A special series of the City Road podcast

Innovating Cities

Innovation in how cities are governed is seen as providing solutions for the many challenges facing cities: climate change, housing affordability, liveability, inclusion, equity and access to services and more. But how and why are novel approaches to governance becoming increasingly popular? What do they involve? Who do they involve? How do they work? Indeed, do they work? And what do they mean for the role of ‘the state’ – for the role of government itself?

Join us for ‘Innovating Cities’, a special podcast series that examines how city governments are using innovative approaches to how they govern, to address urban problems and “make cities better”. 

Across the series of episodes, the Innovating Urban Governance team will be exploring these questions in conversation with practitioners from around the world about their insights into the work of innovating city governance, and its implications.


Episode 1

Innovating urban governance: the work of Innovation Units

In this first episode, Pauline McGuirk and Tom Baker discuss what innovating city governance means and explore one key example of urban governance innovation in practice: innovation units. Drawing from research on innovation units in the United States, Europe and Australia, the team tackles questions around how these innovation units work, what they hope to achieve, and the challenges they encounter in practice. The episode also raises wider questions about the longer termed implications of working in ‘innovation mode’ for urban governance.

Dallas Rogers City Road podcast is recorded on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people. Hello, Dallas Rogers here. Welcome to City Road and we’re running a special podcast series called Innovating Cities, looking at how governments are taking up the challenge of innovation to solve urban problems. The series will be running on City Road and it’s made by colleagues at the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney and the University of Auckland. Enjoy.

Pauline McGuirk Housing crises, sustainability, liveability and inclusion, equitable access to services. The list goes on. These are all problems that tend to be expressed really intensely in urban contexts in cities, but increasingly there's felt to be a mismatch between the complexity of the problems and the capacity of city governments to deal with them. 

James Corless We don't have all the answers. We're taught, whether as planners or engineers to tell you, oh, we know how to solve your problem. We don't necessarily have the answers right. 

Pauline McGuirk We are Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong. 

Tom Baker And Tom Baker from the University of Auckland, with Robyn Dowling and Sophia Maalsen from the University of Sydney, we’re a research team funded by the Australian Research Council. We’re investigating the range of innovation initiatives that city governments are rolling out as they try to address the challenges facing cities. 

Pauline McGuirk And this is Innovating Cities, a special podcast series that examines how city governments are using innovative approaches to how they govern so as to address urban problems and make cities better. Our podcasts are produced on the unceded lands of Dharawal, Yuin and Gadigal Country. 

Tom Baker And the lands of Ngati Whatua o Orakei in Tamaki Makaurau.

Pauline McGuirk We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of these lands and to country itself. 

Tom Baker What do global institutions like the UN, the OECD, philanthropic organisations like Bloomberg Philanthropies, research institutions like Harvard and a range of consulting firms and not for profits, what do they have in common? Well, over the last decade, they've all been prescribing innovation as a solution for the many challenges that face city governments. How do leading practitioners of innovation in city government from around the world describe it? 

Eliza Erickson Innovation for us is really thinking about how we are, how we can make government systems and programs and policies more effective, more efficient, more responsive to what residents want and need, making sure they're as accessible as possible and making sure they're equitable as possible. And and I think the asterisk in that is helping employees realise that just because something has been done one way for 15 years and it's fine doesn't mean that we can't and we shouldn't be thinking about how to make it better. And the tools that we use to make it better can be these really innovative design thinking, human centred design, engaging, equitable frameworks that I think have just haven't really made their way into the public sector in the way that they have in other places. 

Tom Baker Eliza Erickson is the former Director of Innovation and Strategy for the City of Philadelphia. Others talk about it as creative problem solving, trying to refashion more traditional ways of working in government. Sticking to a rulebook that might have slowed things down. James Corless is the Executive Director of Sacramento Area Council of Governments, otherwise known as SACOG. 

James Corless I think innovation is really like creative problem solving right and you're not you're not bound by basically the instruction manual or what you've been taught, and that is what makes it hard. 

Pauline McGuirk Today we'll focus on one great example of innovation in practice: the innovation units, innovation teams or innovation labs or i-labs that are being set up within city governments around the world specifically to develop the creative problem solving capacity we just mentioned. These units are aimed at modelling new approaches to city governance, applying them to particular urban problems and building the capacity to address them. They have a parallel in software development in the tech industry where businesses create sandboxes or skunkworks teams, where new ideas get developed and tested out or experimented with. And this gives lots of scope for things to go wrong, to learn, to fail, and to go again. We'll be looking at some examples of these units from around the world to see what's being attempted and what lessons can be learned about making the work of these units effective. 

Tom Baker All right. We've done a bunch of interviews with innovation units in the U.S., in Europe and here in Australia. They give us a taste of what innovation in city government is all about. But can you tell us, Pauline, more about what these innovation units are? Where do these ideas come from? 

Pauline McGuirk Right. So, look, the idea of creating innovation units is presented in lots of best practice manuals that have been circulating around the world about how to innovate in city government. So, for example, for years now, Bloomberg Philanthropies have sponsored the creation of what they call i-teams in cities around the world. So these innovation units, they're usually small teams, maybe half a dozen people, and they’ve a brief to unleash creative new ideas and to learn from failing and iterating an idea until a version of a policy or a program or a way of delivering a service that works well comes together. So the innovation unit offers this kind of protected space where new approaches are developed and experimented with, and that can be for really pragmatic issues like how to organise waste collection more cheaply or effectively, or to improve the usability of public space. It might be about new processes, safer crowdsourcing, community ideas about improving services or designing policy by bringing different government departments together. But it might also be about addressing these thornier, more complex issues like devising new ways for delivering affordable housing, driving everyone crazy lately, or, you know, developing a sustainability mobility system. 

Tom Baker Ah but of course, city governments traditionally these are places that are quite bureaucratic, they’re places where processes are highly regulated and prescribed, and we might say, you know, for good reason. So there's lots of political sensitivity around failing with a policy idea or with new ways of delivering services. There's political risk, in other words, in stuffing up when you're spending public money. So these innovation units in their various forms, they're trying to manage these risks, they’re vehicles for trying new ways of governing things in the city, testing them out and refining them. Is that right? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, that's right. They are about really creating a context where there is a tolerance for failure and then learning from this to refine, improve, try again. And it's where attempts are often made then to work across the usual division of labour, between departments, across functions. They also often work to draw in new partners, whether that's in the private sector, the community sector, the philanthropic sector. And it's all about trying to create new ways of doing things or financing things or even new ways of developing urban policy. So it's really about creating capacity to rethink how the problems that have to be governed in cities are addressed. 

Tom Baker That's quite ambitious, disruptive, even. That's a word we hear a lot when we hear of innovation. So how do they work? What do they do? Can you give us some examples? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah. Look, they come in lots of shapes and sizes and they do vary a lot in their ambition, in how they operate, in the mechanisms that they use and in the politics of what they prioritise. So some of them focus on culture change, some focus on projects, some do both. Now great example of the first style of culture change focus is the City of Philadelphia's Innovation Management team. They aim to train folks who work in city government on these new approaches, new behaviours and skills to reimagine government programs and practices. And then they try to promote that across the city's government. Here's Eliza Erikson, their former Director, who we heard from earlier. 

Eliza Erikson If we really want to change the culture of innovate the culture of government, and we really want to build an ecosystem that's conducive to innovation, we need to have people who know how to think innovatively, places that facilitate and support innovative ideas and innovative thinking and processes that allow us to solicit and evaluate and pilot and find innovative ideas across a really big enterprise like the City of Philadelphia. We focus much more on kind of building and changing the culture and the people and the processes to support innovation, as opposed to saying the Streets department is really struggling with trash, how can we help them innovate around trash pickup? 

Pauline McGuirk So, for instance this unit runs an Innovation Academy. It's only open to city government employees, and it's about training them on how to develop new approaches to designing urban programs and policies. And that's all about skills on how to think differently about defining a problem, engaging stakeholders, getting buy in and developing solutions that are inclusive and effective. 

Tom Baker Okay, so that's an example that focuses on changing the culture in city government, unleashing creativity. But are there others that are more about using innovative methods? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, definitely. So other examples are much more focussed on using innovative mechanisms to generate and then enact these ideas to address the specific challenges a city might be facing, say, around housing or mobility or police recruitment. Or it could be more routine issues like improving the quality and inclusivity of public space, or how to share data across city departments. And then they use these mechanisms to work on specific projects, and that often involves drawing in new kinds of partners to do that. 

Tom Baker Okay. Flesh that out for me. Do you have an example? 

