How to implement “open innovation” in city government


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City officials are facing increasingly complex challenges. As urbanization rates grow, cities face higher demand for services from a larger and more densely distributed population. On the other hand, rapid changes in the global economy are affecting cities that struggle to adapt to these changes, often resulting in economic depression and population drain.
“Open innovation” is the latest buzz word circulating in forums on how to address the increased volume and complexity of challenges for cities and governments in general.
But, what is open innovation?
Traditionally, public services were designed and implemented by a group of public officials. Open innovation allows us to design these services with multiple actors, including those who stand to benefit from the services, resulting in more targeted and better tailored services, often implemented through partnership with these stakeholders. Open innovation allows cities to be more productive in providing services while addressing increased demand and higher complexity of services to be delivered.
New York, Barcelona, Amsterdam and many other cities have been experimenting with this concept, introducing challenges for entrepreneurs to address common problems or inviting stakeholders to co-create new services.   Open innovation has gone from being a “buzzword” to another tool in the city officials’ toolbox.

However, even cities that embrace open innovation are still struggling to implement it beyond a few specific areas.  This is understandable, as introducing open innovation practically requires a new way of doing things for city governments, which tend to be complex and bureaucratic organizations.
Counting with an engaged mayor is not enough to bring this kind of transformation. Changing the behavior of city officials requires their buy-in, it can’t be done top down
We have been introducing open innovation to cities and governments for the last three years in Chile, Colombia, Egypt and Mozambique. We have addressed specific challenges and iteratively designed and tested a systematic methodology to introduce open innovation in government through both a top-down and a bottom-up approaches. We have tested this methodology in Colombia (Cali, Barranquilla and Manizales) and Chile (metropolitan area of Gran Concepción).   We have identified “internal champions” (i.e., government officials who advocate the new methodology), and external stakeholders organized in an “innovation hub” that provides long-term sustainability and scalability of interventions. We believe that this methodology is easily applicable beyond cities to other government entities at the regional and national levels. 
To catalyze open innovation, the methodology has four components:
A co-design workshop on technology solutions for local and municipal challenges in one or more city sector/s.
  1. Diagnosis, vision and a roadmap to support open innovation and technology solutions for local and municipal services.
  2. A competition to co-create solutions for the selected sector/s’ challenges.
  3. A co-creation workshop for a strategic plan for the development of a local innovation hub with an open innovation program for the selected sector/s. These components involve interactive workshops, and diagnosis and co-creation exercises.
To understand how the methodology practically works, we describe in this report the process and its results in its application in the city area of Gran Concepción, in Chile. For this activity, the urban transport sector was selected and the target of intervention were the regional and municipal government departments in charge or urban transport in the area of Gran Concepción. The activity in Chile resulted in a threefold impact:
It achieved its objectives in Gran Concepción and proved the methodology to be effective;
  1. It catalyzed the adoption of the bottom-up smart city model following this new methodology throughout Chile; and
  2. It expanded the implementation and mainstreaming of the methodologies developed and tested through this activity in other World Bank projects.
More information about this activity in Chile can be found in the Smart City Gran Concepcion webpage.
If you want to learn more about how to implement this process in your work, you can join this event in Washington, DC on May 26. And if you can’t attend in person, please share in the comments line below your experience with open innovation mechanisms and behavioral change in large and complex organizations.

Join the Conversation

Ade Camoes
May 25, 2016

Its very interested concept. I am curious to learn the experiences of the countries who implemented this concept. what was the key challenges they face? how they see themselves now? have this new concept help them changes (in positive, effective and more efficient) they way the work?
Since this concept is involved many actors (govt, private sector, etc), again I am curious to know what really the key driven factor for their engagement? is it long term benefits? is it short/medium term incentives? I understand often, government and private sector people very impatient to see the immediate result.
Having an internal champions is great idea, but it will not move if there is no political will from the top government which most of them are politician.
thanks in advance for any responses

V. Mulas
June 08, 2016

We have worked with multiple countries using these methodologies including Colombia, Chile, Egypt, Lebanon, Mozambique or Peru to name a few. The challenges vary but most of the time sit involve complex problems that have been persistent over time and where no traditional solution has worked or when there is the need for aligning the agenda of multiple and diverse set of stakeholders. These include public transportation in urban environments, education curriculum changes and their implementation, sanitation usage is urban slams or agreement of urban planning and development. For these set of challenges (complex and wicked problems) with multiple and diverse stakeholders, these methodologies have problem to be helpful towards incremental solutions with growing consensus on implementation (leading to sustainability).
For an example in practice of how these methodology was implemented to city challenges and the impact it had please see this report:
Regarding the internal champion and the political will, the answer we have found is that you would need both. Only when you have both top-down (leadership) and bottom-up (internal champions) approaches combined, these changes are sustainable.
Please feel free to contact me directly at [email protected] for more information.

Neil Meekin
June 12, 2016

Hi Victor,
Thanks for sharing some of your experiences. It's good to see the World Bank doing initiatives like this. I just wanted to ask did you use a software platform to support the program. something like Innocentive?
Neil - New Zealand