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Innovation in the UK

The Risky Business of Innovation

10 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the final blog of the short series, Greg Wilkinson, Director of Infinite Light Productions Ltd and Expert Adviser to the Creative Councils programme, discusses how to overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo.

 

The challenge of understanding and managing risk is heightened when an initiative is genuinely innovative: by definition, doing something new and different makes it harder accurately to assess probability and impact of future events. Faced with these difficulties, and all too aware of the likelihood that others (opposition politicians, the press, etc) will be swift to exercise 20-20 hindsight in judging harshly any future ‘failures’, it is easy to see how officers and members may struggle to overcome the pull of the status quo when attempting to establish innovative practice. 

 

Recently, I spent a couple of hours at one of Nesta’s six Creative Councils with a group of senior officers who were attempting to counter these ‘G-forces’. Three things seemed to help:

 

1)     Keeping the end in mind. It’s not possible to think rigorously about risk without considering the potential upside; and it’s not possible to consider the upside unless you’re clear about what it is that you’re trying to achieve. An authority exploring the energy agenda might want to focus on the alignment of local capacity and use, on increasing the share of local energy generated from renewables, a means of generating income  - or all three.  Which of these it wants to do – and, if there’s more than one, the priority order – will be critical in determining the action that should be taken.

 

2)     Being clear about what you bring to the party. (Hint: it’s not always money.) The more complex and demanding the potential innovation, the more likely it is that any local authority will need partners to pull it off. In the field of energy, for example, authorities are unlikely to have the ability to understand and manage technical risk – and, depending on the scale of the envisaged projects, they probably wont have all (or any!) of the cash necessary for taking the financial risk. But authorities might have capabilities that are central to the understanding and management of the implementation risk – for example, around planning policy frameworks, or around community consultation and engagement. Clarity around 'gots' and 'wants' for the successful management of defined risks – and around what each party’s contribution is worth in terms of a share of the potential upside – helps position you for success.

 

3)     Being aware of your biases. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a goldmine of insights into how our mental quirks, habits, norms and biases mean that we aren’t always as rational as we think when it comes to assessing and managing risk. If he’d been in the room, he might have asked two killer questions: ‘what’s the biggest loss you’d be willing to tolerate?’ and ‘what would cause you to regret what you’ve chosen?’ These sorts of enquiry illuminate some of our murky psychological depths around risk appetite and loss aversion. The clearer we are about these matters, the better our decision-making will be.

 

Over the coming months, Nesta and the LGA will be continuing to look in-depth at how best councils can innovate, building on what we’ve learned so far through the programme. If you would like any further information please visit http://www.nesta.org.uk/creative_councils or email creativecouncils@nesta.org.uk.

 

The local energy programme of Stoke-on-Trent

5 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme.  In the second blog of the series looking at the latest stages of the progammes, Hywell Lloyd, advisor to energy self-sufficient Stoke-on-Trent,  looks at how Stoke-on-Trent council is revisiting an area where local government was once pioneers to deal with the tough challenges that they currently face. 

Stoke-on-Trent is a working city, with a significant ceramics industry, that is both important to the local economy and successful internationally.  Gas is their primary energy source and forms a significant part of their cost base.  With one reporting a bill increase of 55% in just 12 months we can see their energy costs change much more dramatically than any other cost. Other local authorities will have their industries and their local economies facing a similar dilemma.

Our analysis suggests that through appropriate technology, a different approach to the use of resources (such as waste, or expelled heat) and local authority leadership it is possible to have a meaningful impact on local energy demand and supply, and through that to improve the bottom line for energy users in the city

Local government has a history of leadership in the energy sector, with authorities such as Birmingham in the 19th century leading the way in the creation of gas and electricity companies to serve their residents.  Our work is showing that there is local approval and significant scope for local government to revisit this role, to have a positive impact locally as well as making new resources available to support wider ambitions for any  city and its residents. 

That said, what we are trying to do isn’t necessarily what has been, or is, expected of local government, nor allowed for in the way legislation, regulation and practice for local government and other sectors (for example energy markets), have developed in the last twenty years. 