Pauline McGuirk Sure. In California, there's an organisation called the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, or SACOG, and it runs this thing called the Sacramento Civic Lab. And it's essentially an ilab process that happens over a few months. And they did one recently where they started with a theme, sustainable mobility. And then they brought a set of people from across these diverse government agencies, across the usual silos of government departments, and they brought in some not for profits as well. So all of these participants were formed into these mixed teams and their job was to come up with a problem statement for a specific issue that identified, in this case was about getting a fixed bus route to work in a given neighbourhood. So over a few sessions they refined their problem statements and they presented pictures to set out, you know, here's the problem we're trying to solve, how would we traditionally solve it, here's why that might not work in this instance. And then they brought in these other government transport agencies and a set of private sector firms, mainly mobility start-ups, to try to get everyone to focus on how to innovate electric mobility as a possible solution. They workshopped the problem statements together until they could be released as a set of requests for quotations. Now, after these RQFs were put out, they got bids in from mobility providers, SACOG put up $1 million. Another million came in from other public agencies and they leveraged another million in private sector funds. And then they were able to match bids with vendors and they got to launch seven pilot projects. Since then, they've applied for a federal government grant to fund the development of a carbon free mobility ecosystem for the region, using that same civic lab process. Here's how James Corless, the Executive Director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, reflects on the process. 

James Corless So I think this idea of expressing problem statements that we're trying to solve and then being humble enough to know that we don't necessarily have the answers right and that we can't solve some of these bigger problems anymore, even if they’re just transportation, point A to point B, with a sort of a single perspective that we need, we need partners. 

Tom Baker Right. So that bringing in a range of different types of partners through this ilab process and that makes me think about the politics and the priorities that come to the surface when you do a process like this that widens the range of who's involved in governing a particular problem. And you did mention that before, that some of these innovation units have a particular politics to what they prioritise. 

Pauline McGuirk That's right. Some innovation units do focus on particular political aspirations. And a really good example here comes from Bologna. In Bologna the city set up the Office of Civic Imagination it's called. And that's all about new ways to bring citizens into the process of governing Bologna's common urban resources. And it's about delivering city services through a participatory approach. So they have teams that are posted in six neighbourhoods across the city, as these permanent citizen engagement policy labs. Every year, they get these new projects, they develop them between the city council and the people in the neighbourhoods and together they've set up community managed public parks, neighbourhood centres and community hubs. They've regenerated public buildings as public cultural institutions. They've even set up a cooperative ethical delivery service that's meant to rival the likes of Deliveroo. So all these projects are funded by the city. The money is formally committed through a pact between the city and the neighbourhood community. So it's really about innovating in this instance to democratise decision making in local neighbourhoods by creating new kinds of institutions that are about collaboration and co-production. As they do this, they're aiming to build more common urban resources across Bologna. It's pretty neat. 

Tom Baker Okay, so there's lots of different styles of working and different kinds of targets. You've picked out a few examples here, and there are lots more of these kinds of examples that are emerging in cities all over the world, from North America to Europe to Latin America and even a few examples here in the Australian context where we are and I guess broadly at their most broadest they aspire to be making cities better, right? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, that's right. 

Tom Baker But we know there's not a lot out there yet that systematically evaluates what these innovation units can actually deliver. So can we talk about what's important to making them work, to making them effective at what they're trying to do? 

Pauline McGuirk Sure. Look, there's a bunch of things that are important to making these innovations work, and there's a bunch of challenges they bring to the surface that we need to be reflecting on really. 

Tom Baker Okay, so let's start by talking about what helps them to work. 

Pauline McGuirk Okay, look, five things kept coming to the surface in our research that we think are really critical to making these innovation units effective. First, and this is really commonly talked about, it's about creating a context where interventions or programs are allowed to fail. So in one of the ilabs we looked at in Toronto, the program manager put it really nicely when she said, and I'm quoting her here, ‘our return on investment here is going to be so much greater if we fail and then change ‘fail’ to ‘learn’, switch those two words’. So that's quite a shift in a bureaucratic setting where failure is normally seen as political risk. Here, failure is an opportunity to learn. The second thing that came up a lot is the idea of building trust and developing relationships. Actually, one of our interviews from Vancouver said to us, in his words, ‘trust and social networks turn out to be the greatest lubricant for innovation’. So like we said before, the kinds of innovation that these units are working with, they often involve creating new partnerships and doing city governance. You know, whether that's working with government agencies that aren't usually worked with or a philanthropic funder of a project or a university or a private provider of, say, housing or a new technology. James Corless describes this idea when he talks about trust and relationship in the Sacramento Civic Lab experience. 

James Corless We know a lot of that because we had this experience going through Civic Lab. So I'm a big believer of so much of this stuff at the end of the day is about relationships and getting outside your routine working relationship to begin to actually experience, challenge and problem solving and tension and all the rest of it. So I think it's pulled us closer together with our partners and we've developed relationships. I don't think, again I'm, I want to be sort of humble about it, I think we are, I wouldn't use the word transform yet. 

Tom Baker Okay, so embracing and learning from failure and building trust as a foundation for new working relationships. What else is important here? 

Pauline McGuirk Actually the third key thing is storytelling, now not making up stories, but communicating narratives about what's being done and what sorts of changes that's resulting in. So in some senses it's like PR, but hopefully with a bit less spin and more realism. It's about showcasing and demonstrating what changes these units are able to leverage, whether that's about using a different approach to policymaking or service design or a new approach to addressing a specific urban issue. And these can be anything from the minor scale, like, you know, removing dog poo in public spaces to major problems like providing affordable housing. The people we spoke to were really clear that showcasing inside of city government is just as important as with the wider public. The way someone we talked to from Detroit put it was, he said, ‘the best way for us to have the internal buy in has been to really showcase the wins and the capabilities that we're able to provide by doing’. 

Tom Baker And how do they go about showcasing? 

Pauline McGuirk Look, lots of ways, lots of reports, video clips, sometimes actual annual exhibits. The innovation unit in Reykjavik actually deploys an animator to communicate changes and visualise what they're doing to tell their story, and as they put it, ‘to bring transformation processes alive’. Nico Diaz Amigo, from the innovation unit in the City of Syracuse in the U.S., he told us about how they use social media for this purpose. 

Nico Diaz Amigo I also go through a lot of pain, not pain, but a lot of effort in how we communicate outwards, not only internally, and make sure that we are telling a compelling narrative of how we're advancing innovation in the city of Syracuse. So we have our own website where we have our own blog, where we show our work and show the cool things that we do. I have a big presence on LinkedIn where I'm constantly referring to some of the things that the team does so that when someone starts doing some research into what's going on in Syracuse and in this theme, they have all that evidence. 

Tom Baker So it sounds like narrating and showcasing the wins, that's really about demonstrating what some of the innovations can deliver. So, so far, so straightforward, we might say. But surely things get complicated, don't they? This is city government, after all. There must be dimensions that are really embedded in place in the knotty kinds of histories and contexts of the particular cities that are in question here. And that must mean that things don't just transform smoothly, right? 

Pauline McGuirk Oh definitely, yes. Look, I'm a geographer. You're never going to have to convince me that place matters. 

Tom Baker Well go on then. You said five things were important, so let's get into the knottier ones. 

Pauline McGuirk Okay. Look things do get complex and knotty, believe it or not. The people we interviewed talked a lot about how innovation units being effective relies on their being able to deal with the complications and the local situations. They have to be able to navigate and negotiate through these inevitable complexities and obstacles that crop up as the unit’s trying to do its work. Now there's no textbook. There's no predefined pathway that makes it all work. These units have to be able to find their way through problems, conflicting interests, political contingencies, institutional complexities and these all crop up in kind of unique ways in different places. 

Tom Baker All right. Break that down a bit for me. What do you mean, there? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah look it's knotty for sure. Let me use a few examples to explain it a bit. So the innovation units from the U.S. that we talked to really emphasise having to navigate the politics of city government. They were often seen to be associated with a particular Mayor and that could limit the buy in that they were able to get from the city government more widely. One of the people we talked to talked about how their innovation unit kept getting their budget cut because they were seen to be so closely associated with the Mayor and that Mayor's particular political priorities. So they just changed the name of the unit to break that perception and that cleared the way for them to gain credibility. And hey presto, no more budget cuts. The guy we spoke to in the Dublin unit gave us a really great example of how they had to try and negotiate across multiple levels to get projects off the ground and how complex that all was to juggle. Shane Waring is the lead of the Dublin Beta Lab, and here he describes a meeting on one of their initiatives that involved installing these covered secure bike bunkers in neighbourhoods across the city. In the meeting, the discussion got really complex. 

