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Fiona Johnstone: Innovation means accepting some ideas will fail

Fiona Johnstone
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In three cities in America, there are teams of people who are employed to get things wrong.

Failing is not something we’re overly comfortable with in local government, and rarely are we forgiven for it. However, the concept behind New Urban Mechanics, a network of “civic innovation offices”, is taking a completely different approach.

These civic innovation offices, currently housed by the mayors of Philadelphia and Boston and Utah Valley University, build relationships between government agencies and entrepreneurs to pilot projects that help residents. Reading about it, I felt some resonance with the primary intentions of a partnership between communities and government that is willing to innovate and also accepting of failure.

The range of projects being delivered is diverse.

Many are examples of how government can connect with local residents using technology, an area where UK councils are also investing time and energy.

One example was in response to Boston’s declaration of a public health emergency. The city had seen more 700 confirmed flu cases and four flu-related deaths, in contrast to the previous year when there were only 70 confirmed cases in Boston. The New Urban Mechanics harnessed an existing app to plot the location of free flu jabs for residents and the whole thing was live, and in use, within a day.

It’s not just what they are doing that has brought me to focus on this new approach. It’s the ethos behind it: the idea that if something you try doesn’t work, that’s ok.

It’s so important to challenge the idea that we have to come up with the perfect plan for the future on the first time of trying. Being able to withstand criticism when innovation doesn’t work out is going to be a critical attribute.

Across local government, we’ve done everything we can think of to manage our finances in the face of decreasing budgets.

The future holds something different. The future is sharing, integrating and being true partners.

Knowing there is a need for some kind of action in your community, and harnessing the public sector to the power of those in our communities who can help surely makes sense. It’s might not look like the familiar kind of partnership that we’re used to but that’s ok.

This reminds me of a book I read some time ago: Ten Things To Do in a Conceptual Emergency by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara at the International Futures Forum. What stuck with me is this: “The new organisational structure is a pattern of relationships that is able to maintain its integrity over time. It has the discipline to perform the ordinary as well as the extraordinary tasks, can support a sense of moral purpose beyond its own survival, is open and inclusive, nurtures and supports its members in a challenging environment, and pays generous and caring attention to the demands of the old culture while midwifing the new.”

For me, whether we are talking about health, social care, local government and partnership working, this is the acid test for achievement.

Fiona Johnstone, director of public health, Wirral MBC

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