In reopening the question of ‘what is the role of the local authority?’ we are exploring, testing and validating solutions that willl work for us, e.g. legal structures, revenue generation, appropriate financing, effective governance, and offering examples that other local authorities can and have said they want to learn from.

While some of our innovations are quite specific (not every authority has a significant ceramics or heat based employment sector) other learning will be applicable to any local authority where they want to take a strategic approach to local jobs, where they see opportunities to take a different, more holistic, view of local resources, and where they need legal or revenue generating  structures to support their ambitions.

We have a powerful local ambition – The Mandate for Change – to be a Great Working City.  Our work on local energy demand, and supply, with a view towards energy self-sufficiency by 2030 will deliver significant local impact – helping support the employment of over 20,000 people; and provide the support and challenge to other authorities that want to have a greater impact on their local potential – every place could benefit from some local ownership of energy supply, every place would benefit from needing less energy to be productive and grow, every place should benefit from local authority leadership that seeks to make the most of their abilities to facilitate, broker, and of course lead.

The LGA / Nesta Creative Councils Programme has helped us make good progress on the challenges we face, it has provided specific support, and we look forward to sharing that learning more widely.  If you are interested in our work please drop us a line at energysecurity@stoke.gov.uk

Learning by taking risks…

3 April, 2013 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. As the programme approaches its latter stages, Melani Oliver, Director for Local Government Innovation in Nesta's Innovation Lab, kicks off our short series and discusses the bold ideas that are beginning to generate significant learning for the wider sector. 

In the coming fiscal year Local Government will continue to face the challenges. Of reduced budgets and Whitehall's relentless focus on efficiency means that Councils once again need to do 'more for less'. There are examples emerging of how councils are addressing this fiscal challenge including shared services, new forms of business models and new governance arrangements.  The new London joint procurement board is one example, among many, of how this is being achieved. But at Nesta, we're interested in a broader concept of value which encompasses both social value and "value for money”.

In discussions about Local Government efficiency, comparisons are often made with the private sector. Companies may primarily focus on the financial value of their work. Is the product easy to use? Is it cheap to produce? Most importantly, does it generate a profit? In the public sector, and at Local Authority level, this can be much more difficult to measure, something that may be ‘cheap to produce’ could be damaging in the long term.

We think that councils should have a relentless focus on the broader social value of their work. Are they delivering services that have a tangible, positive impact on the people they serve. Are they investing in a strategic way to generate cost saving over the longer term? Can they reimagine the way that they work with residents and businesses to better meet their needs and free up savings?

Through our Creative Councils programme, we have begun to see how this can be achieved. Derbyshire's Creative Councils project is investing in children in care now to achieve both financial outcomes (reducing cost savings through avoiding welfare payments, demand on social housing, teenage pregnancy etc) and social outcomes (children with positive aspirations lead better, more fulfilled lives). In the next blog Stoke-on-Trent council will discuss how they are rethinking local energy, revisiting a role that has been shown to have a positive local impact. The potential to secure jobs for Stoke, whilst addressing fuel poverty and support local business are all drivers for their work.  With a view to being energy self-sufficient by 2030, Stoke have set themselves an ambitious target but what they are learning along the way is beneficial not just to them but to all local councils grappling with huge challenges.

That is the role of the Creative Councils programme. Not to promise to bring scalable solutions to all local authorities challenges but to share what we have  learnt from the creative councils for the benefit of the wider sector.  To help the wider sector use innovation to address their challenges. Local challenges and solutions vary across the country, what we need to know is what went wrong and what worked, it is through this approach that we can make progress on the challenges that are up ahead.

What are British values?

25 January, 2013 Posted by: -

What people most value in their lives is the quality of the relationships around them - care, love, compassion, etc.  They see their own communities as strong in these respects, and well aligned to their values. But see they see the UK as a whole in an almost opposite light - tarnished by barriers, bureaucracy, and crime.