Shane Waring When I kind of analysed the meeting afterwards in my head, what I realised was what was so frustrating was we discussing things at three different levels. We were discussing national legislation, legally where we can do something or not. We were discussing “Well, what if everyone wants this, who’s going to run it? We don’t have the resources, and where’s the budget coming from?" And then he was also saying things like, “Well, I wouldn’t put it there because that fellow in that shop, we always have problems with him”, and this and that. So he was talking about really hyper-local stuff…If you’re trying to have a conversation, one minute you’re discussing national legislation, the next minute you’re saying, “Don’t put it outside Mr Murphy’s shop". It’s impossible to have a coherent conversation about it.”

Pauline McGuirk Good old Mr. Murphy. So look to deal with all that the Dublin unit developed this three stage approach to the projects that they wanted to do, so they didn't end up getting strangled by that complexity before they started. So those examples are about how these units have to manage internal politics and complexity, but then there's also resourcing and budgets. Lots of the people we spoke to talked about having to navigate yearly budget cycles, trying to secure funding and staffing for initiatives in a situation where money is always tight and where one of the people we talked to in Tulsa said ‘in city government, there's certain things that you just kind of have to you can't not do those things, you know’, like collect the garbage, fixing potholes and so on. I really like the way one of the people we spoke to in Melbourne described the whole process in terms of navigating. She talked about navigating sticking points, constantly shifting a little bit this way and a little bit that way to improve the process. So for her it was all about navigating their way through the context, the challenges, the stuff that didn't work, the stuff that needed to be rethought. 

Tom Baker So what I'm hearing is that there's not a predictable pathway to these units being able to effectively introduce these new ways of working, new ways of governing the city. There's a lot of quite particular ongoing circumstances ,they have to navigate, they're reacting to local situations, they're finding fixes to problems, they're hustling for resources. Presumably the wheels can fall off and the whole thing can go off course quite a bit. It's a lot about muddling through, not some clear, plottable pathway toward innovating. 

Pauline McGuirk Look, I think that's right. And actually, that also brings me to my last point, the fifth thing. And that's the way that making the work of these units effective in what they're trying to do demands this kind of different set of skills and dispositions from people, working governments. And lots of these are soft skills. So let's go back here to Eliza Erickson in Philadelphia. 

Eliza Erickson You know, I think at its core, this work is really just about like, are you a good communicator? Are you a good - to some extent, are you a good public speaker? Do you know – are you comfortable in tricky situations? Do you know how to navigate – do you know how to sit in a room with someone who’s really resistant to your idea and try to convince them that you know what you’re talking about?

Pauline McGuirk So the people we talk to talked a lot about things we don't normally associate with city government like passion, creativity, emotion, and like just being cool and doing cool things. 

Tom Baker And I've been looking into the annual Creative Bureaucracy festival that happens in Europe that points to something similar. That sounds like a bigger issue that's worthy of its own episode. 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, let's do that. 

Tom Baker Today we've focussed on unpacking what innovation units in city government are, what they aim for, how they work and what's important to making them effective. We've said less, though, about what this all means for governments, for cities and for city residents. Why don't we end with a couple of thoughts about that? Certainly, there's lots of talk about innovating city government and lots of speculative claims. But how big is the gap between the ideal of what they hope to achieve and the realities of putting that into practice in real world urban contexts? What do they actually deliver? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, well, there's a lot of great questions in there, actually. It's certainly easy to get swept up in the hype and assume that city government innovation is always a good thing and that it always delivers improvement. I mean, there is a degree of what we might call innovation washing where the hype exceeds the reality, and the rhetoric about what's changing gets, you know, overblown. In lots of what we've seen, the actual achievements are around fairly routine changes to the everyday business of running the city, you know, like new processes that make applying for permits easier or quicker, you know, new ways to gather ideas from the community about needs in public space, new processes for sharing data across departments in the city. So they might be quite routine rather than radically transformative, but they're still really important to everyday life in the city. And I think that points to the fact that changes to city government that happen through innovation are incremental. You know, rather than there being some big moment of radical disruption where innovating unleashes some kind of silver bullet. And you know what that incremental change looks like is going to be very different in different places depending on what the innovation team is working on and what problems, what sticking points they're trying to shift. 

Tom Baker And am I right that there's lots of really varying stuff that routinely goes on in city government that might get rebranded as innovation because it's got such a cachet at the moment? 

Pauline McGuirk Look I think that's true. And I think that can actually be positive because the term innovative can really provide this sort of license to get things done. So city governments can be opportunistic. They can use, you know, let's call it the aura of innovation to help them pursue local agendas, you know, things they might have been trying to get done for a while. And then by leveraging this term, they get the political license and they get the money that sometimes comes with various grand schemes or from philanthropies to support government innovation, and they get stuff done. 

Tom Baker And what about the politics of all this? I guess that's a big question underlying a lot of this activity. 

Pauline McGuirk The biggest question maybe. Look, there's multiple aspects to that. There's the internal politics of how does an innovation unit sit within the bigger structures of city government and how does that affect its influence? There's the question of securing sustainable funding and resources to keep their work in their projects going. We know city governments don't often have lots of cash or, you know, human resources sitting around going begging. And that can really compromise these units’ ability to follow through on promises to deliver change. 

Tom Baker And to be perhaps a broken record here, the broader question of the politics of urban governance innovation right? 

Pauline McGuirk Yeah, precisely. A really big question for me is what effect does working in innovation mode have on what urban governance problems get addressed? You know, what kinds of problems are seen as solvable through innovation? These units often need to demonstrate quick wins. We saw that, and that can shape what their targets are and what solutions are seen to be feasible. Another question would be, you know, what does involving private sector or philanthropic partners do to the types of problems that get focussed on? Or what does it do to who has authority in decision making in the city? These are capital B capital Q, big questions that I think practitioners and urban scholars like us really do need to step back and be thinking about. 

Tom Baker So there's lots of things to get our teeth into here, right? Just as well, we have a series of episodes ahead then. 

Pauline McGuirk That's right. Join us over the next few episodes where we unpack urban governance innovation, we talk about methods, skills and the implications for city government and cities themselves. I'm Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong. 

Tom Baker And I'm Tom Baker from the University of Auckland. 

Pauline McGuirk Thanks for joining us on this first episode in a special podcast series on urban governance innovation, Innovating Cities, a joint project funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted by the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney, and the University of Auckland. We've put links to our research project in the show notes and you'll find these in your podcasting app. Thanks to City Road podcast for hosting us and to our research participants for sharing their insights and knowledge. And thanks to our producer Jennifer Macey, and to Neil Davey at the University of Newcastle for tech support. 

Episode 2

Innovating urban governance: Design Thinking 

What is design thinking and how might it be useful for city governments? In this episode Sophia Maalsen and Robyn Dowling discuss how design thinking is being conceptualised and operationalised in city governance innovation. Drawing from examples internationally and in Australia, they ask what design thinking means to those who use it, what it is used for, and how using design thinking may open up new opportunities to address urban problems.     

Dallas Rogers City Road podcast is recorded on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people. Hello Dallas Rogers here again from City Road podcast and welcome back to Innovating Cities, a special short series from the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney and the University of Auckland. In episode two innovating urban governance: design thinking we hear about how design approaches and methods are being applied to fix some of the problems facing city governments around the world. Enjoy.  

Robyn Dowling City governments are facing an increasingly complex set of issues to solve but how can design be part of the solution to solving these problems, not just making cities more beautiful, but actually making cities better places to live?  

Kris Carter I guess it's always been a little bit about design, but we often sort of bill ourselves as an R&D shop where the D stands for design. Co-design, it is thinking about process design, program design as well as trying to make things beautiful. We're trying to sort of embed that thinking into city government.  

Robyn Dowling So we are Robyn Dowling.  

Sophia Maalsen And Sophia Maalsen from the University of Sydney, with Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong and Tom Baker from the University of Auckland. And we're a research team funded by the Australian Research Council to investigate the range of innovation initiatives that city governments are rolling out as they try to address the challenges facing cities.  

Robyn Dowling And this is Innovating Cities, a special podcast series that examines how city governments are using innovative and different approaches to how they govern so that they can address urban problems more efficiently, effectively, and improve the quality of lives of their residents. Our podcasts are produced on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respect to the traditional custodians of these lands and to country itself.  

Sophia Maalsen Design thinking, co-design, prototyping, human-centred design. Robyn, these are terms that we've become familiar with from our work in design and architecture but not something that people might think of when we think of government and policymaking.  

