Process / Approach
As an innovation lab situated directly inside of government, we face unique structural challenges and opportunities that directly impact the process of our work. In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), government systems are challenged to adapt. At the same time, these stresses serve to entrench long-standing activities like procurement, citizen engagement, and risk assessment.
These structures limit not only potential action on emerging trends and ideas, but even their consideration. To accommodate these unique
challenges our team has adapted and modified best practices from the service design, experience design, and human-centered design fields.
To tell this story, we have chosen to describe our process using an adapted version of a typical human-centered design process. The context of each stage is where we feel an innovative approach was taken.
Challenge: Technology is the answer to what question?
A cross-department conversation around the role of so-called “Smart Cities” technology in the municipal context was gaining momentum in our organization. Stakeholders were asking: What can technology do for the city?
Discover: Crowdsourcing as a source of signals, trends, and opportunities in the Dark Matter
Our innovation lab maintains an ongoing engagement with citizens using a digital platform in addition to regularly convening in-person workshops in our lab. The platform is an open forum for the discussion and exploration of ideas. We have used it to ask questions related to a specific technical challenge and for more open-ended topics. The platform is available both as an internal government forum for staff and as an externally facing tool for dialogue. It currently has more than 4400 users both internal and external sites. Across 10 topic areas, we have collected more than 600 ideas, 2500 comments and 14000 votes in the last 18 months.
The platform was initially conceived of as an “ideas to action” crowdsourcing tool, which has proven problematic. Looking at one idea as a singular solution to complex challenges can have significant systemic impacts on the broader system. Further, as many in the service design field know, simply opening the floodgate and saying “give us your ideas” is not enough to actually trigger change, action or improvement in the context of a complex, risk-averse municipal government.
In response to that limitation, our team has “flipped the funnel” on traditional strategic planning and crowdsourcing. We used this digital archive of information as a live feed of weak signals, sentiment and data, out of which we could identify areas of opportunity. With this approach, we began developing what came to be called “Opportunity Reports.” They included an explanation of the data analytics that lead to each opportunity developed by clustering groups of ideas around themes and then outlined a brief scenario. The idea was to find value in the totality of the dataset, not just individual pieces. We validated this strategic synthesis with an advisory of staff representing more than 37 business units within the municipal corporation, as well as with our corporate leadership teams and external partners.
As the Opportunity Reports were developed we identified signals that suggested possible alignment of that work with the Smart Cities conversation that was emerging corporately. Some example included:
- The appetite for a conversation about Building Information Technology + unconventional allies (eventually to become an experiment with the Fire Department around virtual reality technology - #BIM+FIRE+VR);
- The possibility of unlocking areas of the city as a living labs (creating a drone fly zone & citizen scientists - #DroneFlyZone, #IBeaconLivingLabSidewalk);
- More mainstream smart city areas of inquiry like Blockchain technology as a tool for volunteer engagement - #BlockCoffee.
The process of gathering these insights through transparent data collection, framing them by applying different lenses and then testing those lenses with subject matter experts resulted in the creation of NEW PERMISSION SPACE that would become the foundation of our more radical, experiential prototypes.
Reframe: We have to stop talking about the future and find a way to experience it.
The work to explore emerging opportunities revealed by our crowdsourcing dialogues in parallel with the rising smart cities discourse internally in our government was further catalyzed by the question posed by our internal client: How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people?