We’re selling ourselves short when we equate civic innovation with data and tech.

Noel Franus
Mar 21, 2016 · 5 min read

Civic innovation isn’t just for technologists. Let’s rethink the brief, inject design thinking into civic life, and hire creative directors to help lead our cities.

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The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” President Obama said recently at SXSW. “We can start coming up with new platforms, new ideas across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today.”

It sounds exciting, and I’m in. Most of you who heard this assume he’s talking about engaging the tech community, and he is. Unfortunately it’s only half of the story that creatives, designers, technologists and other makers should be hearing.

Most of our conversations regarding civic innovation are framed in terms of digital initiatives. But civic innovation is a yes-and space. There’s more opportunity out there for making life in America more personally rewarding, and in ways that extend beyond code.

Designing for social impact requires that we tap into a wide spectrum of talent. To make that work, we need to reframe our opportunity — and reimagine the processes and people required to create change. I have some ideas.

Rethinking the brief at the city level

Let’s transition from the broad and abstract into the local and concrete. Here’s a handful of issues at the city level that are in constant need of either incremental improvements, or which are ripe for disruption:

  • Housing

So where do these magical opportunities lie? And for whom? Many US cities are experiencing a rapid growth among creative makers and skilled organizers. How should we put them to work?

One popular answer among many city administrators: let’s form a committee and hire a firm for a feasibility study. Or, perhaps more fashionably: let’s host a hackathon. Nothing unreasonable, yet the former represents the way things have always been done, which rarely leads to transformative change. And the latter leverages the talents of only those primarily in the tech community.

One of many alternative approaches: journey-mapping, which would require the skills of ethnographers and other researchers to understand the human behaviors at play. People who, if they don’t have “urban planner” in their title, are rarely tapped for insight.

They might start by observing, translating and identifying opportunities for change by learning about the moment-by-moment relationship that citizens have with each of those issues.

What Jane’s relationship with her neighbors today? What are her current behaviors, unmet needs and untapped opportunities? What’s Matt’s relationship with transit — how does he get around to work, live and play in his city?

Once those observations and interviews are complete, we’d map out those journeys. And the gaps — which identify unmet needs and untapped opportunities — become easy to see and prioritize. Those gaps become the catalyst for an ongoing series of briefs for improving civic life.

A cross-disciplinary team for cities

This is where the tent should be getting much bigger. Cross-disciplinary teamwork is standard practice in seeding successful innovations, however, a lean version of this isn’t often applied the city level. Not because city leaders don’t have the will, but because it’s not necessarily anyone’s job to make it so. Yet.

An effective team tasked with devising new solutions to the problem spaces identified above would pull from a number of disciplines. Today’s usual suspects: architects, planners, engineers. Tomorrow’s cross-disciplinary team might also include a cultural anthropologist, creative director, service designer, data scientist and perhaps a 3D modeler. Along with at least one wild-card outsider who’s both a top-down creative and a bottom-up systems thinker.

But cities can’t afford those people, right? Not with the way most funding scenarios are currently devised. Which gives city leaders two options: 1) nudge regional design luminaries for their occasional voluntary expertise; or 2) fund it like it actually matters.

Either option requires fortitude; there are few existing scenarios to model. Apart from the occasional design-for-good initiative, rare is the civic organization with people, process and funding in place to continuously improve their cities on a nimble, effective, ongoing basis. Which means we’re squandering the talents of many.

This isn’t the mayor’s job. It’s the ECD’s

Today, mayors and other city leaders dole out civic improvement assignments to a variety of other leaders, organizations, committees, developers, etc. It’s how it’s always been. As for outputs: some succeed, some fail, most are okay and very few are game-changers.

In the private sector, successful innovation firms, design agencies and brands rely heavily on creative directors to anticipate and clarify problems, forge a vision, devise inventive solutions and actualize those ideas in the systems that make up our real world.

That’s exactly what cities need more of. It’s time for a new role in our urban kaleidoscope: Executive Creative Director. The kind with money or teeth, ideally both. This is the empowered intrepreneur with free range to seek opportunities for innovation and tap into nimble, cross-disciplinary teams to jam on solutions and move quickly to prototype new futures for public services and placemaking.

It doesn’t have to be an ECD. In theory this could be a lead instigator, chief planner, head of innovation, etc. But there’s one noteworthy difference between leading a solution and selling it: creative activation.

“There’s a gap between what we’re doing and the impact we’re having,” a planning exec in Philadelphia recently shared with me. “We’re doing all the right things to address problems, but we can’t go door to door to educate everyone.”

The ability to seed ideas — to clear the path on a cultural level and set the table for success — is central to a talented ECD’s skillset.

Let’s change the conversation

I’m not looking to discredit any individuals or civic organizations. There are many progressive leaders with sporadically effective initiatives. I’m more interested in stopping the behaviors that don’t work, and sparking those that do. Culture usually changes faster than city structures, and those cities that can’t adapt usually wind up with a diminished creative braintrust.

Why care? I’ve spent my career focused on both ends of the engagement spectrum — in seeding ideas that influence culture and in designing systems that facilitate behavioral change. To me, cities represent the most inspiring parts of that spectrum: ideas and systems. Cities are where we bring ideas to life on a massive, workable scale.

Today the conventional dialogue on civic innovation is limited to tech thinkers and doers. And I usually fall in that camp. It’s how I make a living. But day-to-day life is a collection of moments both digital and analog. We need more skills in the mix for moving our cities, states and countries forward. That starts when we change the conversation on who’s driving, who’s encouraged to join the ride and how we get there.

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