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Innovation, More than a Buzzword? An Idea Revolution?

Innovation. It’s the latest buzzword making waves in government. But is there more to innovation than just hype? Has the government really embraced the idea of it? Or is it merely innovation for innovation’s sake?

Philadelphia is embracing more than just the term innovation; they’ve just graduated the first class from the Municipal Innovation Academy. Andrew Buss, director of Philly’s Innovation Management, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program why innovation matters in government today.

The idea behind the Academy was to build an infrastructure around innovation within the municipal government. “We started with the people in government and then we formed a collaborative partnership with Philadelphia University,” said Buss.

The first class of the Municipal Innovation Academy had 19 graduates, but creating an academy based on innovation doesn’t guarantee groundbreaking ideas will automatically be created. Buss says you have to work at the concept. “We start with the premise that you can teach innovation, it’s not something that just happens when the light bulb goes off,” he said. “You have to create a process-driven environment. That way graduates would come out of the academy able to apply those processes in their work back in the departments.”

Focusing on innovation in and of itself is a pretty bold step for government. “We realize that unless government itself is able to innovate and change we will struggle to keep up,” Buss said. One of the reasons for the government’s inability to embrace innovation? Its hierarchical and siloed approach to work, which can be counterproductive to different and new ways of thinking.

“The premise of the course is to set up work that is cross-departmental, interdisciplinary,” said Buss. “We did a lot of design thinking. We did a bit with ethnography, the idea behind that being that you learn about the community you’re doing work with. We did a little bit with spatial analysis and GIS. We also had a section on business value, so thinking about how you create business value with whatever program or project you’re working on.”

Innovation has to create value. Cool ideas are really awesome, but if they don’t help us do your jobs better, then they’re just cool ideas. “For something to be innovative a program or tools has to implement that either saves money, makes the process more efficient or improves the lives of the people you’re serving.”

In order to create the culture of innovation in Philadelphia, the city launched two other companion innovation programs along with the academy — an innovation lab and an innovation fund. “The innovation fund has about $100,000 seed fund,” said Buss. “We are working through a lot of the ideas from the Academy.”

The innovation lab launched as a nice space for municipal employees to go and work across departments. “The lab is there so there is a drop-in ability for folks where they can just go in when they have an idea, avail themselves of the technology, share their ideas with others,” said Buss. “We’re also going to do some more set programming in the lab that’s around geo design and geo analysis.”

“One of the biggest things we are trying to do is create a network of innovators within city government who can use the lab, who are involved with the fun projects, and who feel that support from one another. You know, we’re really relying on a bunch of people who are interested in working creatively and thinking creatively to do this work. You know none of these people work for me, so it’s really just what we have is the ability to interest them in this new kind of work going on in the city that they’re a part of,” said Buss.

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