Community Lessons from the Public Sector: Engagement Drives Innovation, Not Visa Versa


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

The civic innovation movement, in which governments look to organizations across sectors and their constituents to improve their services, is not just about emblazoning the merits of democracy with token public engagement. Public offices continue to search for new and authentic ways to empower community to be a central part of the process because it is proven to be a low-cost, effective and efficient way to generate innovative solutions that improve the quality of people’s lives.

Over time, leaders of the movement have learned that the most successful innovations arise from understanding based in deep, ongoing engagement focused on people, not the government. For example, New Orleans-based local art project ‘Before I die…’, which asked people to write their personal aspirations anonymously on a chalkboard-painted wall in a blighted neighborhood, garnered such a passionate community response that it spread to 500 cities in 70 countries in less than five years. It has since resulted in an innovative method of engaging and empowering people to take action on local issues enlisted by leading agencies and offices across the country to identify priorities and new approaches.

Similarly, while it is the government’s job to maintain the condition of roads and provide resources, citizens are guiding the government with new open source projects that map wheelchair accessible resources or portals that allow citizens to easily notify government of an issue needing attention. At the center of meaningful innovation are people and their needs and the new ideas and products that answer those needs.

Engagement Drives Innovation, Not Visa Versa

Yes, innovation can engage people, but innovations are more substantial and disruptive when driven by deep, meaningful engagement. With this in mind, innovation can be seen as Enabling City defines it: “a collaborative process through which citizens can be directly involved in shaping the way a project, policy or service is created and delivered.”

Likewise, businesses are central to but increasingly not the center of innovation. In fact, by applying Enabling City’s more inclusive definition of innovation to the private sector and replacing “citizens” with “customers” or “community,” we begin to see the future of product and service development. Whereas products and services have largely been ideated apart from and for their intended audiences, future R&D processes will focus on user-generated innovation, incorporating their input as early as inception.

It’s as simple as this: the more meaningful you can be in the way you engage your customers, the better you’ll be able to respond to need and demand with marginal cost. When innovating your services or products, start by tapping into the knowledge and personal understand of the people who know your market best: your community.