The power and necessity- of social innovation in our cities, Gigi Georges at six and the city
- and Necessity -
of Social Innovation in our Cities
Imagine that you’re a mayor. Or local agency head or city
manager or high level appointee charged with delivering
concrete services to local citizens. You know there are real
consequences at stake: a child’s education, a father’s
livelihood, a mother’s health...a home.
You’re struggling every day to stay one step ahead...but you
Then one day, someone comes to you and says: here’s what were going to do...
-We’ll allot serious funds to new efforts, knowing that more than 50% of them will fail.
-We’ll encourage a public fight with local nonprofit and foundation leaders.
-We’ll open ourselves up to more scrutiny at every step from every quarter: and demand to be held to the highest
-We’ll actively seek out client feedback at every turn, even from clients who aren’t wrapped into the system voluntarily.
You listen, and you think, Thanks but I think this is a ride I’d rather not take. You can literally see your political career
going off the rails...
But then, you think about where you are, and what you’ve got going. And why you got into government in the first place.
And it hits you, that for the most part, in government you’re pretty much stuck on
an enormous slowly sinking ship
Sure, there are some bright moments here or there. But it’s not a pretty picture.
Because the reality is that too often, we’re held back by the very systems that were
designed to address our society’s g
g y greatest p problems. Meaningful change is
frequently impeded by government’s adherence to old ideas, precedents and
practices. And lack of transparency and accountability keeps us from being able to
identify and quantify failure.
So, even though you have the best
intentions, you -- or more to the point, the
machinery of government -- are the
obstacle, not the facilitator of people’s lives.
Think about it: wherever you hail from,
government dominates funding in every
important area of social policy. With rare
exception, it spends citizens’ t d ll
ti d iti ’ tax-dollars on
one-size fits all services, It is averse to risk
and innovation. It’s mired in bureaucratic
red-tape, bound by impenetrable
regulations, and dominated by a culture of
compliance over results. An Iron Triangle of
incumbent interests rules.
These a aren’t bad people, they just don’t
want to lose their jobs and funds. It rarely
asks citizens what works for them. All
these things keep good innovators -- and
good innovations -- out.
There is a program for every problem, with lots of money funding lots of activity by lots
of well-intentioned people -- often accomplishing little.
Ask a program worker what they’re accomplishing and, more often than not, they will
answer with a process or a program: “We filled 37 new job training slots today.” “We
moved 200 people into homeless shelters this week.” “We filed 14,392 claims this
month.” But with all this activity, as you sit there, good intentions and all, how often
can you honestly say: Here’s how have I’ve helped change a citizen’s life today -- for
Here s I ve citizen s
the good and for the long term. Here’s how I’ve worked WITH them, not simply for or
at them, to bring about measurable change.
Back in America, these problems share the same root causes: a governing
mentality driven by compliance and status quo inertia and a political discourse too
often driven by ideological partisanship.
We need to replace both of these with a new approach: that of innovative
And, if we take that approach, we can do much better. Or at the very minimum,
we can’t do worse than we are today.
So of course, the easy thing to do, is,
, y g , ,
But the proverbial head in the sand never
got anyone anywhere but deeper into the
And the real question is not whether
government should participate in serving
its citizens, but how.
So I’m here this afternoon to start the
discussion a bit about why it’s imperative
to innovate in our cities -- and that it can
be done with some promising results...
But also to acknowledge that the route to success can be long and winding
Working with and talking to more than 100 local government, non-profit and foundation innovators back in the
states over the past two years, my colleagues and I at Harvard have seen how it can be done in pockets across
the country. We put our findings into a book, under the lead authorship of Stephen Goldsmith, called “the Power
of Social Innovation.”
What we saw and have written about gave us hope that with the right strategies, and some strong passionate
folks leading the way, pockets of promise can build and grow.
But before you say I know where she’s going: the innovators
say, she s
will ride in on a white horse in and rescue government from
itself. And happily ever after and such.
Not so. Because if we do anything as we gather, we ought to
be honest about the limits - and potential p
p pitfalls - of innovation.
To start, we need to acknowledge that no single sector can - or
should- corner the market on innovation. Public, private and
non profit officials can all be the problem, but it takes more than
one of them to be the solution. in our research and experience,
have seen t ifi id
terrific ideas well executed i one sector th t can
ll t d in t that
cause changes in the others.
We’ve also seen the incredibly important lesson that you don’t
have to be an “expert” to be a great innovator who contributes
something meaningful to public service In fact many of the
most inspiring and successful innovations we came across
came from ordinary citizens who were frustrated with how
government was failing to get results, and took action.
Often they brought the p
y g power of new technology -- digital and
social media, web-based services and cutting edge data
incorporation -- to problem solving in their own communities.
Sometimes, their innovations were as simple as taking a
political or financial risk, and challenging local government
leadership to do the same.
In our journey through cities and towns, we also recognized that all innovation is not good. So even as we
celebrate shaking up government with waves of innovation, some words of caution are in order.
Good social innovators constantly ask themselves: what is our mission and is it the right one? In this
searching the old adage comes to mind of asking : “have we given this family a fish today or have we
mind, have today–
taught them how to fish”? Are we simply serving the homeless – or are we ending homelessness? [Example
of Linda Gibbs in New York City]
Because, even among innovators, too often, efforts to match needs and services are no better than a child’s
game of telephone. An innovator has a solution but it’s not connected to demand. They tell citizens “take
it s take
this. It’s good for you.” Citizens have too few mechanisms to talk back – to say “no, this is what I really need.”
And when they do try to talk, it somehow ends up garbled along the way. We need to build a two way system
between supply and demand that works – where we give voice to those who lack power on the demand side
so that providers can create and modify approaches that work for and with more people.