Robyn Dowling That's right, Sophia. And thinking about design in the policy realm is relatively new but has become quite common and there's lots of definitions that are really, that we found in our research, you can find across various city governments and are very helpful and a couple of organisations have really interesting approaches. So for example, the design school at Stanford are quite famous in their use of design thinking for different means. There's a process that you talk about where you begin by empathising. You think about, well, what is a what is the problem or the issue from the perspective of somebody who is involved in that issue. And then you define the problem based on that. Then you ideate. Or you change or you refine and you reflect on what is going on. Then you prototype. So you make a make an object or a test or a prototype. You think, hmm, does this work? And you test it to see whether it actually works. Or even our own designers here at the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning have a really good book called ‘Design. Think. Make. Break. Repeat.’ which is really a nice summary of the design process, so thinking, well, you start with the people, what are their needs? So if you're designing a process or a policy, you know, what are the people affected by the policy might be their needs. Then you make, so you generate ideas, you generate objects, you might generate a policy or a concept. And then you break it and breaking it means that you experiment, you test it, you know does this work in the real world. And so that's that sort of iterative process of design is what we're starting to see inflected in government approaches to policymaking and to service provision across many cities in the world. So what one thing that we've also discovered and that was we're going to explore in our podcast, Sophia, is that we can think about the design thinking in three different ways. We can think about design as an attitude, design as an approach, but also design as a method.  

Sophia Maalsen That's really interesting, Robyn, and I really like the way that you think about this in this sort of three-pronged framework. So, an attitude. Can you talk me through that?  

Robyn Dowling Certainly. So design as an attitude that is about being open to exploring ideas, finding creative and novel solutions to problems. So Eliza Erickson, who's the former Director of Innovation and Strategy for the City of Philadelphia, has a particular way of thinking about design as an attitude and new ways of thinking.  

Eliza Erickson We always tell people know there's no right way to be innovative. Like I can teach you how to do traditionally a creative matrix, but you can then morph that into whatever makes sense to you, like, I'm not here to police your creativity, I'm here to tell you that there are, here’s a new way of thinking. If you like it, great. If you don't like it, that's fine, I'll give you another tool.  

Sophia Maalsen So that's design as an attitude. But secondly, design can be thought of as a process approach, and that is working often with others to translate knowledge and ideas into formal artefacts. For example, we spoke to Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir, Service and Digital Transformation Manager in Reykjavik, who’s Welfare department wanted transform their entire process around financial aid. 

Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir And at that point in time, the process was, you know, people who needed that support had to go from office to office between the state and the municipality, gathering a lot of documents, you know, travelling in real time and handing in paper documents and that, you know, the classical thing. And the welfare department was courageous enough to say, okay, we are sure that we can do this process better, better designed for the users. We are sure that we are able to use digital solutions to better enable. I mean, if you can follow your pizza in real time, you must be able to do this process much better. So they put their trust in us and we did a very intense, very by the book, sprint around three or four months where we just got an outside team of programmers and designers, we got specialists from the welfare department and put them all in together and, and made them work. So and they followed the process very rigorously through every step of the process, the discovery and synthesis and testing and all the things and through that project which was very successful, came out a digital product and a new process, human centred process, and it was very successful.  

Sophia Maalsen And the third way we can think of design was as a method, right?  

Robyn Dowling Yes. So a doing or a method involves a wide array of tools and techniques. So design as a method means you apply those tools to particular situations. Some of those tools might include a focus on co-creation, working with others, a participatory approach that engages all relevant actors in defining solutions. So that might be in ilabs or mylabs and community engagement. So Eliza Erikson again provides a really useful description of what some of these tools and methods might be.  

Eliza Erikson So design thinking plays a really pivotal role, especially in the academy and in innovation consulting. The curriculum of the Innovation Academy is very heavily focussed on design thinking and human centred design techniques. But I would say kind of with the understanding that at their core, those ways of thinking are really just about, in my mind, you know, are really just about new ways of including and engaging people in program design and policy design. And, you know, folks who I think traditionally are not are either not involved in the design process or haven't been engaged in a way that feels really authentic.  

Sophia Maalsen Now, a lot of this sounds like approaches we hear about in other areas. So sometimes the term design thinking is used in a way that is more familiar to us in design and architecture. But from our interviews with innovation units from around the world, different terms were used.  

Robyn Dowling Yeah so many of those terms didn't come from design and architecture. So in Philadelphia, they were drawing from behavioural science or service designers rather than architectural, or in Pittsburgh and Tulsa, again two US cities, they used processes that came from the manufacturing industry to inform what they were doing. And some of them used a more philosophical or anthropology approach about a theory of change. Now how do you change the world? They drew from processes of change and applied that to city government.  

Sophia Maalsen So what we might consider as design thinking approaches are often drawn in from different disciplines but are essentially interested in achieving the same outcomes. Interestingly, when we asked people about what they meant by design thinking, many were quick to say that they weren't design experts, but that they used it as a catchall for an approach to problem solving that brings different people together as a way of co-creating, as an experimental method and is also iterative and creative. So why might a city look to using design thinking? Why would they want to do it? And what does it offer that our business as usual approach doesn't?  

Robyn Dowling And also important is or how would they do it? If we were a city government, well, how would we implement design thinking in our processes and our activities and our policy development? And what our research has found is that there's two perhaps obvious ways that design thinking becomes apparent in city government. Design thinking can be part of a city's formal strategy, so they could put it in planning documents, in institutional norms and expectations. But what we've found is that that's actually not very common. It does happen, but it's not as common as a second approach, which is design thinking becomes part of a method associated with innovation units. So those ilabs that we talked about in episode one of the podcast series, those places where innovation is allowed to flourish, these sort of islands of innovation within a local or a city government, that is where design thinking is most likely to happen. Returning to Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir, again, she talks about this way that design can be sort of nurtured within this tiny part of the organisation.  

Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir Alongside a tiny, tiny, tiny digital team and we were kind of nobody knew who we were, nobody understood what we were doing, why we were doing it, why we were you know knocking on people's doors and saying ‘Hi, we want to play, you know, can we, can we help you better your services by using this great methodology? And, you know, have you heard about, you know, digital products? You know, they're very clever.’ And so that was kind of the beginning. And we we ran into a few obstacles, to say the least.  

Sophia Maalsen Okay. So that gives us a little bit of an indication as to why people might want to use design thinking in government. Who is actually doing it, though? Is there someone who does that design thinking or is that a group of people?  

Robyn Dowling So the first point there is that design thinking in government needs a champion. All the organisations we looked at needed somebody, that’s some of the people we've talked about already, who would you know champion and advocate for design thinking in the organisation. Without that, it wasn't going to happen at all. So yes, you need a champion. But what was also quite distinctive about using design thinking is that different agencies not traditionally associated with urban policy would be involved. So if we think about, for example, a great example we spoke to was CityStudio in Vancouver and CityStudio were using design thinking to solve a whole series of really important problems in the City of Vancouver. But they did so through a collaboration. So CityStudio, where essentially, they would provide advice to the city, the City of Vancouver were involved and they would provide the problems that needed to be solved. And then CityStudio would source ideas and creativity and different ways of approaching that problem by alliances with the local universities. So university students would come in, the City would give the students a brief to say, you know, this is a problem and they would then go and do a design thinking approach to resolve that issue and then present back to the City a solution. You wouldn't normally expect university students, you know, being part of urban policy, but they're really important.  

Sophia Maalsen Actually, that reminds me of our interview with Shane Waring from Dublin Beta where he mentioned they sometimes worked with students from the National College of Art and Design to problem solve some of the city problems. And it strikes me as slightly different to perhaps some of the other stakeholders that we might think of as well as being engaged in this process where, say, for example, some of the cases like MONUM at the City of Boston and our interviews in Philadelphia were also working with other departments internally in local government, so not just external stakeholders, but different participants from within government. So I guess there's a range of people that you can co-design with. So in Boston, Kris Carter, former co-chair of the Boston's Mayor Office of New Urban Mechanics, who we heard from at the top of the episode, talks about how their work with designers is only just beginning.  

Kris Carter You know, as we've grown our portfolio too, and started including more health and human services type programs, so we do a fair amount with the Office of Returning Citizens, which is about people that are formerly incarcerated, a bunch of work with people that are facing addiction issues and working through recovery. It's been really wonderful to have some designers on staff that are incredibly empathetic and not that we aren't next level empathy in how they're approaching even the questions that we would ask someone or that type of intervention that we might even try. And we're about to bring on a third designer who's going to really work on like food insecurity issues. So well, I think there's some amazing potential in what design can be in this space and what it can be in cities. And often we're maybe just scratching the surface.  

