Important now: Be proactive in seeking new ideas; they don’t just appear, we discover them. Lean, efficient solutions are the new wave.
Bureaucratic organizations aren’t typically noted for being prodigious innovators, but Dr. David S. Ricketts believes that most people have it within to innovate – and it can be summoned with the right motivators.
He says he thinks the disruption of COVID-19 has created an opportunity for cities to focus on moving away from the norm and building news ways to become more efficient with fewer resources.
Ricketts holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has held appointments at Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University.
He teaches and speaks regularly on innovation and business strategy, and helps senior leaders develop new innovators and systemic innovation in their organizations.
In the following interview, Ricketts talks to Pauline Armbrust about why the smart cities concept has run its course; how the best ideas don’t just appear, they’re discovered; how cities can inspire creativity; and the biggest challenges cities face now.
How can cities innovate at a time when budgets are being cut and unemployment is high?
One of biggest challenges to innovation is we’ve become accustomed to the way we do things already. All of the systems, mindsets and approaches in a city are set up for what has efficiently produced the desired result with the least resources. When we have something like COVID come up and things change dramatically, it’s actually a wonderful time to start innovating because we are not pulled back in by our bad habits. The idea of generating new ideas and processes usually in the beginning is a little inefficient, and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of innovations get killed so early. … A lot of organizations don’t know how to deal with inefficiencies at the onset of innovation.
Because of the disruption, several things have happened. People have had more time to focus on projects. I was talking to one city in Europe that pointed out [that] without any travel or commute, they felt they had 20 percent to 30 percent more time to work on projects they had before but just didn’t have the time to do.
For instance, in Dublin, the city wanted to do a three-dimensional map of a zone where they’re revitalizing an industrial sector. It was perfect because all the cars were gone, so they hired drones to do a 3-D map of this industrial zone. A lot of cities are using this change in traffic as an opportunity to put in new infrastructure. They’re using the extra man hours they have to do more projects.
There is always a cultural hurdle when trying something new. One of the biggest things I’ve seen happen is [that] my friend and colleague, David Graham, who is the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) in Carlsbad, Calif., pointed out that getting city workers to go virtual and to do virtual meetings and use the technology was a huge cultural hurdle, but this [pandemic] forced them to jump over that barrier. Now they are finding they have more efficient meetings because everyone realized they had to adopt the technology in a more progressive way that will allow them to innovate.
Do you think virtual meetings are here to stay?
We can’t see it yet, but we are not going back to work to the same world we had before. Every one of the CIOs I have spoken to firmly believe[s] that virtual meetings are here to stay. They are much more efficient, allow people to work on other projects and join in the meeting. From my perspective, attendance at the faculty meetings have gone up 50 percent. When there is not the barrier of having to walk to the meeting or having to be on campus to do the meeting. Virtual meetings for coordination and connection on logistics will stay.
Also, many cities had to rapidly adopt DocuSign. Now, almost all city services contracts can be signed electronically. That will certainly stay. All the security and protections they put in for working remotely will allow for better work-life balance, which will allow for better diversity in the workforce and provide more attractiveness for people to work in the public sector.
All of this virtual world has made some things better, but some things have just really stopped. I was talking to a senior director at a finance company, and he pointed out [that] there’s no more brainstorming. I haven’t found a city or industrial group that [has] a good solution for how we toss around ideas. There is no good solution for this.
One question we all ask ourselves is, “Why is it so exhausting to be on a Zoom or video call?” Some of the research has shown that when we have conversations with other people, there are a lot of nonverbal, emotional cues that allow us to understand what the person meant. It really is more intuitive and a lot less energy for you to interact in person because I can see your body language and understand much better from your tone of voice. I can understand how you are responding to my body language, and that allows for a much lower energy connection. When we go on Zoom, I may be able to see your face, but I don’t have that emotional connection and that takes a lot more energy for my brain to process: “How did she mean that? How did she feel?”
I think the brainstorming problem isn’t that the technology is not there. It’s that the human connection is not there. I can’t tell you how many people are looking forward to how soon we can get back together. I think the need for human connection is never going to go away. Some of the operational pieces, technology will handle. I know now individuals are having more time to be creative and are coming up with new ideas, but as a collective group, it is much more challenging. That is the part that is missing right now, but it will come back once we get back together in person.
Can you talk about disruptive innovation and why it’s important in cities? Can this be accomplished at a time when cities are hurting from a budget standpoint?
From my viewpoint right now, smart cities are dead but lean, innovative cities are the wave of the future. We can’t afford to do things the same way we did before, and we have to take a chance on entirely new technologies. Disruption usually happens when some solution is really expensive, not as good as what we use now – and if we adopt it now, in a year or two, there might be a better, cheaper solution down the road.