Good social innovators also
acknowledge the risk of being too
certain that because you are
innovative, your ideas will
automatically work in the public
sphere. Or that because they’re your
ideas, and you’re smarter than
everyone else, they you’ve got the
y , yy g
-These are the risks of replacing the
arrogance of government with the
arrogance of the innovator. And
th ’ bi
So what are the marks of good
innovation? We found some sharp
consistencies among those that
achieved successes not just in one
place or one year, but with scale and
sustainability over time. With real
results for real people.
The success stories were dominated by individuals -- and organizational cultures -- that prized
constant learning. [Example: Teach for America, move from placing teachers to developing a
cadre of alumni leadership who are now taking on key roles in government and education,
pushing a school reform agenda.]
This means being willing - eager - to learn as you go, to adapt quickly when things aren’t
working, to admit mistakes and seek to correct them.
To prize data at the same time as you incorporate the human element, the stories, the voices
of those on the other end of the desk, phone line or computer.
The need to constantly improve; to be always focused on
becoming better and being humble enough to know that in
order to be a great innovator and contributor you must be
willing to learn from others:
Mentors, peers, subordinates and competitors as well as
through a willingness to take on jobs or tasks, not because of
th h illi t t k j b t k tb f
the prestige or compensation, but by determining if it will make
you and others better.
What else dominated? Hard work and Perseverance
And the courage to take risks in order to
achieve your goals – even when the odds
are against you.
Especially in these times, when
governments -- and the people they are
there to serve -- are facing significant
economic and social challenges.
[Example: Blair Taylor, Los Angeles Urban
League. Put the credibility of his trusted
organization, plus his own reputation. on
the line to pursue a bold and risky effort to
holistically address the needs of a troubled
community in California. Convinced
community, local government, civic leaders
to work with him when all others had given
up. Goal: to cut violent crime rates in half,
using th l
i the local hi h school as an anchor
l high h l h
for neighborhood and civic realignment. In
2 years, a 17 percent reduction in violent
crimes, and an 80 percent decrease in
That also sounds great, but really: How do you do it?
Start by being willing to make the long climb out of the status
And by opening space for innovation so that it can feed and grow:
•Be willing to throw out incumbent providers - legacy non profits that aren’t making the grade but get funded
year after year j
y just because it’s “always been so”.
•Make legal and regulatory changes that break down structural barriers to innovation
•Bring in new people and organizations that are hungry, creative, passionate AND not just willing, but eager to
be held to high standards and measurable results.
[Example: Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee]
And give them room to test their wings, and hopefully, fly...
And remember, some of these new entrants WILL fail. But that’s at the core of innovation. And the key is to
give them the room to try the support to adapt and improve and the notice that if they can’t show value in a
try, improve, can t
reasonable time frame, they won’t be invited back.
[Example: Under NYC Mayor Bloomberg, Center for Economic Opportunity Innovation Fund/conditional cash
Trust in citizens:
Ask f f db k
A k for feedback on services. D
i Devolve access t i f
l to information. L
ti Leverage social media.
i l di
Replace patronizing systems.
develop new volunteer and donor goodwill pipelines
[Example: Maurice Miller’s Family Independence Initiative in San Francisco shifts
responsibility for change to those who experience poverty. Through FII low-income
poverty FII, low income
families are encouraged to create and rely on their own networks for success, and are
challenged to set high expectations for themselves. Participating households in FII’s
pilot increased their income by 20% while 70% of children improved their grades. Now
expanding to Boston.]
What you need
Open Space Trust in Drive Results
for Innovation Citizens
And always drive toward results. Hold yourself, your agencies, your political and
civil appointees -- and the people you are there to serve -- to higher standards. It s
hard, but we have seen that it can be done.
[Examples: Indianapolis Mind Trust; Massachusetts-based New Profit, Inc.]
Ten Steps to Drive Social Innovation
Engage the Community
Be willing to take political risk
Create Innovation Capital/Venture Fund
Initiate Performance Measurement
Trust Those in Need
Consider a ‘Sunset’ Clause in Funding
Stop Incumbent Protectionism
Identify New Intermediary Models
Identify and Import Best National (and
Encourage Business Leader Initiative
We took what we learned and came up with ten steps any local government leader can
look to if they really want to embark on this journey...
And finally, think systemically and act
Looking at the inner circle: A host of forces
operate on a community’s social service delivery
structure—few of which argue for change. The
tendency to resist disruptive change doesn’t
result from a nefarious political conspiracy.
Rather, it is the natural result of a system in
which one closely tied group of individuals—
philanthropic and government funders—makes
decisions f another group—citizens i need.
d i i for th iti in d
Yet an impassioned person with an appealing
vision can act as a catalyst. The center circle in
the figure represents the civic reaction—the
disruption and eventual transformation of the
existing system triggered by civic
entrepreneurship that produces more social
In all this, a key piece is to know that while the
actor as catalyst, working across traditional lines,
is crucial, they cannot make change in any
meaningful, scalable way if they try do it alone.
And they certainly can’t do it without engaging
government. This goes back to understanding
that the best innovation crosses sectors, brings
l together t b i d
th to bring down b i
barriers and b ild
up successes, block by block.
It goes without saying that there is no shortcut.
But stick with it, and we can figure out how to create the exceptional model, the
one that stands out and gets people talking
So that before you know it...
And before you know it, we can all have a lot more to celebrate.
Even if it seems today like a long shot...or a miracle. [1980 US HOCKEY VICTORY]
There is a path, it starts with the people we met and talked to working in cities across
America. With innovative leaders like you, helping lead the way.