This can be seen as a paradox, since the nation is ultimately made up of communities and individuals. But it also tells us important things about our cognitive landscape. One message is that the media (and other feedback systems) paint a distorted and negative picture of the nation as a whole - portraying it as worse than it actually is. The other message is that our national institutions seem particularly poor at building confidence and trust.

For as long as I can remember surveys have been making similar points - showing the gulf between high levels of trust and confidence at the personal and local level, and chronic distrust and lack of confidence at the national level. So we trust our own MP much more than MPs; our own schools more than schools as a whole; and see our community as safer than the average.  One obvious response is that more should be done to decentralise power to more trusted and trustable levels.  Another is to reshape national institutions for engagement and deliberation - toning down the shrill, extreme, amplified and stigmatising parts of national life that constantly shriek that everything’s going to the dogs, and toning up the ones that involve adult conversation and involvement. 

The survey can be read pessimistically. But just imagine if things were the other way around: if we felt bad about our personal lives and communities but good about those in power.  Overall, you have to conclude that this is not such a bad picture: we live in a pretty good society, that’s clearly not broken by any means, and that hasn’t lost sight of its values. Our problems are about the failure of the strongest, most central institutions to reflect the best of what we are.

This blog originally appeared on Nesta’s website.

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Local government is starting to get serious about innovation

11 October, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. Nesta’s Philip Colligan closes the first Creative Councils’ blog series which has explored how local authorities can develop and implement radical innovations.

With so much doom and gloom in the air this party conference season, it can seem Pollyannaish to be upbeat about the future for local public services.  Even more so when it comes to councils, long parodied as home to armies of petty bureaucrats. 

So for a self-declared optimist like me it was more than a little encouraging that September’s Economist was waxing lyrical about councils as Britain’s Local Labs and Political Petri Dishes

While it’s disappointing that the Economist didn’t manage to get beyond the M25 in their examples, the analysis stacks up. 

In the face of the most challenging financial settlement in living memory and against a backdrop of unprecedented increases in demand across a whole range of services, local government is starting to get serious about innovation.

Over the past couple of years Nesta has been working with councils across the country that are radically re-thinking the role of local government, their culture, their ways of working and how they transform services to meet some of the biggest challenges facing the communities they serve. 

As you’ll have seen in this blog series, right now we are working with the LGA to support six Creative Councils that are pursuing strategies from energy self-sufficiency to mobilising community resources to support older people to live great lives.  And they’ve all been blogging for the LGC about their experiences.

None of those six are in London.  All are setting a pace that is markedly different from that being achieved by Whitehall departments. 

Of course, the Creative Councils programme isn’t the only place that innovation is happening.  Everywhere you look councils are getting on the front foot with strategies to reinvent the role of local government, strike a new deal with citizens and forge the next generation of services.  

They’re part of a growing movement of innovators in municipal and city governments across the world.  It’s high time that national governments took notice.

In Lille last month I took part in a two day workshop for French municipal government organised by the 27th Region – an innovation lab created by the 26 Regions of municipal government.  It focused particularly on the role of design in creating the next generation of public services, but what was most striking was the vision that led to the world’s first mutual local government innovation lab.  Let’s not wait for central government – let’s do it ourselves, with citizens.  

In the US, Bloomberg Philanthropies has launched the Mayors Challenge to find and support radical innovations led by city government, further cementing Mayor Bloomberg’s reputation as one of the world’s leading advocates for innovation in local government.  In November, I’ll be joining the 20 finalists in New York for an intensive ideas camp that is at least partly inspired by the work that’s been happening in the UK’s Creative Councils.

Despite all the differences in our models of public services and politics, what seems to be uniting local governments across the globe is a new found confidence that they can lead the radical changes that are needed, indeed they have to.

