The future of innovation in Philadelphia is uncertain - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 16, 2016 2:47 pm

The future of innovation in Philadelphia is uncertain

As the new administration to prepares to pass its budget, the Department of Innovation and Technology waits to hear what will become of its nationally recognized programs.

Mayor Michael Nutter at a meeting in the city's new Innovation Lab.

(Photo by Mitchell Leff for the City of Philadelphia)

The innovation efforts of the city stand at a crossroads.

In August 2014, the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology (OIT) opened the Innovation Lab, a coworking space for government employees and meant to be a “space conducive to cross-departmental collaboration where the City’s challenges can be studied and approached through new ways of thinking.”

This new coworking space was needed, in part, to host the graduates of the Innovation Academy, a seven-week course for city employees developed in partnership with Philadelphia University. The course is designed to teach innovation as a practice that can improve civic processes; together, the Academy and Lab are meant to build capacity for innovation in city government.

I was one of the 19 students in the inaugural 2014 program, but have since left my position with the city. My colleagues in the program were from of the offices of Commerce, the Managing Director, Fleet Management and Sustainability. This diversity was by design — to help employees break out of the silos of municipal work, and create space for collaborative work often unseen in the municipal sector.

The Academy just graduated its third class, and the Lab has hosted over 450 events in its year and a half. But with the recent departure of Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid for the private sector, the practice of innovation will need a show of support from the new mayoral administration. Now is the time to ask: What is the future of innovation in Philadelphia?

Now is the time to ask: What is the future of innovation in Philadelphia?

Since 2014, the problem statement for the innovation work has remained the same, but the solutions have evolved, according to Andrew Buss, director of innovation management at OIT.

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Government work often occurs in isolation, with an emphasis only on completing a task, not on efficiency. For a city, which doesn’t sell products but offers necessary processes for its citizens, improving these processes is vital, Buss said. If these processes don’t work well, both employee and citizen are not only frustrated, but also defeated.

The Academy and the Lab are the first steps to create this ability in government. But in addition to these two programs, OIT also started the Innovation Fund, which has provided over $100,000 in seed funding to innovative ideas from municipal employees.

The Fund seeks innovative and collaborative civic ideas that could scale into citywide solutions, Buss said. Proposals that are reviewed by an internal advisory group.

“One interesting example of an Innovation Fund project is Computer Skills & Bicycle Thrills, which links the city’s KEYSPOT public computing centers with the bike-share program,” Buss said. “By connecting two existing assets, we can use content-based learning in the form of bicycle health and safety as a platform to teach digital literacy.”

Another project will explore the re-propagation of plants at municipal buildings. At the end of each growing season, many municipal buildings rip out and discard their plantings. This project, proposed by a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society employee, will explore whether these plants can be stored over the winter and then donated to community organizations in the spring.

Buss's major learning has been 'the realization of how the Academy, the Lab and the Fund rely on each other to create the foundation for innovation.'

Buss says that his major learning has been “the realization of how these three programs — the Academy, the Lab and the Fund — rely on each other to create the foundation for innovation. They fulfill the three core tenets of the work — that focusing on the people, teaching a process, and providing a place for it to occur can and will improve all facets of government.”

Philadelphia is the only city using this three-tier approach, which will expand to include a pilot of innovation consulting with Philadelphia’s Office of Animal Control, led by the OIT team alongside graduates from the Academy, according to Buss. The approach is receiving recognition across the country. OIT has received awards in 2015 from CIO 100, Statescoop 50 and the Digital Cities Survey. And this spring, Buss will travel to Minneapolis to present OIT’s model at the Transforming Local Government conference.

This show of support is important because at this time, OIT is awaiting a decision on the long-term viability of this work, as so many offices are right now.

One clue to its future is the announcement of Charles Brennan as the new director, and the subtle shift of his title back to chief technology officer, instead of chief innovation officer. Mike Dunn, the deputy communications director, said in an email that it is “simply the personal preference of Charles Brennan, the [CTO]. … He doesn’t see a need to go to the expense and time of changing letterheads, etc.”

The Office of Innovation and Technology is awaiting a decision on the long-term viability of its work, as so many offices are right now.

This shift could be just that — a marker of Brennan’s pragmatism. Or it could indicate the beginning of a restructuring in the priorities of the department, away from the innovation principles introduced in the Nutter administration and back to the previous technology and open data capacities of the city.

The real answer will likely come with Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget announcement.

“The Kenney Administration is exploring ways in which the Innovation Lab can be expanded,” Dunn said. “At the same time, the Innovation Academy program is being reviewed as part of the overall budget process. Like the Lab, the Academy is a great idea; we simply want to ensure that it is an effective use of limited resources.”

Additionally, he said, the Innovation Fund has “funded 9 projects so far which are in various stages of completion. … This program is subject to yearly funding and we did receive funds to keep it going in 2016.”

For all the excitement and recognition, the innovation work has only existed for two years – hardly any time in the context of government. But the work has shown incredible potential, and the promise of an innovative government is exciting to consider. We won’t know what commitment the new administration will make to the potential of these programs until the budget is released. It seems that for now, innovation is on hold.

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