Civic Innovation Beyond Civic Technology


A sneak peek of New America's recent civic innovation brainstorm. More soon.

Technology has become part of nearly everything we do in our public and private lives. It shapes the way we connect with our friends and family, move through our cities and hometowns, and relax after a tough week. Technology also increasingly provides avenues for public interaction -- within our communities (online and off) and with our government. We use tech to vote, communicate with neighbors, access government services, follow politics, and participate in decision-making. “Civic tech” innovations have helped us fundamentally shift the way we understand our world and our place in it. But technology alone doesn’t cause this change. We do.

Too often, when talking about “civic technologies” -- tools deployed in a variety of government and social contexts -- we attribute any change that results to the tool itself. But tools are only as effective as the people wielding them, the tactics they use, their opportunities for access and participation, and the policies that shape all of these things.

Innovations are transformative processes; “civic innovations” transform public processes. While tools play their part, without consideration for social impact -- the history, networks, interactions, and activities that make up the civic sphere -- we stunt our potential for change, and our creations will be limited to only improving the efficiency of existing structures. True “civic innovation” creates or reveals new structures -- and they’re not always digital.

To see the fullest landscape of public sector invention and reformation, we need to include the “civic” application of a whole variety of tech, tools, tactics, systems, machines, and activity beyond (and behind) the “cutting edge.” For “technology” is much more than smartphones and code. It’s MRI machines and spaceships. Foodtrucks and telescopes. 3D printers and knitting needles. Just as focusing on tools limits our potential to use them, so does limiting our understanding of what tools are available to us limit what we can create. If we want a big vision for innovation, we also need a big vision for “tech.”

As interest and investment in civic technologies grows from philanthropy, business, and government, we at the Open Technology Institute believe it is critical to understand civic innovation in this broader social and technical context. That’s why we’re starting a new, cross-cutting initiative dedicated to Civic Innovation. Our goal is to refocus this emerging sector on communal ingenuity -- to ground the concept of public sector innovation in communities, behavior change, and social impact. Our vision holds that innovation is not synonymous with technology, but rather, is inclusive of a wide range of human creativity that creates, restores, or sustains the public good.

This project is a natural extension of New America’s work with the California Civic Innovation Project and leverages our diverse expertise in a variety of social and political issues. From education to economic policy, political reform to the future of families, our programs are committed to exploring how new ideas, pragmatic policy, and community engagement combine for transformative change in public life.

Over the next few months, we’ll build on this foundation, working across our programs and with partners and peers to explore new contours of the civic innovation landscape and articulate best practices and tactics deployed by instigators within and without governments of every scale. We also plan to get our hands dirty, piloting initiatives that expand, challenge, and redefine our understanding of creative problem-solving in the public sphere and working with community leaders and policy-makers to develop and iterate on resources that support continued work in this arena. We hope you’ll join us in this journey, and look forward to working and learning together.

Authors:

Alissa Black

Georgia Bullen is the technology projects director with New America's Open Technology Institute. Bullen provides data visualization, human-centered design, planning and geospatial analytical support to the OTI team and its community partnerships.

Laurenellen McCann was the director of New America DC, a collaborative research program exploring whether and how national organizations can support existing civic activity in Washington, DC. 

Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America. She holds a PhD from Harvard's department of government and is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor.

Greta Byrum is the director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. She reimagines the way we design, build, and manage communications systems to support local residents as leaders, organizers, and preparedness experts.