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A. Organization Overview

Public Innovation is an incubator for civic and social innovations in the Sacramento region. Our core competency is bringing people together to solve public problems and improve the citizen experience. We believe that breakthrough solutions require the engagement of individuals and organizations from diverse backgrounds and sectors. By leveraging the creativity and collective capacity of all people, we’re able to cross-pollinate ideas that lead to new ways of accelerating measurable quality of life improvements. In the end, however, the network itself is the true innovation.

As a small startup, our goal is not to solve every problem, but to instead develop a set of tools that enable and empower collaboration at a community and regional level. We know that many organizations currently assume this role. However, what’s missing is a welcoming entry point for new players. We will be that entry point by providing resources and support for anyone who has a good idea and the drive to turn that idea into reality. In other words, we will be disrupting the status quo by enabling a new market and value network for civic and social innovations to flourish.

1. Innovation Defined

What do we mean by innovation? Professor Andrew Hargadon (2012), Director of UC Davis' Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship says that innovation is the “generation, development, and deployment of new, nonobvious, and valuable ideas.” He delineates three interlinked activities in the pursuit of innovation: (1) creativity, (2) commitment, and (3) entrepreneurship. In highlighting the combinatorial nature of creativity, Hargadon (2003) develops the concept of "technology brokering" as fundamental to the innovation process:

“By working across many different worlds and building network connections to the people, objects, and ideas of these different worlds, firms that organize around the pursuit of innovation increase the chances that they will see solutions in one world that solve the needs in another. By remaining on the periphery of these different worlds, rather than committing to any one, they avoid the need to limit themselves to working with only one or a few problems or technologies. And by avoiding these limits, they retain the flexibility to mix and match the many problems and solutions they come across (129).”

Thus, a core focus of our work at Public Innovation must emphasize community building and strengthening the diversity of our network. Although technology brokering might seemingly be restricted to scientific innovations, the following definition of social innovation was included in a recent McKinsey and Company (2012) anthology and shares common themes with what Hargadon set forth:

“A discipline that applies new approaches, tweaks existing processes, and brings new tools to bear in solving the world’s most pressing societal challenges. Social innovation seeks to achieve scale by harnessing the power of collaboration to address societal issues in a better and more efficient way. It often occurs at the intersection of business, government and the social sector (1).”

Similarly, we can extend concepts from social innovation to civic innovation since both are intended outputs of our work.

2. Public Value Co-Creation

Like many social impact organizations, the value we create is not monetary and is, instead, less tangible. In Mark Moore's seminal work, Creating Public Value, he describes the work of government as follows (1995):

“[T]he aim of managerial work in the public sector is to create public value just as the aim of managerial work in the private sector is to create private value (28).”

In the context of civic innovation, co-creation is critical to reinventing how public value is generated. Christian Bason (2010), director of innovation for the Danish government, describes co-creation as follows:

“Co-creation, a term first used by management thinkers Prahalad and Ramaswamy, is used in this book to characterise a creation process where new solutions are designed with people, not for them. This challenges how public managers think about their roles in policy development, going far beyond committee meetings, traditional stakeholder hearings and customer research. Co-creation is strongly connected to notions of ‘participatory design’, ‘co-design’, ‘design attitude’ and ‘design thinking’–-approaches that in recent years have been emphasised as absolutely central to innovation (8).”

We repeatedly use the term co-creation to reflect our commitment to developing new ideas by bridging diverse perspectives—particularly among those most affected by the specific problems we choose to solve.

3. A Better Civic Experience by Design

Public policy and administration, as an academic field, largely ignores the experiences of citizens. In fact, there is often more emphasis on policy than on service delivery. But citizens don't experience policy; they experience interactions with government. According to Bason:

“Knowing how specific interactions are experienced by people is fundamental. We must therefore never forget that it is by seeing and knowing people and the wholeness of their lives, as they experience them, that we discover the insights that might lead to new innovative solutions (155).”

