Over on Urbanophile the far-more-knowledgeable-than-I-am Aaron Renn muses on why city governments talk so much about innovation and yet are consistently so terrible at it. By way of explanation he highlights what he calls “the tyranny of the org chart” and the understandable instinct to play things safe, both of which I think are key but are partial snapshots of a larger picture. (Go read the whole thing; it’s worth it.)
Part of our Newspaper Next work when I was with the American Press Institute focused on Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s research on disruptive innovation. Although we were focused on newspapers, some of the same findings are equally applicable to the public sector (and in fact Christensen has consulted to municipalities, including Singapore, to help them transform themselves into innovation economies). Looking at the question through a disruptive-innovation lens might give us a more comprehensive framework for understanding why cities find innovation so difficult. As a friend of mine said once, governments are legacy systems, and they hire, train, invest and prioritize everything they do within the framework of those systems. Clayton Christensen calls those an organization’s RPVs; it’s organizational DNA:
- Resources. In the newspaper world, this would cover everything from reporters’ salaries to printing presses, inserting machines, delivery routing systems – all the infrastructure necessary to produce and deliver a newspaper. It’s wildly expensive to put those resources in place, and if the metrics on which success is measured include return on assets, there’s a built-in incentive to make those resources as productive as possible. That makes it very difficult to stop using a resource, even when it no longer serves an organization’s needs.
- People. Every industry hires people they think will be good at the things that have traditionally made the industry successful, and rewards them for those successes. Hence those people become very good at seeing the industry and the market, and the challenges they face, through only that traditional lens, and they wind up hiring others who can replicate those capabilities. The problem comes when, because of external disruptions, those abilities are no longer relevant. Most legacy organizations are very poor at scoping out what new capabilities they need, and at finding and hiring people with those capabilities.
- Values. These are an organization’s priorities. Newspapers invest a lot in the process of news, including writing, editing, perhaps fact-checking, page layout, photos and graphics. However, the market demand for information doesn’t always place the same value on those processes, and as long as newspapers are reluctant to adjust their processes to meet market demand they’ll be overinvesting in things that don’t provide sufficient return. They also invest a lot in the process of advertising sales, making advertising prices too high for smaller businesses that could form the backbone of their local revenue streams. But they’re terrible at seeing where they’re overinvested and how they could redirect those resources.
Update Feb. 9: Fast Company’s Co.Design also has a good list today of The Seven Deadly Sins That Choke Out Innovation. They’re all applicable to government as well as to corporations.
But I think there is good news for municipalities. They may not be able to attract true innovators, and may not be able to change the processes and priorities that stifle innovation, but of necessity they are increasingly beginning to invest in new digital resources. Their effectiveness is increasingly dependent on data-driven decisionmaking, which is why we’re seeing more and more municipal initiatives like Open Baltimore, and citizen-initiated, data-driven services like SeeClickFix. A Google search on the term “government 2.0” yields over 62 million results.
This digital openness is attracting exactly the kind of innovators who are not naturally drawn to “government work.” From NextBus to Everyblock to The Bay Citizen’s database of cyclist accidents, a wide range of individuals are using open data to generate really useful information that helps citizens lead their lives and municipal governments function more efficiently and effectively. And that’s just using data; there’s also an enormous amount of government experimentation in social media.
So I’m not sure I’m as worried as Mr. Renn is about the lack of innovation in cities. I think innovation is happening all around them, among people and organizations with wildly different RPVs than municipal governments have. Rather than try to force innovation into municipal organizations that we all know aren’t very good at it, I submit we should be doing everything we can to foster and capitalize on the innovation ecosystem springing up around them, and then seeing how governments absorb it. Let’s throw them the challenge – what do our cities really need in order to work well? – and then let’s step back and let them get to work.