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Rebecca Sutherns: Creating innovative culture within municipal spaces

The term “municipal innovation” is seen by some as something of an oxymoron. After all, municipalities are not often seen by the public as being on the cutting edge or coming up with innovative solutions to day-to-day local government problems.

However, that’s exactly why Rebecca Sutherns, CEO at Sage Solutions, enjoys helping municipalities strive to find those innovative answers. Sutherns discussed the need to foster innovation in risk-averse environments during a conversation with Municipal World CEO Susan Gardner at the 2019 Municipal Innovators Community Conference.

Addressing the Definition of Innovation

Before an innovative culture can be created, the definition of what innovation is needs to be addressed.

“I think we can confuse innovation with a lot of other things. At one end of the spectrum, we can confuse it with sort of incremental process improvement. Anything other than status quo becomes innovative,” Sutherns said. “The other end of the continuum is maybe confusing innovation with creativity or invention. I think of innovation as inhabiting the middle space between those things. Of making something noticeably better perhaps using unusual means of doing that.”

Facing the Oxymoron of Innovative Municipalities

In the municipal sector, Sutherns acknowledges in the video, innovation can be seen by some as an oxymoron. Municipalities are not often known for being innovative because they aren’t seen as being in a competitive market.

However, as she explains, they actually are. But that said, there are built-in barriers to an innovative mindset.

“It’s a really hard context in which to innovate. I think there are funding constraints, I think there are mindset constraints, cultural constraints that make it hard,” Sutherns said. “And yet, many people that I know – all of whom presumably pay their taxes – would admire an organization that sets out innovation as a goal.”

Needing the Safe Space for Failure

Sutherns said that when it comes to creating a safe space for innovation within the local government sector, there needs to be an acknowledgement that simply declaring something a safe space doesn’t make it so.

While innovation can be imbed into systems that already exist, she explains the systems that reward predictability need to be addressed.

“Innovation by definition requires experimentation,” Sutherns said. “And if we don’t have any space to experiment, and to fail – and to my mind, failure of an experiment is just a learning opportunity – we really need to reframe what a win looks like.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Ashleigh Weeden’s article: Innovation is a four-letter word. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

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