And often those interactions can be chock-full of painpoints. Design scholar Don Norman (2011) describes those difficult experiences we've all had:

“It is easy to find examples of the complexity of services: think of almost any interaction with a governmental agency. There are many potential sources of difficulties, from the interaction with government employees, the complex set of rules and regulations that must be followed, the complexities of the forms that must be filled out, and then to the impenetrable delays that occur as the request moves from one office to another, perhaps from one agency to another. Even if everyone is helpful and friendly, the sheer complexity of the operation coupled with the relatively poor interfaces among all the components can lead to frustrating experiences.
The only way to solve the complexities of services is to treat them as systems, to design the entire experience as a whole. If each piece is designed in isolation, the end result may be of separate pieces that do not mesh well together (147-8).”

While this ideal poses significant challenges to a federalist system of government and a fractured state-local relationship, the role technology can fill as a front-end solution to the problems associated with human-government interaction becomes increasingly clear. As such, we have developed our core capabilities to employ "design thinking" as a civic innovation tool. Tim Brown (2012), president and CEO of the design firm IDEO describes design thinking as follows:

“Design thinking is centered on innovating through the eyes of the end user and as such encourages in-the-field research that builds empathy for people, which results in deeper insights about their unmet needs. This focus helps avoid the common problem of enthusiastic ‘outsiders’ promoting inappropriate solutions and ensures that solutions are rooted in the needs and desires of the community.”

These are just some of the concepts and principles we've incorporated into our social impact model.

B. Social Impact Model

1. Social Problem Definition

Bureaucracy dehumanizes individuals and inhibits the inherent talent within an organization. This results in untapped value creation opportunities and arbitrarily constrains the potential collective capacity to generate new solutions to problems. Government is the poster child for bureaucracy and the Sacramento region is home to one of the largest subnational governments in the world.

With a third of our workforce employed by government, there are significant implications that bureaucracy imposes on the culture of our region. We cannot isolate the impact that cumbersome rules, steep hierarchies, and overspecialized positions have on the mental models through which we see the world–whether we work in government or are customers of government. These mental models influence our perceptions of what’s possible and, therefore, affect our collective behavior. These impacts can manifest themselves in the form of would-be entrepreneurs wallowing in a risk-averse mindset, underserved youth lacking the confidence to challenge themselves academically, or artists being undervalued for their contributions toward building a vibrant creative community.

In short, Sacramento’s legacy consists of a culture of mediocrity that is, in large part, driven by the dominance of a government-industrial complex. This is no surprise, as many of the features of government are designed to maintain stability and, therefore, the status quo. While many organizations have attempted to modernize our civic operating systems, few if any efforts to address the culture itself have been attempted.

2. Mission

The mission of Public Innovation is to build the basic scaffolding of a civic innovation and social entrepreneurship ecosystem. This ecosystem will comprise a space where creative approaches to tackling public issues are initiated, developed, and supported. Using the concept of an open platform, we will empower change agents who want to improve their organizations and communities by connecting them with each other and by providing them with the tools to accelerate regional progress.

3. Indicators

a. Social & Economic Impact

To measure our social and economic impact, we will begin by with the following indicators:

  • Quality of life outcomes within areas where we pursue projects
  • Cost savings delivered to public agencies and nonprofit organizations
  • Longitudinal citizen satisfaction surveys

b. Organizational & Program Performance

To measure our organizational and program performance, we will begin by with the following indicators:

  • Number of engaged users
  • Number of organizational partners per project
  • Number of total projects initiated
  • Variance between financial projections and actual revenue
  • Growth of our network

4. Vision of Success

We envision a day when the Sacramento region is viewed by outsiders as the Silicon Valley of civic and social innovation. We believe that the wicked problems public agencies and nonprofits are tasked with tackling are opportunities to generate disruptive solutions through creative ideation, rapid prototyping, and human centered design. Similarly, engaged citizens will create an authorizing environment where they trust their public officials to take safe risks. We’ll celebrate failures quickly. And by leveraging our position as the state’s capital, citizens will be able to find the information they need regardless of the level of government responsible.

Our vision is for a radically different civic experience than exists today and one in which anyone with a good idea to improve our shared civic infrastructure will have the tools at their disposal to co-create the changes they want to see in their organizations and communities. Together we will disrupt bureaucracy.

C. Operating Model

1. Open Platform

Public Innovation will operate as an open platform for co-creation and co-production of civic and social innovations. Although this will require us to have a significant level of transparency around our operations, that is merely a consequence and not the goal of being an open organization. Our primary purpose for pursuing openness is to enable others to build upon our civic infrastructure.