Learning from the journey

5 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the seveth blog of the Creative Councils series, Sarah Gillinson, partner at the Innovation Unit discusses the importance of the journey that the councils have been on during the programme

 

Most of the really interesting innovation in local government has very similar characteristics. Within Creative Councils, the same themes appear over and over again – different, better, lower cost approaches all seek to change radically the relationship between a local authority and the users of its services. Like Monmouthshire’s Your County, Your Way programme. They seek to change the balance of power – handing back more responsibility and more resource to communities, making the most of their insights, strengths and motivation. Like Derbyshire’s £50k bond given to children in care to invest in their futures. They act as a broker, uncovering and harnessing local assets – from businesses, to landscapes, identity and well-networked individuals. Like Stoke’s plan to become an energy self-sufficient city. In short, local authorities are finding different ways to become really great facilitators of change and growth in their areas – without having to make it happen all by themselves.

So in one sense, the ideas are not the major revelations in local government innovation. We could write – and many people have written – a clear and relatively detailed statement about what local government could look like if these ideas took hold. But we know this wouldn’t make much difference. Telling people the answer just doesn’t work.

It is the journey to these ideas that is the really transformative bit. How the ideas reveal themselves to local authority staff and communities in ways that feel real to them. It is this process that makes them feel worthwhile pursuing, despite the many barriers (identified by my colleague David Jackson in a previous post).

In Derbyshire, a new approach to foster care is no longer just a great idea. By undertaking deep research with users into what their lives – and prospects – are really like at the moment, the need for change has been revealed in a way that can’t be taken back. These ideas are now driven by a deep belief that being a better corporate parent, and empowering young people to direct their own lives, is a glaring necessity. Coming to an answer in this way gives it urgency – and mobilises staff and users to make it happen – in a way that being told about a great idea never could.

Reading have had a similar experience, through the Transforming Early Years programme and through their Creative Councils work. By reconnecting with families and their lives they have a new perspective on the challenges they face – which enables them to get to better answers that cannot be ignored. They also have a new relationship with those families as partners – rather than recipients. Staff and families have become a coalition for change. New ideas become possible and natural – and have the resources to make them happen when everyone is working together.

Through the Creative Councils programme, all of these authorities hold each other to account for this authenticity of commitment. ‘What do your communities think about that?’ ‘Is that really innovative?’ They are not just sharing ideas but sharing conviction.

So local government innovation is certainly about new ways of doing things – and brilliant ideas. But it is about something before that too. It is about an openness to reconnect with communities and what is of value to them. It is this process that reveals ideas in a way that is meaningful to all involved – and generates a personal commitment and energy to make them happen

 

Local government and local energy: what’s your Creative opportunity?

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the sixth blog of the Creative Councils series, Jane Forshaw, assistant director, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, describes the council’s innovative plans to make Stoke-on-Trent energy self-sufficient by 2030.

Local government and local energy: what’s your Creative opportunity?

Energy, energy bills and climate change are often in the news.  They affect everyone: at home, at work, as well as the delivery of every public service, to some extent.  Many of the issues they prompt – fuel poverty, business profitability, service viability, new pressures on homes and businesses – are not going away. So what’s the role for local government in addressing them into the future?

At Stoke-on-Trent City Council, we have ambitious plans to be energy self-sufficient by 2030, a part of our wider local change agenda, ‘the Mandate for Change’, intended to (re)create Stoke as a great working city.

We have found Nesta’s Creative Councils process exhilarating.  It’s all about supporting innovation, and reimagining the role of local authorities. What is great is that we have recognised that successful innovation needs strategic insights, in our case the fundamental importance of energy to local jobs. Having this clear goal has been instrumental in influencing decision making right across the local authority and private partnership portfolio. For instance we might now be in a position where some of our manufacturers in the city make an investment in our energy from waste infrastructure so that they can have the gas or electricity.

Our next challenge is getting our heads together into a mind-set that understands commercial risk and reward in decision making on utility investment – this will be a new experience for us all.

We’ve found the package of support we’ve received through Creative Councils helpful in exploring and answering some of the many questions that bring self-sufficiency nearer, that help make Stoke-on-Trent a lower carbon city, that help reduce energy demand, and secure better uses for many waste streams that might otherwise go to land fill. 

In particular, the Creative Councils process, including the Camps where we work together with other local authorities on the programme, have given us powerful feedback from fellow councils on our developing ideas.

