop the themes further, as well as collaboratively overcoming the new hurdles they will inevitably face. Challenges aside, these city innovators could herald and shape a new type of society we all want to live in - an exciting prospect indeed.

Published 9 June 2015 - Paul Roberts is Chair of the Innovation Unit
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