David Witzel (2012) delineates the characteristic tendencies of closed versus open systems in the following table:

Characteristic Closed System Open System
Leadership Clearly identified. Leadership and authority positions tightly tied. Leadership actions can be made by a variety of actors. Leadership and authority loosely coupled.
Authority Strong. Authority figures can firmly set and enforce direction and organize activities. Weak. Authority figures suggest and cajole directions and activities.
Membership Clearly defined by employment, contracts, or formal declarations May not be clearly defined. Determined by adoption of behaviors.
Ownership Tightly held. Intellectual and physical property is owned by the system and controlled by its authorities. Open and shared. Intellectual property is open licensed and shared. Use is determined by users.
Boundaries Fixed and firm. Members are in or out. Porous. Participants may join and leave, without giving notice.
Objectives Unitary and clear. Established by authorities. Different in different parts of the system and determined by participants.
Decisions Made by those “above” in the hierarchy and passed down. Made in many places throughout the system.
Structure Fixed and hierarchical one to many relationships (e.g., employee reporting to employer) and hub and spoke (e.g., suppliers providing to a manufacturer) Fluid networks with bi-directional communications and activities.
Incentives Clearly defined and reliant on financial rewards – salaries, fees, bonuses. Mixed and reliant on financial as well as other personal rewards including acknowledgement, mastery, social good.
Location Headquarters is clearly defined. Work is done in offices and factories. No physical headquarters. Work is done in many venues.
Work time During formal “work hours” with official vacations Happens at any time, often during vacations!

Because so much of the work of innovation requires a networked approach, we must create the spaces in which individuals and organizations can not only connect with each other, but also have a keen understanding of who’s doing what. This helps to avoid duplication of effort and ensures added value is consistently being distributed across the larger ecosystem.

2. Civic and Social Innovation Ecosystem

Innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems characterize the interactions of individual elements that work synergistically to co-generate creative solutions and exploit latent market opportunities. In a similar vein, Brad Feld describes the four necessary ingredients for startup communities to thrive (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 2012):

  1. Two types of people: leaders (entrepreneurs) and feeders (people who support startups, such as government agencies, funders, service providers). While the "feeders" are the very fabric of the community, the entrepreneurs must be in the lead.
  2. A long-term view and commitment to building this community.
  3. A philosophy of inclusiveness that welcomes everyone with an interest, not just entrepreneurs.
  4. Substantive activities that engage the entire community to help startups move forward.

Here we identify some of the key components that will comprise the civic and social innovation ecosystem we seek to build.

a. People

Human capital is our region’s most important asset and engaged residents form the lifeblood of our innovation ecosystem. We are capitalizing on the desire of people to improve their communities using new tools and new ways of collaborating. But we’re not talking about your average homogenous group. We need civil servants interacting with artists, marketers collaborating with educators, and technologists helping nonprofit leaders. Much of Sacramento’s strength lies in its diversity. And when people from different backgrounds share their ideas, we get even better ideas.

b. Process

As much as we don't think or work linearly, Public Innovation’s value processes reflect a six-step value chain, along which projects are initiated and solutions are deployed. Each component segments engagement among a diverse set of organizational partners and adds public value at each stage. A networked approach to the innovation process maximizes throughput and allows us to scale our impact across the Capital Region with replicable projects.

  1. DISCOVERY: Identifying Unmet Needs and Opportunities
    Either an organization approaches us with a problem or citizens identify an opportunity to improve their communities through our our platform, CivicExchange. Although projects do not need to be initiated through this entry point, projects sought by proactive individuals and organizations will enjoy greater potential for impact.

  2. IDEATION: Forcing Serendipitous Collisions to Generate New Ideas
    At CivicMeet Sacramento--a monthly meetup for civic innovators from diverse backgrounds (including business, nonprofits, education, technology, and government), we co-design solutions to public problems. The more constraints, the more creative the ideas. This process also builds a community of citizens to support the successful adoption of the solutions they helped generate.

  3. CO-PRODUCTION: Supporting the Development of Civic Innovations
    At Public Innovation Labs—a civic innovation incubator—we design, build, and test improvements to the citizen experience and back-office process innovations for public agencies and social enterprises. We also provide resources and support to social entrepreneurs who want to voluntarily collaborate on civic projects.

