A definition for civic innovation

Out in California, Tina Lee asked about the best definition for civic innovation. As someone who has served as a fellow in the City of San Francisco’s Department of Technology Services, Lee has some personal context and interest.

According her tweets, she wants to distill the various definitions available online down to one working definition for educational purposes that would enable her to tease out the skills that are needed for 21st century civic engagement.

As it happens, I wrote definitions for years at WhatIs.com. This is an assignment that interests me. First, break down civic innovation into its components.

Webster defines “civic” as “or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” Examples: “civic duty” or “civic pride.”

Webster defines for “innovation” as either “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device.” Example: GPS navigation systems.

So, how could one define “civic engagement?” Concisely, with examples:

In this context, then, we might broadly define civic innovation as” new idea or method that improves the lives of citizens, the functions of cities, the practice of citizenship, or the state of community affairs.”

Maryland chief innovation officer Bryan Sivak, however, that “innovation challenges existing processes and systems, resulting in the injection, rapid execution and validation of new ideas into the ecosystem. In short, innovation asks “why?” a lot.”

San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath told me via email this year that civic innovation “can be as simple as finding new ways to solve old problems. The real challenge is how to scale across a large organization and through time.”

Nath says that civic innovation is driven by resource constraints. “I recognize the value of applying lean methodology to public sector,” wrote Nath. “For the past few years, I’ve been operating without any budget and often without any direct staff. The way to innovate with these constraints is through partnerships, open innovation, and applying lean principles.”

Given that, a better definition for civic innovation might be a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

Like the definition? Dislike it? Have ideas to improve it? Let us know in the comments — or share your version on Twitter using the #civicinnovation hashtag.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

2 thoughts on “A definition for civic innovation

  1. I like it. But wonder if it could be streamlined or brightened up a bit (if that makes sense!). How about: “Ideas, practices, and technologies that improve public processes and systems, promote engagement between communities and governments, and improve the lives of individual citizens.”

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