So, now we’re forced to look at what might solve our problems. The question is not how to fix the budget now. It’s in a year or two, how are we going to cut the budget 20 percent? That’s what I’m hearing from cities. How do we provide the same or better services for less? That’s going to drive people to consider new solutions.
It’s not always about technology. For example, Chicago is working with its homeless population and considering what they could do to help them, such as more shelters, more places for them to get meals and places for health testing. When they started talking to the homeless, they came across one gentleman who was the epitome of the insight they learned. They found out that this person had money in the bank, but when he became homeless, he lost all of his identification and wasn’t able to access his federal pension. They realized all they needed to do was provide a city ID to a certain segment of the homeless population, who then could get the resources they were entitled to. All they had to do was put out an ID. It was a simple solution and much cheaper than new shelters, training, healthcare, all these other pieces. Those are the kinds of things cities, I hope, are starting to think about – applying simpler solutions that have a huge impact.
The idea of smart cities is we are going to take technologies, make our cities smart and everyone’s life will be better. Two things happened. One, it’s very, very expensive and people thought cities would be buying billions from the tech firms. The second was people were not sure how to make lives better with technology.
What we are focusing on now is how to make services more efficient and cheaper using technology. And it is not about growing technology for technology’s sake. The smart cities term is about putting technology everywhere in a city. Now cities are focusing on problems and figuring out they can find a lean, efficient solution. It’s really moving from technology that is smart into innovation.
How can you train your team to learn to be more creative and develop innovative ideas, and can you give some examples?
One of the best ideas was given to me by the former CIO of Washington, D.C., Archana [Vemulapalli]. When she started in D.C., she had an innovation team but it made it look like the job was of those individuals and not everyone else’s. So, she disbanded the team, who moved to other parts of the organization, and simply said, “I’m starting a new innovation team and anyone in the organization is welcome to attend.” What she found was 30 to 40 people showed up who really wanted to innovate. This was an easy step because these people were intrinsically motivated.
There is a lot of research from Teresa Amabile out of Harvard Business School about intrinsic motivation. It’s what leads people to be creative. They’re naturally curious about a topic. So, she brought in all the people that were curious and gung-ho about changing the city. She opened it up to everybody, because it’s everyone’s job to be innovative.
The second piece is deliberate discovery. We ask people to spend effort discovering multiple solutions to challenges and find something that doesn’t fit the normal routine or is different from the paradigm they’re in. To be creative you have to actively pursue ideas.
There is a great TED Talk from the founder of OK Go, which is a popular [American] band on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyOSqjIABe0. And the line [paraphrasing] from his TED Talk is: You don’t have good ideas, you find good ideas.
We think sitting around we’re going to have these ideas, but we have to go out and discover them. You really need to push your team to go beyond where have normally gone.
You talk about discovering hidden value in your market. How does this apply to cities?
You have to look at the value proposition of a city, which is basically making the residents have a better quality of life. That is from their own experience in your city, their own economic position in your city. For example, in Boston, if you ask citizens what they want the city to fix most, the answers are fix the potholes on the streets and make our school bus arrive on time. People tend to talk about their most recent or repetitive experience. We have to go beyond that and, for instance, ask, “How do we enable tele-working so there’s less commuting into the city?” That is something not every citizen is looking at.
Another idea is having a single card for all transportation. People say the metro could be better, the buses could be better. What would make transportation easier is a single app that could book your subway, commuter, railway, scooter or Lyft rides all at once and complete a journey for you. Hidden value is understanding how a city could be what citizens can’t see yet because they’re bogged down in daily life.
How can cities “dig deep” and understand their citizens’ needs, especially now?
One innovative thing cities have been doing is “sentiment analysis” – using artificial intelligence to look at social media and understand sentiment trends on how the public is feeling. Social media is one way people are communicating very well, particularly with COVID. Cities have really learned how to communicate with their citizens. For instance, they learned the importance of images communicating the full story. They were more successful in communicating how to wear masks with images. People responded better.
One of the biggest challenges cities are faced with now is the economic downturn and working with companies on how to adjust. I hope we will see cities becoming more involved in enabling commerce in the new world. Some cities are getting access to financial data from transactions to understand [the businesses’ challenges]. In New York City, they could look at parts of the city where the transactions had been reduced by 95 percent and understand the segments that are hardest hit both from a budget standpoint and understanding how they can help.
For more information contact Dr. David Ricketts at: Ricketts@seas.harvard.edu