We want to broaden these discussions and work with other local authorities across England and Wales in addressing the breadth of issues that are known or emerging, including:

  • How do we best take a whole city strategic view of energy demand & supply?
  • Which structures and governance arrangements make most sense, for the authority, and for the City and for local residents?
  • How do we ensure that local people lead the creation of sustainable communities and benefit from developments in their communities?
  • What energy assets can we deploy to reduce demand or increase supply?
  • Which technologies are right for the City and our wider locality?
  • How do we make best use of new opportunities in the energy world?
  • Who are the right people in government and the energy sector to work and partner with, and why?
  • How can our waste management and green spaces help us generate new fuels for the future?
  • How can we best influence national policies, on planning, energy, waste, land use, to help deliver a coherent local energy ‘package’ that recognises the lead role played by local authorities?

If you and your authority are exploring these and related questions then please get in touch and join us on our energy journey, a work in progress.  We hope we can create opportunities to share our emerging learning, your experiences and to generate new learning as we take our work forward.  Please contact us at energysecurity@stoke.gov.uk

Uni-fi - improving outcomes for children in care

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the fifth blog of the Creative Councils series, Nicole Chavaudra, Children’s Transformation Programme Manager, Derbyshire County Council tells us why adults don’t always know best when it comes to young people in care.

Uni-fi - improving outcomes for children in care

There are few councils that would argue that improving outcomes for children in care is neither a priority, nor a challenge for them - indeed there is no more fundamental a role for councils than that of being the corporate parent for the children and young people they look after.  And yet sluggish, if any, progress has been made in closing the gap in outcomes between looked after young people and their peers.

Children in care are five times less likely to achieve 5 good GCSEs when compared to their peers and this trend of poor performance continues as they become adults, with these children more likely to end up unemployed or in prison. There is also more chance of children in care becoming parents to children subject to care orders, thus perpetuating a cycle of generations of ‘troubled families’ that suffer poor outcomes. The imperatives for all of us to do something different are both moral and financial.    

One thing that has become clear as we’ve been on the first few adventures along the Creative Councils road is the importance of wearing our listening ears when identifying and testing innovation.  A sharing of power and influence with young people is an under-pinning principle of ‘Uni-fi’, our programme of work which aims to develop aspiration amongst young people in care. 

We now know that our children in the care system think that some of the best ideas that we paid officers and elected members come up with are total garbage.  A challenge not unfamiliar to parent/child relationships across the world! Take our initial aim of increasing the number of care leavers going to university for example.  This was greeted with, ‘not everyone wants to go to university, what we need are more apprenticeships’, by the young people we asked.

Providing the kind of nurturing, love and guidance that great parents provide to their children always involves compromise, sharing of decision making and making mistakes - corporate parenting in a family of 700 children, more than 70 elected members and countless officers and partners certainly increases the complexity of the relationship.

Actively wearing our listening ears has been painful at times.  The learning from some ethnographic research undertaken in Derbyshire smarted somewhat; clearly we are not as ambitious for our young people as we thought we were.  But we are increasingly learning that exposure to provocative criticism and continuous reflection is an unavoidable, and invaluable, element of the learning journey. 

There has been a shift in the thinking of many locally, overturning assumptions that the only valuable feedback and insight is from experts in a particular field. 

Increasingly, the opportunity to expose our own local, very-UK focused doctrine about supporting vulnerable young people to varied systems, approaches and practices from across the world has opened our eyes to vast possibilities.  Exchange visits with partners in Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Ireland enables the extraction of the most promising aspects of both theory and practice from each, creating compelling cases for change to practice, expectations and statute. 

Achieving change on this scale is the key challenge for us, and we look forward to further developing the collaboration with other councils that will be such a key element of the journey over the next year.

Failure from the jaws of success

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the fourth blog of the Creative Councils series, David Jackson, partner, the Innovation Unit discusses six common reasons why councils may find it tough to innovate.