Robyn Dowling Those examples are really fascinating Sophia, from Boston, from Dublin and the one I used from Vancouver that really show there's different collaboration and different institutions, different organisations, different people are involved if you are going to be design thinking as a way of doing urban governance. So that's all fantastic but then the question is what does it actually look like in practice? You know, how does it get embedded into a government or how does it change the city environment or the city policy or the city economy?  

Sophia Maalsen So one example where we can see design thinking and practice comes from Terrance Smith, who's the former Director of the Innovation Unit from the City of Mobile in Alabama, who spoke to us about using a design thinking approach to improve their 311 service. Now, 311 service is like a service hotline, you can ring up and request or report an incident.  

Terrance Smith And then I think one of the last projects that we took on was 311. We realised that we had we received lots of complaints about the 311 service itself when 311 itself was supposed to take complaints and make sure that we're delivering solutions. But we realised that what happened is we allow citizens to view 311 as a complaint line versus 311 being an information hub and a citizen-centric centre. And so one of the things that we did was in doing that, we went back through the processes of the processes that were put into place from the EAM for the, for the enterprise asset management system and realised that because we were just moving the old process maps into new systems, we were just bringing the old problems into new systems and creating a bunch of frustration for ourselves. So we employ service designers to come in, speak with frontline staff members, speak with, speak with the people who are at the centre of each of each citizen request, a service request order, only to realise that, hey, these things are outdated, so let's remove the waste from each section, which takes a long time but then let's also now start to evaluate how long will it take to have this request, review this, so now we're at a process where we did an overhaul of the entire system. Citizens now are very aware that that 311 is a knowledge hub. So now they use it for more than just complaining, but they're using it as the front door to government and to engagement.  

Robyn Dowling That sounds great. The 311 was supposed to be the front door to government and engagement and it wasn't. And they employed service designers and design thinking approach and actually allowed it to fulfil what it was supposed to do in the first place. Another example we can take from CityStudio, which we spoke about before, and their use of students with the City of Vancouver and Duane Elverum from the CityStudio Vancouver spoke to us about using a design thinking with the city to improve immigration settlement services. Cities like Vancouver and other big immigration hubs across the world resettling immigrants into their city is such an important service provision that that they are required and want to provide to help citizens settle in. So it's important that immigration settlement services work.  

Duane Elverum So it's a multi-year project where the city said they wanted to improve settlement services in the Vancouver Immigration Partnership. They were getting complaints from new immigrants were coming in and frustration and just this whole bureaucratic process in the City, said CityStudio, ‘can you help us?’ We took the list of the problems that they had identified and what surveys have said, and we took it to marketing and nursing. And so in business and nursing, community health, they work together to to create new UX improvements, user design improvements to the settlement services processes. That was year one. So year one that goes back, they work, they do that for a year, they use the changes. Then they come back to us the next year and say ‘okay, we’ve identified new settlement services issues.’ Goes back to nursing and marketing. Comes back. And over four years, it resulted in a federal grant, it resulted in a what they have talked about as a kind of vast improvement to the settlement services experience. And now the city has a set of practices that have become the new standard. And it was with a community partner, Mosaic as the community partner, the City of Vancouver, social planning and then marketing and nursing from the university. Yeah. Lot of feedback. There's a lot of in this design thinking world in innovation, there's this reiteration of loop of really knowing that feedback is gold, even though sometimes it just annoys you but it's just for me the gold.  

Sophia Maalsen So we can see that there's a lot of moving parts in design thinking approaches both across different people being involved, the ways you could do it, how you could approach it and the problems that it addresses. So what would actually a successful design thinking project look like? And it's interesting, we asked a couple of our interviewees around how they measured success. And while some of them mentioned that there were some metrics that they could use, such as, for example, how many times a new, say, app was downloaded or how many people came through, they were more interested in the qualitative aspects. So how people thought about a space or in the words of Shane Waring from Dublin Beta, whether or not Dublin became a better place because of it. So it's not always easily measurable. And actually, failure might not be considered failure in that sense because it reveals issues that weren't there previously and it shows government where they need to draw their attention to fix things. Which actually leads me to my next question, which is around the lessons learned from design thinking. So Robyn, what has our research shown us about design thinking and what are some takeaway lessons?  

Robyn Dowling The first takeaway is the one you just mentioned, Sophia, and that is that what you learn from it is in fact an important measure of success. If you implement a design thinking approach and don't learn anything from it, just, you know, it doesn't work, so you say, oh, well, move on, we've learned that learning, understanding that things might fail, but that's not a problem, as you say, that we need to to learn from that and do something better to iterate, as designers would say. The other main thing we've learnt is about the types of people and or sorts of expertise city governments might best have to implement a design thinking approach. So the City of Toronto, for example, talks about the need for a certain mindset and other skills alongside design thinking, not necessarily formally trained designers, but people able to understand a creative process or the willingness to make something and break it and learn from the breakages and move on is one of the things. And as we also will explore in episode three, what we also discovered was that content expertise wasn't necessarily the best type of expertise. So if you are redesigning immigration settlement services, certainly you need to understand the intricacies of immigration resettlement. But that's not the only thing you need. You also need someone who has expertise in process, whether that be in participatory engagement or whether that be in bringing people along into a solution or creatively doing policy making in a different way that might not be how settlement services have conventionally been organised. So it's not just the content you need that content knowledge is important, but it's not the only knowledge that you need to create a better city and that that ability or that types of expertise and orientations to being a public servant or a city government person is actually changing and that's what we will, Tom and Pauline will explore further in episode three.  

Sophia Maalsen Okay, So I can see that actually reflected in our interview with Anne-Marie Croce from the City of Toronto, who talks about the need for a certain mindset and these other skills alongside design thinking when she is looking to hire people.  

Anne-Marie Croce Even when I'm hiring now I hire for the core competencies. I don't hire for somebody who has services and experience. I can teach them. Right, we can walk you through a process, but I need somebody who has really soft skills, somebody that I know I can take into the community, somebody that can be and understands the importance of empathy, somebody that understands the purpose of, you know, gathering data and tracking it throughout the process. That is something that, that mindset is much harder to learn than human-centred designed.  

Robyn Dowling And that's why it would be fantastic for everyone to join us for the next episode where we discuss what it takes to build creative capacity within bureaucracies. I'm Robyn Dowling from the University of Sydney.  

Sophia Maalsen And I'm Sophia Maalsen, also from the University of Sydney.  

Robyn Dowling Thanks for joining us in this second episode of a special podcast series on urban governance innovation, Innovating Cities, a joint project by the University of Wollongong, University of Sydney and the University of Auckland. We've put links to our ARC funded research project in the show notes, which you'll find in your podcasting app.  

Sophia Maalsen Thanks to City Road podcasts for hosting us and a special thanks to Laura Goh our research associate on the project, and our producer Jennifer Macey and audio editor Emily Perkins. We hope you can join us next time.  

Episode 3:

Innovating urban governance: the Creative Bureaucrat 

Does creativity have a place in City Hall? The idea that bureaucracy should or can be creative certainly runs counter to common ideas we have of city government. But recently, that has begun to change. Innovation in city governance is being recast as ‘creative problem solving’. Drawing on stories from city governments around the world, Tom Baker and Pauline McGuirk discuss what it takes to build creative capacity within bureaucracies.   


Dallas Rogers City Road podcast is recorded on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people. Hello and welcome back to Innovating Cities, a podcast series on City Road podcast and I'm Dallas Rogers. This is a short podcast series from the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney and the University of Auckland. Episode three innovating urban governance: the creative bureaucrat deals with breaking the stereotypes about people working inside city governments and looks at how they're dealing with the innovation approaches we've been hearing about in the previous episodes. Enjoy.

Tom Baker The idea that bureaucracies can be creative goes against common ideas we have of local government. But recently that's starting to change.

Anne-Marie Croce My role is be a creative problem solver, be a storyteller and bring that forward.

Brad Badelt It's just really important for a lot of staff to have that aspect of their job that’s a bit more creative and a bit more experimental and frankly, a bit more fun 

Tom Baker We are Tom Baker from the University of Auckland

Pauline McGuirk And Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong with Robyn Dowling and Sophia Maalsen from the University of Sydney. We're a research team that's been funded by the Australian Research Council to investigate the range of innovation initiatives that city governments across the world are rolling out as they try to address the challenges facing cities.

Tom Baker And this is Innovating Cities, a special podcast series that examines how city governments are using innovative approaches to address urban problems and to make cities better. Our podcasts are produced on the unceded lands of the Dharawal, Ilouri and Wadi Wadi peoples, and the lands of Ngati Whatua o Orakei in Tamaki Makaurau. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of these lands and to country itself. Let's start out with the word association task, Pauline. I know this is a little strange, but I want to test something out. I'll say something and you tell me the words that come to your mind. Are you ready?

