Busting the Buzzword: Social Impact and Civic Innovation

Blog Post
July 3, 2014

Would you consider adding to the transit infrastructure of your city a civic innovation? Pictured: Capital Bikeshare bikes in Washingtonn, DC. Photo by mariordo59.

Let’s be honest: “innovation” is a buzzword -- an overused, diluted, and slightly exhausting heading under which a whole range of projects rightfully (and wrongfully) have been categorized.

But there’s a lot of reasons to keep from pinning “innovation” down: as the bucket into which we pour all of the “stuff we create that helps us do other stuff better,” any definition would be incomplete and inauthentic -- incapable of capturing the complexity and density of creation, and out-of-date nearly the minute it was entered onto the page.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t talk meaningfully about innovation or make judgments about it, just that we have to be smart in our approach. This goes for innovation generally -- and civic innovation, specifically.

Earlier this spring, when we set out to expand New America’s work on Civic Innovation by grounding the concept in communal ingenuity -- a range of transformative activities that create, restore, or sustain public good -- we faced a challenge: not wanting to fall into the trap of endlessly abstracting innovation, we had to identify instructive and concrete examples of activity on which to build the foundation of our work. To find these case studies, we needed guidelines -- a framework that would help us apply consistent standards for discovery and analysis, escape our own biases, expand on the work of peer initiatives (like the Knight Foundation’s_ _Trends in Civic Tech report), and, ultimately, to capture much more than ad hoc examples -- a view of the broader civic innovation ecosystem.

For the last few months, we’ve been working on just that: an analysis of the civic innovation ecosystem and accompanying framework and support materials we’ll be releasing soon as part of a larger working paper.

Getting this sort of framework right means making it responsive, not constraining. Illustrative and iterative, not definitive and all-encompassing. Seeking to avoid the innovation definition rabbit hole, we made sure from the onset that the framework we developed was drafted in concert with our exploration of the ecosystem, each project informing the other. The first iteration of this work, we hope, will help innovation practitioners (inventors, organizers, instigators, policy-makers, etc) and funders (public, private, other) identify and support existing and emerging initiatives and articulate best practices for evaluating and maximizing their social impact. Our findings highlight a number of common themes, challenges, and opportunities that we’ll unpack as we share more of our research in the coming weeks. Of particular note, however, we found that, as a transformative, community-driven process, civic innovation can happen with or without government and traditional institutional actors.

Three common areas where we see civic innovations clustering include:

1. Economy (exchange of resources, goods, services)

Economic services, goods, and resources are being divided, organized, and re-organized by communities of a variety of scales and formality. Innovations in this space change the way people share, acquire, and effectively produce resources and goods.

Trends in Economic Civic Innovation

2. Governance (institutions and process)

Governance institutions are exploring ways to increase participation, transparency, and collaboration internally and externally. Elected officials are devolving decision-making opportunities back to the citizens who elected them, while agency officials are donating their time, after work hours, to work with their constituents and finding new ways of getting their departments to involve key stakeholders. Changes are happening throughout all levels and branches of government, and include governance institutions in the broadest sense.

Trends in Governance Civic Innovation

3. Community (local, online and off, and context-specific)

Communities are networks formed around shared interests, resources, location, and need. The currency of communities is communication -- the creation and exchange of  goods and knowledge. As locality re-emerges as a new sphere for civic life, “community” innovations increasingly relate to (digital/physical) place-based interventions and activations that address the needs of individuals and collectives.

Trends in Community Civic Innovation

Obviously, this is just a snapshot of activity, not inclusive of all trends or projects, but it serves as a sample of how the civic innovation landscape shifts as we take a step back from focusing solely on civic technology as the core of civic innovation. Our working paper (coming soon!) will explore these examples and others in more detail, analyzing the roles and relationships of associated actors, beneficiaries, and funders, as well as social impact indicators to inform iterative and context-specific innovation investment and policy development.