 

Failure from the jaws of success

Over the last few years, Innovation Unit has worked with a number of Local Authorities committed to radical innovation strategies.  Most recently we have supported Nesta’s Creative Councils programme – 17 councils each eager to pursue innovation as a key component of its strategy to transform models of service delivery, the culture of the authority and, usually, the relationship with users.

So here’s a general scenario:

  • There is an evident need and a mandate – better, different and cheaper services – and a strong desire to use innovation strategies radically to reconceptualise models of service provision
  • Usually the focus is within one service area – such as adult social care provision; models of schooling; provision for children in care; early years provision – or a very distinct cross-service strategy – such as support for social entrepreneurship; or urban regeneration strategies
  • It typically involves also the incorporation of new partnerships, optimization of technological supports, utilization of external expertise to support process elements and extra funding designed to incubate innovation
  • It almost always includes also new levels of engagement and co-creation with users and often the mobilization of volunteers and community capital.

These together form a set of powerful change levers, so why the problem?

Some great work has undoubtedly occurred.  However, the dominant impression gained is just how hard it is for councils to move beyond the initial idea or even the prototype innovation to anything of sufficient scale to reinvent a service or to impact across the council.  There are currently so few narratives of success, even in situations where the need is universally evident and the conditions for innovation so optimal, that one has to ask why.

This blog entry suggests six common reasons why this might be.

1. The challenges of leadership

There are lots of issues here, but three common fault-lines will do for starters: 

I.      In most of the councils we have worked with, significant leaders have changed during the course of a programme’s critical path – the key leader; the person to whom they report, the DCS…  Leadership volatility is a major challenge.

II.      Most of the leaders responsible for radical innovation are expected to retain their full day-to-day responsibilities.  However well-meaning, this relegates innovation to a second order priority

III.      Where dedicated leadership is created, it is often ‘recruited’ for the ‘project’.  By definition, this marginalises the work.

2. Equivocal senior level advocacy and enablement

Usually innovation programmes are able to rely on an initial statement of support – especially when there is external funding tied to a proposal.  However, sustained engagement, advocacy and enablement are much rarer commodities.  This is true of service professionals and it is even more the case for elected members, whose support can be quixotic.  A close friend (a policy advisor) said to me recently: “You have to remember that a 100% failure-rate in an existing service is less threatening to a politician than a 50% failure-rate in a change for which they have advocated.”

3. Poor lateral connectivity

Most innovation work, even within a specific service area, requires changes to a number of different council functions.  At its worst, service innovation is rejected and resented by those not involved yet necessary for success.

4. Risk-averse internal regulations and processes

For innovation work, the mere mention of involvement from financial services, procurement, health and safety or legal departments represents a closing-down of possibilities.  The same applies to the decision-making routines of local government.  Innovation does not fit well with formal cycles of committee and sub-committee.

5. The elusive nature of co-design

Fairly universally, councils understand the need for new models of engagement, voice and participation.  That is very different from incorporating the rhythms, dynamics and kinesthetic of co-design and co-delivery in a sustainable way.

6. The challenge of scaling

Innovation usually happens at the margins through prototypes and sequenced processes.  The complexities of scaling, diffusion and dissemination are in part technical, in part cultural and in part wrapped up in this process approach as much as the product.  There is poor evidence for scaling strategies.

Does it need to be like this?  Of course it doesn’t.  Some councils are bucking this trend and there is, by definition, a corollary article to this one outlining conditions for success.  If there is sufficient interest, perhaps that one might follow.

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There’s nothing elusive about innovation

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the third blog of the Creative Councils series, Andrea Siodmok, chief designer, Cornwall Council encourages people to get out of the comfort zone and find room to think.

There’s nothing elusive about innovation – it’s simply making good ideas happen.

In Cornwall we are focusing our collective efforts on doing things better – so what’s new?  
We are asking ourselves one simple overarching question to drive this ambition: ‘How can we increase our effectiveness ten-fold with no extra budget’.  This is our ‘burning platform’ the impossible question (also called a wicked problem) that will propel us out of our comfort zone into new uncharted territory. 