Pauline McGuirk Mm hmm. Okay.

Tom Baker Bureaucracy.

Pauline McGuirk Orderly. Dependable. Consistent. Maybe opaque. Kafkaesque. Rule bound. Constraining. I'm on a roll now. Slow. I could go on.

Tom Baker That's perfect. What about local government or municipality?

Pauline McGuirk I'd say roads, rates and rubbish. You know that Australian catchphrase for local governments, I'd say. Libraries. Parks. I might say routine. Everyday public services, maybe I'd say community.

Tom Baker Well, I think most people, myself included, would have pretty similar word associations if we put them on the spot because when we think about the bureaucracy of local government, the people and the processes that do the work of local government, we tend to think about something pretty staid, pretty unglamorous and something pretty consistent and predictable. If you're on the inside of government bureaucracy, it might feel monotonous. If you're on the receiving end, it might feel frustrating. Now, I'm not suggesting this is a fair representation, that certainly doesn't capture the more varied reality of local government. But like many stereotypes, we have to admit there is a kernel of truth here. And as someone who did a stint in local government, I can certainly vouch for that. But what if local government bureaucracy was innovative? What if local government workers got things done not just through following rules and consistent processes, but through risk taking, being creative and drawing on charisma? What if local government wasn't seen as boring but instead, and I'm hesitant to utter these words, what if local government was cool?

Pauline McGuirk Over the last several months, we've been talking with people around the world who are trying to do city government differently. At the start of this episode, we heard from two Canadian based practitioners, Anne-Marie Croce from the City of Toronto and Brad Badelt from the City of Vancouver. They were getting at the idea that working in city government could involve creativity and fun, some cool stuff. And while making city government cool might be a stretch, a common goal among the people and places we've been researching is to enable city government and its workers to be more creative. So today in this episode, we're talking about city governments’ efforts to become more creative. Why do we need creative bureaucrats in City Hall? And what does it mean to be creative within city government?

Tom Baker Earlier this year in the middle of Berlin was the site of a special kind of festival. Close to the Ostbahnhof, in an old industrial building converted to an art centre, the festival hosted over thirteen hundred people. Another fifteen hundred people live-streamed the event. But this wasn't a typical type of music festival or arts festival for a city like Berlin. It was the sixth Annual Creative Bureaucracy Festival. Yep, a festival of bureaucracy and a festival of creative bureaucracy, no less. And over the course of several days at the festival, City government took centre stage. The festival featured city officials talking about things we might not always associate with city bureaucracy and its work: how to collaborate, how to build trust, mobilise imagination and shift cultures within and through city government. In a time when bureaucrat can be a dirty word, the Creative Bureaucracy Festival is a provocative and almost defiant project.

Pauline McGuirk And it's not an isolated phenomenon. In fact, it might just be the tip of the iceberg. Hidden below the waterline are many and varied experiments happening in city governments around the world. They're trying to leverage creativity as a bureaucratic mechanism or a skill in the pursuit of improvements to cities and urban life.

Tom Baker For James Corless from SACOG, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments in California, making these changes isn't easy.

James Corless I think innovation is really creative problem solving, that’s how I define it, and you’re not bound by the instruction manual or what you’ve been taught and that is what makes it hard 

Pauline McGuirk But to understand why city governments are embracing bureaucratic creativity, we need to step back and ask about the problems that a creative bureaucracy is intended to solve. In other words: if creativity is the solution, what is the problem with city government?

Tom Baker After talking with city officials around the world, it's clear there are several perceived problems here. The three big ones are that city governments are not seen as adaptable enough, not effective enough, and not open enough.

Pauline McGuirk Okay. So let's work through these three problems.

Tom Baker Sure. Within these efforts to make city government more creative, the first problem they tend to diagnose is that city governments aren't adaptable enough. Now, there's a balance to be struck here. Part of what citizens need and want from city government is stability. They want their rubbish collected when it's supposed to be collected. They want their application to renovate their house assessed against consistent criteria. They want decisions about how the city develops to be based on careful, long-term plans that don't change from one week to the next.

Pauline McGuirk That reminds me of that quote from Christian Bason, the public admin researcher, where he paraphrases James Wilson from that classic book ‘Bureaucracy’ and he says ‘we ought not be surprised that organisations resist innovation, since they are supposed to resist it’. In other words, organisations organise and to organise is to make things stable and more certain. But then of course that stability risks becoming rigid and inflexible, doesn't it?

Tom Baker Yes, yes, it can lead to sticking with ways of doing things that aren't working well or that could work better because that's the way it's been done in the past. In our first episode, you remember hearing from Eliza Erickson, she was the former Director of Innovation and Strategy from the City of Philadelphia who described part of her job this way.

Eliza Erickson Helping employees realise that just because something has been done one way for 15 years and it's fine doesn't mean that we can't and we shouldn't be thinking about how to make it better.

Tom Baker And I suppose being set in our ways, it wouldn't be a major issue if the circumstances stayed the same but that's not the case. Even the small stuff, the bread and butter functions of city government, they're changing. For example, we heard from city government workers that were looking for ways to get delinquent property owners to attend to their properties. We heard from others trying creative ways to improve various aspects of what we might call urban liveability, everyday stuff about public space, city maintenance, community facilities. One city official we spoke to in the US had a neat example of this. It was about potholes, a classic problem. The city was getting complaints about how long it was taking to fix roads with potholes, so they sent out people from the city's innovation unit to ride along with pothole fixers to understand how those teams approached the task. The city officials spent at least three days a week for four months observing their work. I'm sure this would have made some passers-by scratch their heads, you know, seeing a bunch of people with notebooks, watching people fill potholes. But together, the road maintenance team and the innovation team, they trialled something new, creative even. Instead of going systematically from one major road to another major road, they made a small but significant change. Instead of working road category by road category, doing the major roads first and coming back some time later to do the minor roads, they shifted to a geographical approach and they went area to area fixing potholes on all the roads that needed it while they were in the neighbourhood. And this made a big difference to their efficiency and their relations with residents. It would be great if lots of city government issues could be dealt with like this with a touch of creativity. But there are more complicated macro issues too, and these aren't so amenable to tweaks.

Pauline McGuirk Go on. Can you explain that a bit more?

Tom Baker Okay, I'll give you some examples. Sea level rise it threatens the viability of commercial and residential areas on the coast. Rising heat levels threaten liveability. Ageing infrastructure threatens the basic functioning of day-to-day life. Unaffordable housing systems are undermining intergenerational renewal and fairness. These are some big issues that stalk lots of cities and while they can't and they shouldn't be solved by cities on their own, they're driving some of the more creative and adaptable city government responses that we're talking about. And these aren't issues that are solved through tweaks. They demand more substantial rethinking of how things are done. The dynamic response to Covid-19 by city governments is a good example here. James Anderson from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation Program has said, and I'm quoting here from some media coverage ‘When national governments failed in their pandemic response, local leaders stepped up in ways they’d never before imagined to meet residents’ needs for food, shelter, internet access and more’. So he thinks this shows how cities are acting beyond their traditional scope of power and responsibilities to creatively address the big issues.

Pauline McGuirk Okay, so to be more adaptable, city governments are aiming to get more creative in how they address the complex problems they're increasingly faced with. But being adaptive isn't an end in itself, right? Change for its own sake would be fairly exhausting and kind of pointless. So what are some of the other reasons that people are trying to inject creativity into city government for?

Tom Baker Well, there are two main ones. They want city government to be more effective and they want it to be more open in what it does. There are big financial and organisational barriers to being more effective in city government. So on the financial front, city governments are saddled with the biggest, thorniest problems of our time as well as the everyday stuff of service delivery. But they tend to have less ability to raise revenues through taxes and fees for services. And in the US and UK, there's been over a decade of austerity where city budgets have been slashed and that's dramatically affected their ability to maintain the services they provide to their constituencies. James Wagner from the City of Tulsa's Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, or OPSI, paints a picture for us.

James Wagner There are so many things admittedly, and now I see it in this role, at the city that are really essential that we’re not even able to fund. So like code enforcement. Like we need more people doing code enforcement, clearly. And the city council asked for it and demands it, but we can’t afford it. And so you have to say no to lots of things that are seemingly critical, and essential, and basic already. 

Tom Baker When cities are cash strapped, there's a drive to do more with less. But this constrained financial position can be so acute that city governments have a hard time diverting money away from day-to-day service delivery and toward longer term concerns. And they can struggle to divert resources toward the creative and less immediate work of making city government more effective, financially and practically. James from Tulsa sums it up.

