Big Thoughts, General Technology, Government

Civic Innovation: Ready, Set, Go!

One of the reasons I moved from a successful 20-year career innovating in the private sector to spending time serving the public sector wasn’t because it was a premier place to innovate. In fact, I was attracted to the public sector exactly because it was the opposite.

Let me explain.

During the 2000’s, looking across industry domains, it was becoming obvious that highly disruptive business transformations were beginning. From newspapers to telecommunications; from entertainment to banking; from healthcare to retail and so on, there was hardly an industry that was–or would be–untouched by the transition from analog to digital; from manual to automation; and from inefficient to optimized.

But among all the transitional chaos, one big section of our economy was largely sitting idly, functioning poorly, and generally being bypassed by the energy seen elsewhere. This was the nation’s largest employer: the government.

An opportunity to innovate emerges

For me, and as it turns out a whole lot of other motivated people, this seemed like an opportunity to make a real difference. A lack of innovation was the incentive. For us, to push hard so that the spotlight, if just even partially, could shine some light on this neglected sector thus resulting in action, seemed a compelling mission. It was clear that a whole new mindset was required to transform government. For simplicity we categorized this work as civic innovation.

Civic innovation means many things. It can capture the emergence of online services that help citizens avoid standing in line at a government office. But it can also mean the work that’s needed for us to build cities that serve the demands of our communities in the 21st century. It can mean rethinking how we power our homes; how we deliver and use transportation; and how we provide quality, affordable healthcare. It’s a broad area and I’ll keep it that way for the purpose of this short piece.

Civic innovation arrives in small town America

It’s important to acknowledge that civic innovation per se is not a new concept. For sure, in many big, modern cities some amazing things have been taking place for some time. But civic innovation occurring in a handful of large metropolitan areas is not a movement that will touch the many millions of American’s who live mainly in small cities.

That said, there are some clear indications that make a lot of us very optimistic. A new generation of public servants, from governors to mayors to a vast hierarchy of civil servants, are bringing to bear a new vision for the future. And most promising is the first real venture capital funds being committed to start-ups that want to compete in this under-served market. Money usually follows where opportunity lies.

A call to action

Most of this is not news to those of us who choose to serve in this way. We’re seeing the formation of national and international groups focused on civic innovation work such as open government and smart cities. Conferences and meet-ups abound.

I write and talk about this area not to convert the already converted but to bring awareness to the vast majority who have little awareness of the emergence of civic innovation. It’s to provoke and inspire others to join in serving this opportunity. If the motivation isn’t altruistic for some, there’s an economic one that’s totally fair in an open market system. According to some estimates, the innovation needs of our cities may amount to a trillion dollar annual market by 2020. While so many of our economic sectors are continuing to shrink, government needs—particularly city infrastructure requirements—will balloon (I’m not referring to bureaucratic bloat, that’s a topic for another day).

What are we waiting for?

Communities are demanding more efficient governments. They also have high expectations for the way cities function. Many areas are already broken and much is on the brink. Solutions will come through public-private collaborations. Partnerships will need to emerge that bring together disparate stakeholders. What might that look like? Google, a company made famous for creating the world’s leading search engine, will need to seek partners to build cars for the software they’ve created to make those cars drive themselves. The future promises a surprising gang of heroes.

Finally, why is civic innovation a race at all? I call it a race because we need go fast and we need healthy competition to drive civic innovation forward. While certainly clichéd, this is a race where we need everyone to win. If we want to see our cities get smarter and for our governments to become more efficient through digitization, we’re going to need the innovators, the investors, the skills, and the vision to sprint towards a better future.

Are you ready? On your marks…

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