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Bridging Distant Worlds: Innovation in the Civic Space

a digital white paper by Public Innovation

1. Defining Innovation

This white paper is about innovation in the civic space. By civic space, we refer to the intersection between the activities of public, private, and nonprofit organizations. Before getting into the contours of what innovation is, it might be useful to first think of what innovation is not:

Innovation is not doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

Innovation is not the replication of “best practices.”

And innovation is not the result of a priori research and econometric analysis.

Instead, innovation is different, new, and oftentimes disruptive. According to venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, “Innovation is almost insane by definition: most people view any truly innovative idea as stupid, because if it was a good idea, somebody would have already done it.” In other words, innovation is almost never obvious and, therefore, has an inherently unexpected attribute.

Creativity + Entrepreneurship

Andrew Hargadon, faculty director of the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation, argues that innovation is both creative and entrepreneurial:

[I]nnovation has two sides: creativity and entrepreneurship. The creativity lies in conceiving of new possibilities, while entrepreneurship describes turning those new possibilities into realities…

There is no value, and there can be considerable harm, in talking about innovation without talking about both creativity (having a new idea) and entrepreneurship (getting it done). Further, it’s not the presence of these two activities that make innovation successful, but rather the relationship between them.

In the context of the civic space, policy as a primary output of government activity might be comparable to having the idea (creativity) and service delivery comparable to getting it done (entrepreneurship).

Connecting the Dots Across Networks

Shifting from the attributes of innovation to what innovation looks like as an activity, connecting the dots and the network is the innovation are often cited. According to Hargadon:

In short, innovation is about connecting, not inventing. No idea will make a difference without building around it the networks that will support it as it grows, and the network partners with which it will ultimately flourish…

Shifting the central activity of innovation from ‘having an idea’ to seeing and building the networks shifts the attention from thinking to the actions required to build the network that will realize the idea.

In other words, there is a combinatorial nature to innovation that requires that connections be made across systems, not just within them. And, so, a simplified definition of innovation might state that it is merely new combinations of existing ideas. Thus, collaborative, diverse networks are instrumental to making innovation happen.

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