So there's making 'better' cities. There's making 'better' public services. There's making more 'creative' public servants. There's reducing human suffering. And there is increasing human flourishing.
They are five distinct goals. Pursued by a growing gaggle of public innovation labs:
- Urban Mechanics (a government unit) in Boston
- Public Policy Lab (an NGO) in New York City
- MindLab (a government unit) in Copenhagen
- The Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (a government unit) in Washington, DC.
- IZone (a government unit) in New York City's Department of Education
- Laboratoria para la ciuidad (a government unit) in Mexico City
Thanks to Eduardo Staszowski and Scott Brown from Parson's DESIS Lab we were all in the same room, for one full day, as part of the New Public Goods lecture series.
If a better city is measured in terms of fewer potholes and more convenient city services, then Urban Mechanics is making some good progress. With a range of technology apps & urban planning games to enable Bostonians to tell city hall what they think.
> But should a city's remit be just to fix roads, pick-up trash, and issue licenses? Or should we be redefining what a city's very purpose is? Could the role of a city be as connector (introducing you to relevant neighbors), as broker (linking you to specific opportunities that use & develop your skills), as a transition facilitator (when you graduate high school, or retire), etc.?
If better public services are measured in terms of less 'failure demand' (more people applying for services they are actually eligible for), then Public Policy Lab is making some good progress. With a range of informational & signposting tools to help New Yorkers apply for public housing, or choose schools.
> But should a public service's remit just be to deliver the same-old services, better? Or should we be redefining what constitutes a public service, and a public agency? Should we even have a Department of Housing? Or should it be a Department of Living?
If more 'creative' public servants are measured in terms of their use of 'human-centered design' tools, then the Lab at OPM is making some good progress. With a range of workshops and project management tools to help public servants take a more 'empathetic' stance.
> But should we be treating 'human-centered design' as the next technocratic skill set? A paint-by-numbers kind of training to 'understand' people? Or should we be enabling civil servants to think critically, to learn when and how to apply which tools to which problems?
Now, when it comes to reducing human suffering and increasing human flourishing, there simply ain't much action to report. As Chelsea from NYC Public Policy Lab put it, "I try and make better public services. My real goal is to reduce human suffering. Is there a relationship between the two? I don't know…"
Human flourishing is the explicit goal of our work here @ InWithForward. To do that, we're not starting with existing services or systems. We're starting with a group of people, in one particular place, and understanding the gaps that exist between their day-to-day life, and all of the services & systems around them. Then, we're pulling together some of those services & systems (from Community Living, Mental Health, Education, Immigration) to stretch their current remits. So rather than have a 'disability' service or a 'young person's service' - what if there was an 'explorer's service' to help people who are stuck try something new?
Our work is pretty unproven right now. The big test will be whether we can move from doing ethnographic work, with the support of services & systems, to building prototyping teams, inside of services & systems. That's why we've tried to create a lot of opportunities during our field work for decision-makers to engage in the process. To come observe and critique us. It's why we package ethnographic stories to help folks inside and outside of systems begin to have ah-ha moments for themselves.
Ultimately, as Christian Bason from MindLab argued, we need to enable a different kind of leadership. We need to help board members, chief executives, managers, frontline deliverers, and users see their role not only in terms of the delivery and receipt of services, but in terms of the re-making of the bounds of those very services.
Will our strategy work? I honestly don't know. But I do know that we can't just relegate questions of human suffering and human flourishing to the back burner because they are "too hard" and government services aren't currently organized that way. Isn't that what innovation should be about - starting with a seemingly implausible future scenario (e.g walking on the moon), and working backwards?
This is the conversation I hope the growing field of social innovation labs can have. Starting Sunday in Toronto when many more practitioners from around the world will convene. How ambitious are we willing to be?