Innovation by definition means doing things differently; if you turn things on their head you usually get a new perspective. Take the ‘graph of doom’ as a prime example.  If we focus our energies on fiscal capital we can be forgiven for forgetting about the abundance of social capital; what we are optimistically calling the silent ‘graph of boom’.  We believe to improve services we will need to harness our collective creativity by radically re-drawing the boundaries between citizens and the state and we are investing in new ideas that will encourage this to happen. 

Our experience at Cornwall Council over the last few years as we have seriously engaged with innovation (initially with the Design Council and then through Creative Councils) has made us think in new ways to energise our teams in light of the future challenges we face.  We have put down a few reflections here as a common sense guide on what we have found works so far, and also what doesn’t.

Keep it simple and do it now

You can’t learn about innovation from a book (or a blog) you have got to get practical, just do it, and there is no better time than now. We have tried to de-mystify innovation and creativity and find straight talking ways of sharing good ideas.  We call it ‘Thinking Room’ – creating space and time to think, opening up new possibilities before jumping into radical new solutions.  We have taken our inspiration from the public and private sector and have found that creative leadership is critical.  Our Chief Executive and management teams see the benefits, which in turn creates the trust and permission to take measured risks.

Turn conventional wisdom on its head

Whilst counter-intuitive, the truth is that financial investment does not necessarily lead to more or better innovation, in fact a lack of investment may be a significantly greater driver of transformational innovation – the old adage ‘scarcity breeds ingenuity’ comes to mind.  If this is true then why aren’t we inundated with great ideas right now?  The truth is we probably are, we just lack the skills and organisational capacity to ‘channel’ them in most organisations. It is really easy to generate ideas, it is much harder making them happen unless the organisation’s culture supports the change as part of its everyday business. 

Don’t set up an innovation unit

Whilst it can be a lonely pursuit being an innovator, resist temptation to put them all together (assuming you think you know who they are) as it more often marginalises innovators at the fringe. If possible seek to spread and inculcate a culture of innovation across organisational boundaries.  Logic says we should ‘kettle’ good ideas - bringing all the innovators in one place and hot housing them to enhance their potency, building a ‘safe’ place where people can go to develop new ideas. There is lots of precedent for this approach, but we have resisted this. In the old days, innovations could be trickle-fed into the organisation from the side, today our task is more urgent, we need innovation throughout the organisation and totally mainstream – an ‘innovation is the only option’ approach. 

Innovation isn’t magic - it requires a blend of common sense, honesty and passion

For us, innovation is not a mystical art practiced by a few enlightened ‘change makers’.  We often mistakenly focus our attention and obsess about the innovators or the innovations themselves, not necessarily noticing the culture that supports them and makes it more likely to happen again.  When things work out we herald them, giving out prizes and praising those responsible… and when, as is also the case they fail, we retract our support.   We think that good ideas can come from anyone, and the good news is that research shows so called Gen Y-ers are joining local government with a natural disposition to be creative thinkers, willing to be bold and take responsibility for making change happen. 

Broaden your horizons, seek diverse viewpoints and build alliances

We live in a networked age. Networks support like-mindedness and encourage experimentation regardless of boundaries, whereas conformity comes from a lack of diversity.  We think that innovation works best when it is devolved and shared, when it is open to scrutiny yet not stifled by bureaucracy.  This means bringing together unusual suspects, getting closer to the real beneficiaries of services (terribly named ‘end-users’) – all in all being better at understanding problems.  We have needed to create the space and time for this to happen; through Thinking Room and Shaped by Us we are creating platforms for innovation that are open to all and that enable us to build alliances and broaden our horizons so that ultimately we can make Cornwall one of the best places in the world to live, work and play. 

On twitter you can find us at:
@Thinking_Room
@ShapeCornwall

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Nesta is the UK’s innovation foundation. We help people and organisations bring great ideas to life by providing investments, grants and mobilising research, networks and skills. We are an independent charity and our work is enabled by an endowment from the National Lottery.

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