Community Lessons from the Public Sector: Culture is More Important Than Strategy

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This post is the second of a three-part series on lessons companies can learn on community-driven innovation from the civic innovation movement.

When thinking of cultures of innovation, the public sector is likely the last place that comes to mind. However, an increasing number of public offices, in large part due to budget deficits,  have been more open to nontraditional approaches. This need for resourceful and efficient solutions has created a more open culture in some offices and has given way to the rise of the civic innovation movement, where government works across sectors and with its community to improve its services.

One of the most prolific forms of community-driven civic innovation is tactical urbanism, an approach in which small-scale, often temporary solutions are created with and by a  community to improve urban environments. Such incremental improvements are how most developing and informal cities have grown, which make up a large percentage of the world’s urban population and include fast-growing settlements in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, or Lagos. These settlements are often much more resilient and adaptive because of the culture of community and resourcefulness. Tactical urbanism has become one of the most notable mainstream planning trends of the past five years because of the way it addresses larger urban issues through small, experimental actions from a range of sources within the community.

Parking Day, the most widespread and successful example of tactical urbanism, took a playful approach to solving a shortage of pedestrian-friendly spaces in cities by repurposing parking spaces into temporary public parks. What started as a small, one-off event in 2005 grew to include 160 countries across six continents in 2014 and even an official initiative by the San Francisco Planning office turning parking spaces into “parklets.” In one of the worst economic climates the world has seen over the past century, tactical urbanism projects showed that a lack of resources needn’t be an obstacle to progress and innovation.

Jane Jacobs, the Godmother of community-based planning, said,

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Yet despite the success of Parking Day and other tactical urbanism projects, the same tactical urbanism project in one city may be considered illegal in others. Think mural versus graffiti – it’s not always easy to differentiate between the two anymore. For example, Melbourne, Australia has activated its extensive system of laneways which could otherwise be dangerous, derelict spaces if it weren’t for its strong public art programs that formalized the need of the community to express itself. One incredible example is St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival where laneways become stages for today’s hottest musicians. Because of its openness to creative approaches from within its community, Melbourne has topped the list of the world’s most livable cities for several years in a row and boasts a thriving tourism industry. Still, many cities criminalize such activities, and in the process are unknowingly throwing away their most valuable asset.

These community-led initiatives can only thrive in an environment where people feel safe and encouraged to contribute, and creating a culture of openness and inclusion simultaneously unlocks the invaluable creativity and engagement of their citizens. The same goes for companies, though like the public sector, and with the exception of known examples like Google’s 20 percent time, far too few companies are actively putting in practice the steps to collective input.

By prioritizing proactive listening, establishing a safe environment for people to be candid and setting up a system of rewards, companies can encourage community-driven innovation that includes not just employees, but also customers, and even their perceived competitors. When it comes to innovation, no strategy can compete on efficacy and efficiency without a culture of openness and reward for bringing new ideas to the table.