What Happens in an Innovation Lab?

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Photo by Olivia Gillison

The Innovation Lab was packed last Friday. A group of twelve used a smart TV to evaluate a new website. Two employees wrote on a whiteboard to brainstorm about a public safety project. A group of seven, each with a laptop, worked together in a circle of chairs. The room was busy and animated but the groups were engaged. Everyone was working. And so was the Lab.

The City of Philadelphia’s Innovation Lab sits on the 16th floor of the Municipal Services Building, overlooking City Hall. Lining the walls of the bright room is a mural paying homage to the history of innovation in Philadelphia. The space is furnished with colorful chairs, patterned carpet, and light, movable tables that invite employees to not only be creative with their ideas but with how they arrange the space itself. The Lab is informally divided into two parts: one half is equipped with two large flat screen monitors and high-tech workstations for more formal meetings. The other half is furnished with lounge-style seating to facilitate smaller, more informal coworking sessions. Movable whiteboards are available for brainstorming, as are the Lab’s windows.

The room is atypical of government, no doubt. And it’s supposed to be. Mayor Nutter cut a digital red ribbon on August 1, 2014, marking the space as a physical commitment to innovation in city government. While encouraging innovation is important, designating a space for employees to think and work creatively can help that encouragement grow into a cultural value.

The Innovation Lab also serves as a convening space for government, whether it’s for a planned session or not. An open coworking space supports collaboration by simply enabling employees to be aware of one another. By breaking down the traditional barriers of department, office location, job title, and even cubicle walls, employees can solve problems with different groups of people, leverage other employees’ expertise of municipal functions, and form cross-departmental partnerships. It’s the kind of “together is better” mentality that could affect lasting change in a bureaucracy.

The Lab is one component of the City’s strategy to build a capacity for innovation inside government. Programming, both internal and external, is a major function of the Lab’s role. The Lab’s internal programming has largely materialized in the form of facilitated, cross-departmental meetings and professional development trainings like HTML classes, leadership development sessions, and performance focus groups. The Lab’s external programing aims to connect city government with Philadelphia’s innovation ecosystem, both as a convener and a participant. City government can use the space to help foster innovation in like-minded organizations or to build relationships with the community-at-large. The Lab has hosted sessions for the Knight Foundation and the US2020 STEM Mentoring initiative, among others. The space can also be used to engage external stakeholders to help solve urban challenges with programming like the Code for Philly Democracy Hackathon. Since its opening, the Lab has hosted well over 215 events with nearly two-thirds of the events involving multiple departments. 66 of the events have involved external stakeholders.

These numbers are measures of the Lab’s success but last Friday is a measurement of a different kind. What would these groups have done if the Lab did not exist? The group of two would have likely met at one of the employee’s desks to speak about their project without a whiteboard or much formal brainstorming. The group of seven would have likely worked on the project together, from their cubicles, communicating through email. The group of twelve would have likely met in a conference room but would not have gotten to interact with the other two groups once the meeting was over. And that is what happened. All of the groups interacted once the meetings were over, sharing ideas about ongoing initiatives, asking questions, scheduling times to meet, breaking down the silos of government. A crowded room never worked so well.

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