Download a copy of the The 2050 City: What Civic Innovation Looks Like Today -- and Tomorrow here.
CCIP’s work and the field of civic innovation more generally sit at the intersection of a number of different fields -- local government, technology, research, and community organizing, to name just a few. Yet rarely do those who work in these different areas have an opportunity to engage with one another in order to determine how best to improve residents’ lives and encourage real partnerships between the public and local government. Instead, they often work on siloed projects, looking toward the next budget cycle or grant opportunity, pursuing isolated new approaches rather than a cohesive program for change in collaboration or conversation with those in other fields.
This tendency is understandable given the fiscal realities that many in the civic innovation space face. Yet it also exemplifies the huge untapped potential of the field. Not every project demands collaboration between the technologist and the local government staffer, or between the community organizer and the foundation professional, but the lack of communication between these groups means that there is the possibility for misunderstanding, duplication of work, inefficiency, and a weakened possibility that civic innovation can result in systemic change in communities across the country.
Charting a more promising course for civic innovation in the future will require hard work, significant resources, and -- most challenging -- a culture change in how actors in the civic innovation ecosystem work together. But before any of those things can happen, those working to deepen the relationship between local government and residents through the development of innovative new approaches need to recognize that they are part of a civic innovation ecosystem capable of much more than the sum of its parts might imply.
The need to put these actors in virtual conversation is a major reason why CCIP set out to detail the current field of civic innovation and to consider its future potential. The result is a white paper based on interviews with nearly twenty leading thinkers and practitioners tackling civic innovation in different ways. Interviewees expressed different understandings of the term civic innovation and its usefulness in framing their work. But more importantly, their comments suggest a path forward for a more cohesive civic innovation field. As CCIP’s white paper details, the following themes should inform future work:
- Reforming Institutions -- Too often civic innovators focus on specific projects, rather than on institutional change. Yet structural changes are necessary if meaningful and long-lasting change is to occur. A civic engagement project won’t go very far if City Hall employees are reluctant to work with community groups. And a hackathon won’t produce meaningful results if the groups that are building the apps don’t have interaction with those who are the intended users of the tool. Changing such scenarios requires changing thinking, responding to structural impediments and building new relationships.
- Increasing Resources -- Institution-building doesn’t come cheap, but an initial investment in this work is necessary if savings are to be realized later. Needed resources include money, of course, but also time, adequate staff levels, and skills. And while local governments need to devote resources to ensuring that all of these areas are covered, others need to be involved, too. For example, foundations, non-profits and businesses can offer matching grants or provide skills training. Allocating resources early can create greater efficiencies in the future.
- Focusing on Issues -- Civic innovators can make their work more concrete, more palatable and more useful if they concentrate on solving particular problems, rather than developing interesting new tools. The community needs to be involved in setting this agenda of change, whether it relates to public health or transportation. At the same time, evaluation of such projects should also include measures that are not specifically tied to these topics but that instead measure cultural shifts and institutional change.
- Context-Specific with Scaling -- There is no one approach that will work in every community. The specific history, demographics and culture of a place should determine how civic innovation should be pursued. At the same time, though, we need new ways of talking about successes and failures to the entirety of the civic innovation community, both nationally and internationally.
There is a long way to go if we are to realize these ideas in the future. We hope that CCIP’s white paper will be an important first step in producing a conversation that can propel the civic innovation community forward toward meaningful change in residents’ lives. We invite you to share your thoughts on civic innovation’s current state and future potential in the comments section below.
Download CCIP's white paper on civic innovation here.