Inside the Sioux Falls innovation ‘War Room’

Sioux Falls employees from nine different departments gather weekly in their ‘War Room’ to work on solutions to the city’s transportation challenges.

Innovation needs its own space to grow.

That’s one lesson from Sioux Falls, S.D., where Mayor Paul TenHaken’s bold experiment in public problem-solving has a team of 13 people from nine city departments working together — and with city residents — to find novel solutions to the city’s transportation challenges.

The team members all work out of different buildings for their day jobs, and needed a space to meet. Jason Reisdorfer, the team leader and head of the city’s Innovation & Technology Department, was looking for a meeting spot when he heard that the top floor of a brand-new three-story city office building was open.

[Read: How Sioux Falls is turning public problem-solving on its head]

Wide open, in fact — the unoccupied floor was completely unfinished, an architectural blank slate that still looked more like a construction site than an office. Wires were dangling from the rafters. “I asked the mayor and chief of staff if I could get access to it, and they said it’s pretty nasty, raw, and industrial,” Reisdorfer said. “When I laid eyes on it, I said, ‘I can make this work!’”

Reisdorfer hung some black curtains from the ceiling to partition off a meeting space. He brought in internet, a TV, and some conference tables, and asked handy Facilities employees to build giant bulletin boards to hang up whiteboards and poster paper. Before long, team members were calling the space their “War Room.”

Having a dedicated space like this is enabling innovation in a number of ways, members of the team said.

First, it belongs to the team. For people doing this work alongside their day jobs, it gives them a place to separate from day-to-day tasks. The whole group gathers there for a two-hour lunch meeting every Friday. Smaller working groups, like a handful of people tasked with interviewing bus riders, have come to work there at other times.

[Read: How rethinking your office space can spur innovation]

“I’ve really enjoyed having the dedicated space,” said Shana Nelson, a business analyst with the Finance Department. “It’s where we update each other on our progress and share ideas. Having the space has added to the quality of the project. When I come up here, I don’t think about the other stuff going on in my department. I can immerse myself into solving this transportation problem.”

Nelson pointed to another benefit of the team having dedicated space: It gives them a place to write ideas on sticky notes and poster paper, move those ideas around and help draw connections between them. This is critical to the human-centered design process the team is using, as it allows them to “externalize” their data in one place, see it visually, and look together for new patterns and understandings.

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Even better, because the War Room is theirs, they don’t have to take down all the sticky notes and other materials when they leave for the day. That makes it easier the next time they meet to jump back into conversations where they left off.

Finally, the War Room helps TenHaken and Reisdorfer make the case for innovation. A number of team members have brought in managers from their own departments for a visit. Those tours help other people grasp what it means to tackle city problems in new ways.

“They see all the walls and windows covered in sticky notes and they get it because they can see it,” Reisdorfer said. “We have city council people coming in and reading what citizens told us about transportation on sticky notes, saying, ‘Hmm, I’ve never thought of that before.’”