James Wagner By increasing OPSI staff to, you know eight or ten people it would seem like you were really forgetting about some other priorities. But I think the reality is what OPSI really does is focus on the important and maybe it's like the medicine, whereas what departments do is they focus on the urgent and the symptoms. And so that's challenging though sometimes when you have symptoms that are right in front of you all the time and urgent things, where the medicine you need to develop to solve those intractable things. It's hard to put the resources into it when the symptoms are so evident.

Pauline McGuirk Mm hmm. And on the organisational front, what tend to be the barriers? 

Tom Baker City governments are complex organisations. In a given city, they're among the largest organisations by workforce and by operating budget with a really diverse set of activities. So it's basically inevitable in such a large, complex organisation for so-called silos to develop where different elements of the organisation are disconnected from one another. They protect their patches and get burrowed away in the day-to-day of their work. One example of a city government trying to build creative capacity so staff can see beyond their silos is Reykjavik service design accelerator. This is an internal program for city employees where they learn different ways of working to address a particular challenge in their work. Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir from the City's innovation unit describes how it works.

Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir They had to come as a team and their bosses had to make space in their work for them to participate. And through a process that was from six to eight weeks, we experimented a little bit on the timeline. Through that process they learned service design, or human centred design. We use the term service design, it's more, it's the best translatable for our environment. They learned the process, did some user research, talk to the citizens ideated, they created the prototype. They went through the entire process and saw the benefit. And they saw that often enough we are tackling the wrong problem. We are tackling not the root cause, but something derived of the root cause. It impacted a lot and it gained the momentum. It was something that people wanted to participate in.

Pauline McGuirk Okay, that's a great example. So that's the effectiveness motivation then. What about city governments’ hopes around openness? That was the third reason you mentioned that has city officials turning to creativity, right?

Tom Baker Right. Okay the final reason is that city officials tend to think a creative bureaucracy will be a more open and transparent bureaucracy. Just as city governments can develop sealed off silos within themselves, they can also silo themselves from those on the outside, like residents. Let me give you an example. For the City of Toronto, much of their creative thinking through its innovation team has been directed toward ways to meaningfully involve residents in designing services. For Anne-Marie Croce.

Anne-Marie Croce Everything that we do is resident-facing, resident-impacting.

Tom Baker And to successfully engage with residents, the City doesn't just need to gain the trust of residents, the City also has to trust that residents are able to articulate their problems and needs. Anne-Marie pointed out that what is needed from the city is.

Anne-Marie Croce Trust in the process. Trust in the co-creation. Trust in the cocreating with users and understanding users, not just telling users, not just telling residents.

Tom Baker So, you know, there are pretty low levels of trust in many institutions right now, including government and city governments are seeing bureaucratic creativity as a way to open themselves up to different stakeholders to build that trust. And they're doing this by actively pursuing partnerships, deep consultation and collaboration across a whole array of voices across the community, as well as the private sector.

Pauline McGuirk Right. So we've got a good sense now of why city governments are getting creative, so to speak. They want to be more adaptable in a changing context that's been landing cities with some pretty big problems to deal with and in a financial environment that's been hostile for them. They want that adaptability to translate into being more effective at what they do. And they want to be more open to external stakeholders like residents, local businesses and the like. Okay, that's the why. I get the need for city bureaucrats to be creative. But what that doesn't tell us, though, is what exactly does a creative bureaucracy look like? So tell us more.

Tom Baker Yes, that's the question, isn't it? We're familiar with the idea of the rule bound bureaucrat operating in line with rigid processes. It's a bit of a stereotype, of course, but we can all picture it. The creative bureaucrat, on the other hand, sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's a thing now. As we mentioned before, creative bureaucracy even has its own annual festival. So creative bureaucrats, they aren't unicorns. They walk among us.

Pauline McGuirk Aha. But how do we spot them in the wild then?

Tom Baker Well, what marks them out is what they do. And there are two types of skills or capabilities that seem to characterise creativity in city bureaucracies. The first type of skill or disposition is about problem solving. Building more adaptive city government is only possible with city workers who have an ability to look at particular processes, systems or outcomes associated with the functioning of city government and to rethink how they might work differently. They need to be able to identify a problem or issue, or perhaps a desired outcome and work creatively towards solutions. Remember the pot-hole story from earlier? That's one example. Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir from the City of Reykjavik in Iceland described this problem solving mindset to us. Arna had professional experience in the airline industry, and that's a parallel she's drawing on here.

Arna Ýr Sævarsdóttir You're always just solving problems and putting yourself in the shoes of whoever you are dealing with. Is the citizen or is it someone who has lost their baggage? They have a problem and our obligation is to solve it, whatever means necessary.

Tom Baker Others emphasised how this problem solving mindset requires an attitude of open ended experimentation, curiosity and collaboration. One city official told us, and I'm quoting them ‘local governments are on a journey to learn and to experiment, so there's a lot of room for flexibility, a space to suggest, to learn, to develop and to improve’.

Pauline McGuirk So then when we think of local government workers and the training and background experience they have, we might imagine qualifications in public policy or urban planning, for instance. But this disposition and, you know, the way our interviewees talked of journeys, learning, experiments, it sounds to me like that that's drawing on different training and different background experiences than we might think of conventionally. Is that accurate?

Tom Baker Yes. Yes, it is. What's notable about the people we spoke to, and these are people whose jobs are essentially about improving city government from within, is that they had a range of different professional histories. They had different pathways into their current role in city government. We spoke to people who had worked in the corporate and community sectors. We also spoke to a former dental therapist or hygienist as they call them in the US. We spoke to people leading innovation initiatives that had backgrounds in religious studies rather than urban planning. And this speaks to a desire within city government to look beyond the public sector for the skills they need to make improvements. And we saw this too in the kinds of backgrounds that are sought when local governments are recruiting staff to work on particular kinds of innovation projects. A recent job advertisement for a city government position in Melbourne had selection criteria looking for people with skills and experiences that aren't domain or task specific. They were things like: experience in human centred design; a systems-thinking mindset; a history of enabling teams to create solutions; an ability to demonstrate the organisation's values. And for Anne-Marie Croce, again, from the City of Toronto, what was important was not where a person had worked so much as their ability to challenge how things have been done and to pursue solutions in different ways.

Anne-Marie Croce I like people with unique backgrounds. Somebody can come with a different perspective, experience, challenge me, challenge kind of the way that we think. Some people are very strong in communications, really strong in terms of being kind of creative in our engagement, in our recruiting to make sure that it's inclusive, diverse, where somebody might be really strong in prototyping and testing prototyping.

Pauline McGuirk And the second type of skills you mentioned before, they were relational, right?

Tom Baker Yes, that's right. It seems a bit odd at first to talk about bureaucrats needing better relational skills. Well, come to think of it, maybe that makes absolute sense. But we need to remember that city government isn't a collection of disembodied processes that act in a machine-like way. It's a collection of people working together.

Pauline McGuirk Yeah. And because city government is the closest level of government to citizens, it's also a collection of people who are engaging with those citizens on things that affect their lives in a kind of immediate way, right?

Tom Baker Sure. So improving city government from within means having people who can navigate those very human qualities of city government. The people we spoke with emphasise things like empathy, charisma and persuasion as important skills that do two kinds of things. First, they break down resistance to change within city government and second, they build trust among colleagues. Here is Eliza Erickson again from the City of Philadelphia.

Eliza Erickson I think at its core, this work is really just about like, are you a good communicator? Are you a good, you know, to some extent, like, are you a good public speaker? Do you know are you comfortable in tricky situations? Are you do know how to navigate? Do you know how to sit in a room with someone who's really resistant to your idea and, you know, try to convince them that you know what you're talking about? Are you a good writer? It's all these, I mean, I don't want to downplay them because I think they're really important, but they're it's these interpersonal, I think it's like interpersonal relationship building skills.

Tom Baker But these relational skills, they aren't just needed within the bureaucracy. They're also needed for better engaging or collaborating with residents and other external stakeholders. Michele D’Alena from Bologna's Civic Imagination Office told us about their staff who are embedded in particular neighbourhoods. They're called proximity agents and they work in really hands on ways with residents to put their ideas for local projects into action.

Michele D’Alena We have got six neighbourhoods, so we have got six proximity agents and they work on the ground. They work with empathy, using the method depending on the context to engage the people and putting inside the public policy the creativity of the community. In our laboratory, we not we don't speak only about problems, but also about the solution and the capacities of the of the community.

Tom Baker At this point it's probably important to be clear that the people we've been engaging with in our research do have a special remit to be creative. Most of them are directly connected to innovation units within local government, and their mission is explicitly to find new ways to improve how the city is governed and the outcomes it can achieve. So their job is expressly to deploy the problem solving and relational skills to innovate city government. Not every city bureaucrat has the luxury to reflect on what they do and to try new things.

