Innovation is no longer optional for city leaders; it’s the only way they can continue to deliver results and improve life for residents. But stepping beyond the routine to create truly innovative solutions can sometimes be a daunting task. With that in mind — and as many cities are preparing for the 2017 Mayors Challenge — here are 10 tips for innovators, complete with examples of how they were put into action by previous Mayors Challenge winners.
1. Don’t start with the solution.
The best innovations begin by focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve.
Mayors Challenge example: When the financial crisis hit Greece, volunteers throughout the country came together to provide residents critical services as the government had to cut back. City leaders in Athens, a 2014 Mayors Challenge winner, realized there was no system in place to connect government with this newly engaged citizenry, but they had to dig deeper to understand what an effective solution would look like. The resulting synAthina, an online platform uniting volunteers with resources, each other, and city leaders, powerfully meets the needs of all connected parties.
2. Experience matters.
If you’re going to fully understand and solve a problem, you’ve got to talk with the people who experience that problem first hand.
Mayors Challenge example: School children in Bogota, Colombia, spend, on average, two hours a day commuting to and from school. Worse yet, many of the routes they use to get there are considered unsafe. In response, Bogota, a 2016 Mayors Challenge winner, asked citizens — including children — how they’d solve this problem. More than 800 ideas were shared, and that feedback has been key to Bogota as it developed its award-winning idea.
3. Use data.
Data will help you understand who your problem affects and if your solution will work.
Mayors Challenge example: As part of its work to connect area farmers with local restaurants, 2016 Mayors Challenge winner São Paulo looked to build a mobile phone app. But when the team gathered data on mobile phone penetration, it learned that most of the farmers don’t use smart phones. The team, instead, designed an SMS-based communication plan.
4. Don’t start with a blank canvas.
Most innovative ideas include elements of solutions that have come before, combining them in unexpected and powerful ways.
Mayors Challenge example: The private sector has used data science for decades. Building on these examples, Chicago, a 2013 Mayors Challenge winner, was one of the first cities — with its SmartData Platform — to see how it could collect information from across departments to improve government efficiency and increase transparency. Chicago has also made all of its work open source, enabling other communities to easily replicate its success.
5. Innovation isn’t about a single person with a bright idea.
The best ideas come from collaborating and listening to new voices.
Mayors Challenge example: The Biochar Project in Stockholm, a 2014 Mayors Challenge winner, was the brainchild of several municipal employees from different departments who independently saw the potential of biochar — and how production of this carbon-capturing charcoal might more fully engage citizens the fight against climate change.
6. Don’t fear failure.
Used as an opportunity for learning, missteps can transform good ideas into great ones.
Mayors Challenge example: When 2014 Mayors Challenge winner Kirklees, U.K., first prototyped Comoodle, an online platform designed to increase residents’ access to underutilized municipal stuff, space, and skills, getting the public to actually use the site was more difficult than expected. Kirklees learned that they needed to enlist the community’s help in building engagement, which strengthened buy-in, resulting in more-meaningful exchanges when the site launched last spring.
7. Check your logic, again.
Once an idea has been developed, go back to the problem it’s trying to solve — will the solution really make the right impact?
Mayor’s Challenge example: Children from lower-income families typically hear fewer words before they enter school than their peers from higher-income families, impacting school readiness. When Providence, R.I., a 2013 Mayors Challenge winner, first set out to bridge this “word gap” with its Providence Talks program, the city focused on one-on-one outreach with parents. Quickly, city leaders learned this approach took too much time and money to be scaled efficiently. Plus, daycare employees, who spend a good deal of time with children, were left out of the process. To better meet its goals, Providence updated its program to use group parent trainings and started training daycare workers.
8. Don’t just kick the tires on an idea, add some wings.
Once you have an idea, find opportunities to stretch it and expand the impact.
Mayors Challenge example: In Santiago, Chile, a 2016 Mayors Challenge winner, city leaders are using gamification to eliminate childhood obesity by motivating kids to increase physical activity and eat better. While their program, Juntos Santiago, is aimed at children, it fully incorporates their parents too, understanding their engagement is essential to the program’s success.
9. Set targets.
Be clear about the impact you want to make.
Mayors Challenge example: City leaders in Santa Monica, Calif., a 2013 Mayors Challenge winner, wanted to improve the residents’ wellbeing, but first needed a baseline understanding of what factors contribute to wellbeing and how residents were doing. As part of its Wellbeing Project, Santa Monica combed through city data on crime, transit, libraries, parks, and graduation and employment rates, surveyed residents, and analyzed social media to create a Wellbeing Index. Santa Monica is now using the index to direct the city toward policies that promote wellbeing and track progress.
10. Test. Learn. Adapt.
Don’t build your solution in one go. Try out elements with residents and take what you learn to modify the design as you go along.
Mayors Challenge example: When 2014 Mayors Challenge winner Warsaw, Poland, first tested Virtual Warsaw, its mobile app to help visually impaired people better navigate the city, it quickly learned that the app’s spoken directions were so loud that they drowned out surrounding sounds and auditory cues that are critical for the visually impaired as they move around town. After making a fix, the city has continued to make pilots a key part of the app’s development process.