This article is co-authored by Daniel Beemsigne, Manager of Corporate Community Strategic Initiatives with the City of Guelph, and is the first in a series detailing Overlap’s Innovation work with the City.

Gears on top of the outline of a headWe see it every day. Organizations everywhere profess to be innovative in providing the products and services they offer. The question is, how many of those organizations have actually developed and are using a practical, real-life innovation tool, and are not just using a buzzword at Council meetings Furthermore, for organizations interested in developing such a tool, where does one even start?

It’s both easier and more complex than you might think – the City of Guelph can tell you so.

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Innovation is forward thinking, flexible, proactive and reactive, changing and adaptable.

Ben Balfour, Senior Designer at Overlap

That One Thing

While Guelph as a community has an enviable history of innovating, it has also recognized that innovation is creative, hard work that requires some structure to the process. Without this structure, simply asking someone to innovate is a daunting task. Many organizations speak of, and expect their people to innovate, but these requests come without any kind of “how-to” manual. With strong tools already in place for continuous improvement, the City of Guelph is now focusing on better supporting the practice of innovation as a management team, both within the City of Guelph, and ultimately with its many community partners. That one thing that makes it all possible is having the foresight to create an inclusive process of exploration, leading to a well-conceived and tested innovation tool.

Why Innovate?

  • Recent global events have shown that the municipalities must be more forward thinking and future ready to pivot and change, and this is despite their historically slower pace. We innovate to be more resilient and agile for our community. The Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and other forms of business and societal disruption (some of which may yet to be known) must not only be planned for but expected.
  • Rapid changes in technology mean that some services can be provided more readily in a virtual environment. This can include things like “town hall” meetings, bill payments, the provision of information, and reporting municipal service needs such as snow plowing and pothole filling. However, this does not mean that long-established practices, especially in-person meetings, should be replaced. In some cases, technology can simply offer more choices for people. Multiple software platforms also create their own set of issues to be addressed.
  • Municipalities are beginning to accept that change will be the norm in how business is done, and that a formalized approach to change management is required. Some changes have been short-term, while others may simply be better business practices that should stay in place. These changes allow people to enjoy access to City Hall in ways that better suit their needs and preferences.
  • Constant attention to value for money in municipal service delivery is a fairly standard municipal expectation. Embracing mindsets and practices that encourage responsive, tested changes will help to meet that expectation. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored this as imperative, and the City of Guelph understands the importance of value for money in delivering municipal services.
  • With a long-standing view of being a more sustainable community, innovation can identify new practices that should be tested. The City has already completed many green initiatives, like a net zero energy splash pad, expanded public electric vehicle charging stations and superior greenhouse energy controls. Can the City of Guelph use even more green technology? Can innovation be used as a risk mitigation tool?
  • Innovation can also be used to support ways of further enhancing participatory democracy. The City of Brampton uses hackathons, while the City of Hamilton and the Region of Durham use CityLab and City Studio respectively. Greater involvement by youth in civic matters using communication forums that they are most comfortable with is also very important; and
  • Municipalities must be mindful of the benefits of empowering staff to use established innovation processes. This can help foster a work environment that best leverages the minds and skills of people to develop unique and creative solutions. This leads to gains for the municipality and the community, and both attracts and retains corporate talent in City Hall.

Why an Innovation Framework?

For a number of years, the City of Guelph has been increasing its focus on performance. This included introducing performance metrics and continuous improvement. Although embracing innovation, the City had yet to support all staff in being innovative. This meant that Overlap began with a clean slate. Starting with staff and key stakeholder engagement to deal with the basics, including defining innovation and exploring its importance to the City, Overlap undertook a comprehensive current state analysis.

It became apparent that City staff and Guelph community members found the definition of innovation, its value, and how, when, and why to use it, difficult to articulate. In addition, as the City evaluated the many learnings, the core project team produced a problem tree, which identified root causes like “knowing the difference between Continuous Improvement and innovation”, “fear of failure”, “risk aversion”, and “difficulty defining the problem we are solving”.

It was decided that a framework or “practical tool” was the best way to bring people into the innovation process and make it feel most relevant to their day-to-day work. The idea to create a tool or framework was also based on the presumption that everyone in the City of Guelph is a potential innovator, from senior administrators to front line customer service representatives.

These findings were realized with strong and committed engagement amongst municipal staff and a cross-section of community leaders. This was the first important step for the City of Guelph’s innovation journey, and the beginning of their Roadmap to Innovation.

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