Civic Innovation Project: Building the 21st Century Cities

Civic Innovation Project: Building the 21st Century Cities

Lourdes German, Founder & Director, Civic Innovation ProjectLourdes German, Founder & Director Enabling government to share data and policy decisions that impact day-to-day governance and having a channel for feedback from citizens can create a foundation for a prosperous, sustainable, and competitive community, and increases transparency. Such a perspective can help governments keep their finger on the pulse of citizen sentiment, enabling leaders on the front lines of governance to anticipate what their citizens need and respond accordingly. Lourdes Germán, a veteran in municipal finance was an early proponent of this mantra and was inspired by it to create a paradigm-shift in the way technology can transform the citizen relationship management process in cities, and the way citizens and other stakeholders can participate in that process. She recalls, “I wanted to inspire the next generation of leaders building the cities and communities of the 21st century with roadmaps to solve the most significant civic challenges with sustainable and innovative approaches.” She founded The Civic Innovation Project, an online thought leadership platform which provides tech-based educational tools and resources for governments and citizens in an effort to help them better understand and make use of data to advance city-to-city learning with respect to the most challenging issues facing governments.

The Civic Innovation Project Experience

Resonating with the open data movement which supports the growth of vast amounts of data made available for public use, the central mission of the platform is to raise awareness of civic innovations that are transforming communities and the citizen experience. “By presenting stories from leaders, citizens, academics, and private sector stakeholders using creativity and civic technology, we have the potential to create a peer-learning space where city leaders can learn to solve the problems facing communities and engage a citizen’s voice in that governance process,” informs Lourdes, who also heads the platform as its director. The platform aims to democratize data analysis and visualization, encompassing everyone-from regular citizens to municipal leaders, or other stakeholders interested in learning about other municipalities’ best practices-and enables them to access, understand, and utilize technology in order to make sense of the challenges facing cities and use it in a practicable, solutions-oriented way.

Initially, it was a concept piloted through the site’s ‘Innovation Gallery,’ which offered a series of bundled resources to civic leaders and citizens pertaining to different areas of governance. The subjects of the innovation demos ranged from-the environment, citizen data, and state and local government finance, among others. Each of these demos was created with different technology tools, including Microsoft Power BI among others, that contained download links to the technology resources and training tutorials on how to use them. “One of the purposes behind conceptualizing this platform was also to raise awareness that citizen engagement in the most pressing issues in governance could be enabled by regular tools and their simple operations-and that numerous stakeholders could initiate that kind of engagement,” adds Lourdes. Additionally, examples of civic, academic and citizen innovators doing notable work in those areas were also highlighted.

The Promises of the Platform

The transparency created by the platform seeks to promote prompt and more effective responses from government to communities—for example, government officials can become aware of and better respond to citizen inquiries quickly, or issues of policy relevance to citizen life can be shared effectively. Expanded transparency can also take on added importance where elected or appointed officials want to build a base of support for future decisions or where the public can gain knowledge and offer new levels of feedback helping to inform the day-to-day decisions of governance.

One of the purposes behind conceptualizing this platform was also to raise awareness that citizen relationship management could be enabled by technology tools that are accessible to all and their simple operations

The Evolution of the Platform

Lourdes started learning about the challenges facing communities via extensive research and a long career working with both local and federal government entities. Lourdes began her career over fifteen years ago, as an attorney specializing in government public finance, and subsequently helped create the national government public finance division at one of the largest financial services companies in the world. In 2016, she served as one of the co-authors for a book commissioned and published by the United Nations, entitled Finance for City Leaders. That same year, Lourdes was asked by the leadership of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to help form and direct a new department of International & Institute-Wide Initiatives, responsible for helping the foundation to grow a global cross-disciplinary program that elevates the importance of the fiscal health of municipalities globally. Outside of work, Lourdes contributes her time and expertise to numerous efforts in government, most recently as an appointee of the Governor of Massachusetts to the State Finance and Governance Board, and as an appointee of the Mayor of the City of Boston to the committee focused on the city’s audit and finances.

Concerned that the sharing of information is critical to bringing forth radical improvements in governance, Lourdes sought to expand the Civic Innovation Project to include a new virtual civic technology platform, called “Learning Labs for Cities”. Its expanded functionality is being designed to educate leaders seeking to grow their innovation culture, facilitate peer learning among communities across the globe, and offer new channels for citizen engagement via those resources. Each learning lab will be dedicated to building the capacity of governments seeking to adopt emerging civic technology that can make them more participatory and effective. All lessons and materials will be shared in an open and transparent way and coupled with experiential tools that will facilitate adoption.

The Learning Labs are being designed with a dual focus in mind. First, is to provide a foundation for basic ‘digital literacy’. The digital literacy lab will offer practical and relevant education pertaining to basic technology skills that serve as the foundation for a person seeking to engage with technology and provide the cornerstone of broader effective engagement.

Second, each of the labs will focus on specific themes or a substantive topic in government innovation that is policy relevant for citizens. A unique feature of each lab is the access to dynamic resources that will enable hands-on implementation of the concepts being presented. “Altogether, Learning Labs are poised to be one of the largest thematic digital libraries of dynamic multi-media resources focused on innovations in governance that can be leveraged by government to create better communities and enhance citizen relationship management,” notes Germán.

In Action

With this ambitious vision for the future and unparalleled offerings, The Civic Innovation Project stands to play a central role as a facilitator of future innovation in cities in a cross-disciplinary way that engages partners and stakeholders. Several partnerships that helped to provide a foundation for this initiative included a joint program hosted with the Boston College Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy which convened leaders and citizens in an open dialogue focused on data innovation.

In 2015 and 2016, The Civic Innovation Project also hosted two Public Sector Leaders Forums in partnership with the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center that convened Mayors and other leaders with citizens to discuss emerging strategies and roadblocks to innovation in governance. The conversations and insights that emerged from these programs helped to inform the topical issues that are going to be included in future learning labs.

"By presenting stories from leaders, citizens, academics, and private sector stakeholders using creativity and civic technology, we have the potential to create a peer-learning space where city leaders can learn to solve the problems facing communities and engage a citizen’s voice in that governance process"

Eye for the future

Lourdes hopes that the Learning Labs will act as the first step in building a world-class platform for learning—a central hub of unique dynamic resources that facilitates city-to-city learning with a citizen engagement mission at its core. Lourdes’ vision is for CIP “to become one of the largest platforms that serve as a global community of practice around emerging government innovations. This, coupled with the level of access to experiential resources for leaders, positions this effort as one that can help leaders learn and implement the ideas that will create impact their communities, and society, on a large scale.”

With an ambitious effort to change the face of government-public engagement, Lourdes approaches this work with her own set of guiding principles, which are best exemplified by a series of questions that she asks herself—”Am I doing work that makes a difference? Is the work leading to greater education, better outcomes, and better communities?” Through the Civic Innovation Project, Lourdes is on a path to answer her questions affirmatively every day, by creating new avenues that use technology to transform the relationship between the public and their local government.“I endeavor to be on the forefront of how governments around the world are modernizing, adapting, and transforming cities, and my ultimate goal is to use technology to create a learning space that helps leaders meet the challenges of building the best cities for their citizens in the 21st century that is borne from those stories and experiences,” concludes Lourdes.