Investing in People: My Experience in the Academy for Municipal Innovation

ami gradThis is a guest post from Ryan Birchmeier, Communications and Engagement Manager in the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

When I was selected to participate in the Academy for Municipal Innovation, I had no concept of what it would entail. I was aware of the program’s existence. I knew it was designed to teach City employees about the process of innovation and I knew it was created in partnership with Philadelphia University. I also knew the Academy had a goal of building a capacity for innovation inside government. But the foundation of the program was hard to conceptualize. Was innovation actually a process? Could it be taught? Could my participation help build a capacity for innovation? I had no idea.

19 City employees, including myself, were chosen to participate in the Fall 2014 offering of the Academy. My colleagues, an impressive group of City employees, spanned a range of departments and job functions. Most of us did not interact with one another in our day-to-day positions. Now, we’d be traveling to Philadelphia University every Tuesday afternoon to learn how to innovate together.

On our first day, Philadelphia University’s Vice President of Innovation, D.R. Widder expounded on the concept of innovation as a process. He described innovation as something that could be learned and used to repeatedly solve problems and develop ideas. Philadelphia University taught the innovation process through different approaches to thinking and problem-solving. Each approach looked at a problem or idea through a different lense and came with its own set of exercises. Over the next six weeks, we explored design thinking, systems thinking, end-user research, story telling, value propositions, and business analytics, among others. After each topic was discussed by a professor, the cohort would break into groups to complete an exercise that simulated how that approach could be implemented in a municipal government setting.

It was the breakout sessions that sold me. My colleagues and I dove into these exercises, using post-its and whiteboards to explore new ways to generate ideas and solve problems. We categorized ideas based on their importance and “difficulty to implement”; we mapped-out how stakeholders interacted with a situation; we identified the positives, negatives, and “potentials” of a program. While brainstorming and problem-solving exercises might sound elementary to those who do not regularly engage, these exercises were valuable tools that could be implemented in our day-to-day jobs. These exercises helped us see situations differently, identify new problems, and develop better ideas. These exercises helped us innovate in a way that could be repeated.

By the end of the Academy, I was convinced that innovation was a process that could be learned. It took a little longer, however, to see how the program helped build a capacity for innovation. This wasn’t proven until a few weeks after the Academy, when I realized I could call any of my fellow colleagues from the program to help me solve a problem. While the knowledge from the curriculum was important, the real magic of the Academy was the network it built. The experience of completing the program, the shared knowledge of problem-solving approaches, the lessons-learned from our breakout exercises had made us a tight-knit group of colleagues and created a foundation of City employees that were willing and able to innovate. This foundation would grow as individuals used the tools they learned to solve problems and work together on shared projects. It would also grow with the each new cohort of the Academy. With each new cohort, city government gains a larger capacity for innovation.

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