 Pauline McGuirk But that's not to say it's all easy, even for these people who have that luxury, who are charged with infusing creativity into city government. It doesn't make it a simple task, right?

Tom Baker No, definitely not.

Pauline McGuirk So what are city governments doing then that either helps or hinders creativity?

Tom Baker There are many factors at play, but let's focus on four big ones. And I should say with all of these, it was clear from the conversations we've had with people working in city governments internationally and we've talked to people across the US, Canada, Italy, Ireland, Iceland and Australia, it was clear that a more creative bureaucracy won't happen by itself. It takes deliberate effort. So maybe the biggest of all factors that hinders creativity within city government is not having a deliberate approach. But to get to my point, there are four big things that help. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is that city governments need to commit financial resources. They need to fund it or find ways of funding the creative approaches we're talking about. It's wishful thinking to believe that city workers will find time amid all the other demands on them to engage in the time consuming and mentally taxing work of rethinking city government. Resources buy peoples’ time and let them dedicate their attention.

Pauline McGuirk And there's a variety of different ways to structure how resources are deployed, right? It might be establishing a dedicated innovation unit within city government. It might be adding dedicated staff to an existing unit like the performance management unit of a bureaucracy. It might be funding internal fellowships or secondments across various city government functions. There's a lot of variance here.

Tom Baker Exactly. And if resources are committed, they need to be committed for a time horizon that matches the expectations of performance. Many of the people we spoke to commented on the difficulties of navigating a financially precarious situation in city government.

Pauline McGuirk Right. So the money runs out before the project can deliver. Okay, so if resourcing is key, what's the second big factor for success?

Speaker 2 That would be building strong relationships within city government and with external partners. Of course, an ability to build strong relationships is connected to that issue of funding. If your budget doesn't allow you time to develop meaningful non-extractive relationships with other parts of city government or with local communities, then that's a problem. But it's particularly a problem when you're trying to develop creative approaches to addressing the issues or challenges that city governments want to deliver on. For example, Kris Carter from the City of Boston's Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics told us.

Kris Carter A part of our model is relationship driven. So we depend on, you know, the team, the program directors within the team to build really good, strong relationships within departments and outside with academic researchers or other community based organisations because that's going to help, help no matter what. Even if we don't do a project now, we might need to lean on that relationship later.

Tom Baker Funding is crucial, but good relationships are another crucial factor for success. They create the context for new kinds of approaches to be imagined that might bring different city departments together or draw in an external organisation to reimagine how a service might be planned and delivered, for example.

Pauline McGuirk Right. And that links back to the skill sets, the dispositions and that charisma that's cropped up a few times as we've been talking. That ability to craft and maintain great working relationships across silos with different types of partners and communities that leans heavily on qualities that are fairly different to the popular imagination or the stereotype of ‘the city bureaucrat’. Okay, so let's assume we've got the resourcing and we've developed the relationships. What do we also need? What is the third factor?

Tom Baker From the people we've been talking with, it was clear that promotion and patronage is important. If a city government bureaucrat is creative in the woods and no one is around to see it, the question is, did it really happen?

Pauline McGuirk Ha!

Tom Baker That's not quite how the saying goes I know, but it's not enough to simply have useful skills and qualities that can deliver the outcomes these various innovative projects are after. People need to know about it for that work to have an impact. So a key part of enabling the kinds of creative approaches and dispositions we've been talking about is persuading people that they're worthwhile, that they do produce value. Otherwise, when they mention the creative word, they just get a collective eyeroll from street hardened bureaucrats. So the team involved needs to be able to articulate to others within and beyond city government what they do, why it's valuable, and why others should collaborate with them. One great example is Vancouver's CityStudio. CityStudio is an innovation hub that works closely with the City of Vancouver. They have an annual event called Hubbub to do precisely this kind of showcasing work, exhibiting all the projects they do with the City. Brad Badelt told us about the impact it had on him as a new employee at the City of Vancouver.

Brad Badelt I remember when I started the city, you go to Hubbub and you see your Mayor there, your City Manager, other senior staff, and, you know, projects are getting celebrated. For me, it made me want to participate in CityStudio, in part because look at this showcase that I want to be part of this, staff are really being recognised as mentors for the projects.

Tom Baker And what you hear from Brad's comments is that an important part of the promotional effort is the visible support of senior people in city government. This kind of creative work within city government is helped by managers, executives and elected officials understanding its value and acting as champions or patrons.

Pauline McGuirk And I think that brings us to the final factor?

Tom Baker Yes, and it's a tricky one. The final factor is around ownership, accountability, or perhaps what we might call control. In other words, who does a creative bureaucrat answer to? In some contexts, particularly where there's a model of strong mayoral control, like in the US, this kind of creative, bureaucratic work often happens within administrative units that sit directly under the mayor. This can be really useful because it gives that direct line to the highest elected official. And if the mayor is on board with the agenda, it can mean more resources, financial but also symbolic resources. And the symbolic resources were mentioned by Terrance Smith in the City of Mobile, Alabama's innovation unit. When he talked to us, he really emphasised how crucial a newly elected mayor’s support for their work was.

Terrance Smith I think the biggest factor is that we had a brand new mayor who was not a politician. He was a businessman. And he was set on changing the dynamics of Mobile. And so I think he also had a lot of leeway because he was a very successful businessman that people expected him to change things. And the people that may have pushed back on him the most were also his friends. And so they were they were willing to give him the leeway to try new things because they respected him and they didn't know what it meant to be new and to be different. They just knew that it was going to be uncomfortable and they were open to it.

Tom Baker When there's an influential mayor, that can mean assuming the mayor's priorities at the expense of other potentially worthy priorities or the priorities of the city council or local communities. It can also create a precarious situation if a supportive mayor leaves office and it can risk being used as cannon fodder by others in their political disagreements with the mayor. Being a pet project or a hobby horse of the mayor can certainly offer advantages, but it can become a problem. Several of the people we spoke to, and it's probably best that we don't name their names here, they were very glad their team was not closely associated with their city's mayor.

Pauline McGuirk And in other contexts where the mayor is a less powerful figure in city politics, we might be talking about the city manager or some other senior figure who gets behind and champions the kinds of creative, innovative approaches and styles we've been talking about, right?

Tom Baker Yeah, there's not a single form of control or accountability that will work across different times and places. What is certain is that attention needs to be given to the way that ownership or perceptions of ownership will affect, good and bad, the ability of the city worker to embed creative thinking into their work. From hearing a bit about the work of these intrepid and still probably atypical city bureaucrats, I think it's becoming clear that we need to shake up the image or the stereotypes of city workers. One way to do that is to better understand what the work of creativity in city government involves. We can do that through the perspectives of those doing the work. Through them we can understand what kinds of skills and dispositions are becoming part of the daily business and the future thinking of city government. We've done a bit of that today, but there's plenty more to be done to grapple with what's at stake during this quite challenging moment for city government. I'm Tom Baker from the University of Auckland.

Pauline McGuirk And I'm Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong.

Tom Baker Thanks for joining us for a special podcast series called Innovating Cities, a joint project by the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney and the University of Auckland.

Pauline McGuirk We've put links to our Australian Research Council funded research project in the shownotes, which you'll find in your podcasting app. Thanks to the City Road Podcast for hosting us. Thanks to Laura Goh and to our producer Jennifer Macey and to Emily Perkins for additional editing.

Our team

Pauline McGuirk is Senior Professor of urban geography and Director of the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, University of Wollongong. Her work revolves around critical studies of urban governance, its changing geographies, material practices and politics, and the differential implications for urban places, communities, subjectivities and power.   

Tom Baker is Associate Professor in the School of Environment, University of Auckland. His research focuses on how public policies are made and implemented, addressing social, institutional, ideological and spatial dimensions.   

Robyn Dowling is Dean of the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney. Her current research is concerned with the ways in which urban governance and urban life are responding to climate change, technological disruptions and the diffusion of innovation practices.   

Sophia Maalsen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney. She is currently researching the application of computational logics and technologies to “hack housing” and address issues of housing affordability and innovation. Her research is predominantly situated at the intersection of the digital and material across urban spaces, housing and governance.   

This podcast series was supported by the Australian Research Council under Grant ARCDP200100176 Innovating urban governance: practices for enhanced urban futures, a joint project by the University of Wollongong, the University of Sydney and the University of Auckland.     

Audio recording and editing by Jennifer Macey. Additional editing by Emily Perkins. Coordination and additional scripting by Laura Goh. Special thanks to Neale Davy and Brian Dwyer.