Understanding the Urban Innovation Cycle: Eight Key Takeaways

In 2019, NewCities and UrbanLeap set out to establish a baseline for urban innovation. We wanted to better understand the ongoing, evolutionary journey of how public servants discovered, tested, and shared ideas to improve their city. Together, we surveyed 581 local and regional public sector representatives from all over the United States and Canada about their approach to innovation, and published our findings in our new report, ‘Not What, But How: Understanding the Urban Innovation Cycle’. Here are eight things we’d learned as we compiled our report.

First and foremost, urban innovation is a (cyclical) journey, not a destination. Government leaders look to other municipalities to see what they’ve done in the past, then take on their own projects and share their results with others ­– and thus continues the “discover, pilot, share” cycle. The innovation cycle journey is made easier by information provided by others. But, while challenges exist across the innovation cycle, they are skewed toward the discovery phase, wherein a public body identifies a problem in their community and searches for a solution. Governments struggle to learn both the successes, and especially the failures, of their counterparts. Information sharing challenges combined with staffing limitations render the discovery part of the cycle more challenging. Once the discovery phase is completed, piloting is increasingly being embraced to reduce risks and improve outcomes. Innovation pilots allow governments to test potential solutions without incurring substantial up-front costs for long-term projects that might ultimately fail. Risk aversion drives a desire to “be first to be second.” In government, where there is a fear of political repercussions in the case of failure, being first to attempt a pilot poses risk, whereas being second allows leaders to learn from their peers while being at the forefront of new solutions.

A major trend we’ve identified is that public bodies are moving away from an opportunistic approach toward systemic innovation. Whereas it was once common to reactively undertake pilot projects with no defined strategy in place, increasingly governments are finding success in defining planned processes to evaluate potential solutions before committing to a pilot. Establishing the foundation for innovation is viewed as being the key to successful piloting. “Innovation,” however, does not necessarily refer to cutting edge technologies. Rather, it is the outcomes, not the technology, that determine what is innovative. Solutions that allow governments to deliver services more effectively while reducing operational costs are deemed the most innovative, regardless of whether they employ the most up-to-date technology. There is no silver bullet for success, but there are clear ingredients to avoid failure. Developing a culture of innovation, wherein employees are encouraged to approach challenges creatively, sets the groundwork for urban innovation. Without necessarily guaranteeing that pilot projects will succeed, having sufficient organizational capacity and strong project management from start to finish are key to avoiding failure within the urban innovation cycle itself. Our last and possibly most important takeaway is that cities of all sizes are successfully innovating on a wide range of budgets. For smaller communities, resource limitations, such as staffing and time shortages, pose an entry cost that can make it impossible to engage in the innovation cycle at all. Yet, once that initial hurdle is jumped, communities of all sizes are successfully innovating, proving that innovation is not merely the purview of large cities with large budgets.

On Thursday, March 5th, 2020, we hosted a webinar which takes a deeper dive into the survey themes and data, and will shine a spotlight on how a number of cities are approaching common challenges, defining success, discovering new ideas, piloting solutions, and sharing results. Watch the webinar.