Citizen roles in civic problem-solving and innovation

Satish Nambisan: “Can citizens be fruitfully engaged in solving civic problems? Recent initiatives in cities such as Boston (Citizens Connect), Chicago (Smart Chicago Collaborative), San Francisco (ImproveSF) and New York (NYC BigApps) indicate that citizens can be involved in not just identifying and reporting civic problems but in conceptualizing, designing and developing, and implementing solutions as well.
The availability of new technologies (e.g. social media) has radically lowered the cost of collaboration and the “distance” between government agencies and the citizens they serve. Further involving citizens — who are often closest to and possess unique knowledge about the problems they face — makes a lot of sense given the increasing complexity of the problems that need to be addressed.
A recent research report that I wrote highlights four distinct roles that citizens can play in civic innovation and problem-solving.
As explorer, citizens can identify and report emerging and existing civic problems. For example, Boston’s Citizen Connect initiative enables citizens to use specially built smartphone apps to report minor and major civic problems (from potholes and graffiti to water/air pollution). Closer to home, both Wisconsin and Minnesota have engaged thousands of citizen volunteers in collecting data on the quality of water in their neighborhood streams, lakes and rivers (the data thus gathered are analyzed by the state pollution control agency). Citizens also can be engaged in data analysis. The N.Y.-based Datakind initiative involves citizen volunteers using their data analysis skills to mine public data in health, education, environment, etc., to identify important civic issues and problems.
As “ideator,”citizens can conceptualize novel solutions to well-defined problems in public services. For example, the federal government’s initiative employs online contests and competitions to solicit innovative ideas from citizens to solve important civic problems. Such “crowdsourcing” initiatives also have been launched at the county, city and state levels (e.g. Prize2theFuture competition in Birmingham, Ala.; ImproveSF in San Francisco).
As designer, citizens can design and/or develop implementable solutions to well-defined civic problems. For example, as part of initiatives such as NYC Big Apps and Apps for California, citizens have designed mobile apps to address specific issues such as public parking availability, public transport delays, etc. Similarly, the City Repair project in Portland, Ore., focuses on engaging citizens in co-designing and creatively transforming public places into sustainable community-oriented urban spaces.
As diffuser,citizens can play the role of a change agent and directly support the widespread adoption of civic innovations and solutions. For example, in recent years, physicians interacting with peer physicians in dedicated online communities have assisted federal and state government agencies in diffusing health technology innovations such as electronic medical record systems (EMRs).
In the private sector, companies across industries have benefited much from engaging with their customers in innovation. Evidence so far suggests that the benefits from citizen engagement in civic problem-solving are equally tangible, valuable and varied. However, the challenges associated with organizing such citizen co-creation initiatives are also many and imply the need for government agencies to adopt an intentional, well-thought-out approach….”