  4. INTRAPRENEURSHIP: Giving Public Servants and Social Impact Leaders the Tools to Evangelize Change
    To prepare civic leaders and public administrators for emerging innovations, our Civic Entrepreneurship Network will support knowledge sharing and change management within government and social impact organizations. This will result in user generated content, best practices, and panel discussions among change agents who want to be catalysts for improving their organizations. We also seek to provide services and education to improve the culture within organizations throughout the region.

  5. DEPLOYMENT: Deploying Solutions through Civic and Social Entrepreneurship
    Once refined, solutions are deployed by Innovation Delivery Teams—strategic partnerships among public agencies, nonprofits, and businesses. Crowdfunding and social impact bonds can help address resource constraints to sustain their implementation. These teams will support the diffusion of civic innovations and their composition will vary on a project-by-project basis.

  6. STORYTELLING: Measuring Progress and Celebrating Success
    Public Innovation is committed to nurturing development of the larger ecosystem through multichannel marketing and communications campaigns that highlight and reward creative problem solving. In addition to tracking and maintaining quality of life indicators, we produce compelling video stories to articulate the value proposition of civic entrepreneurship.

Although this is our preferred process for project execution and reflects our theory of change, we will offer flexibility to clients who approach us with specific needs that do not require a comprehensive approach. Similarly, we expect our process to evolve based upon our analysis of key performance indicators. Lastly, while the process appears linear, it is often synchronous and iterative.

c. Resources

Resources enable capacity. While large-scale collaboration can afford significant capacity for a region, such efforts may lead to greater friction as the network grows. With that in mind, our intent is to provide the necessary resources that will reduce friction and activate the network. Specifically, our CivicExchange platform will perform this function.

Beyond providing capacity to organizations, however, we also need to empower the human potential of impact-driven individuals. Through our outreach, we will discover entrepreneurial-minded changemakers and provide them with the space, mentorship, education, network, and risk capital they need to develop and test their ideas. Those who are able to successfully validate their business models, will be given additional support to accelerate their progress and take their ideas to market.

d. Organizations

The Sacramento region has many anchor institutions, including public agencies, universities, chambers of commerce, foundations, nonprofits, incubators, and backbone organizations. Each organization already plays a critical role in our communities. However, Public Innovation will ask these organizations to formally partner with us to collectively build a regional civic and social innovation ecosystem. In other words, all the pieces are in place; but we'll advance progress by connecting existing efforts in new ways and encouraging greater experimentation to drive impact.

e. Technology

While we are not technological solutionists, we believe that technology has a significant role to play in connecting the ecosystem and lowering the barriers to collaboration. In the past, technology was viewed as a tool for engineers. Today, however, the most successful technologies are platforms that are simple, beautiful, easy-to-use, and solve real problems. Treated as a discipline of art and humanities, rather than electrical engineering, form always follows function. Our platform will simplify our users’ interaction within the civic and social innovation ecosystem. People need to quickly be able to find answers to their questions, contribute to the platform, and, ultimately, connect and engage with each other. Following the 80/20 rule, our platform will only be 20 percent of the solution while people and process are the other 80 percent.

D. Social Impact Strategies

Our basic strategy for driving social impact and accelerating quality of life improvements relies on recruiting, empowering, and connecting change agents. It is premised on the following:

1. An Open Platform for Co-Creation

Although the term platform generally refers to a type of technology, Public Innovation—the organization—is itself an open platform. While we intend to build a specific technology platform, CivicExchange, to enable engagement, our social impact will be derived from a human capital multiplier effect that is the result of diverse people coming together to co-create change in-person. And by open, we mean anyone with the passion to make a positive dent will be able to roll up their sleeves and join.

2. Collective Impact

Cross-sector collaboration also will be critical to driving impact. This will require the engagement of individuals and organizations from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. More importantly, however, it means a new paradigm in shared accountability. No longer is it acceptable for organizations and individuals to compete over who receives credit for success, much less over fixed slices of a pie. Everyone has a role to play and we need to acknowledge our interdependence and strive toward shared value.

3. Culture First

Public Innovation made a concerted effort to focus on the implementation of public policy rather than on its development. That means we’re largely policy-agnostic and benefit from staying out of the political fray. Because creativity loves constraints and we’re confident in our organizational agility, we can adapt our approach to any policy environment. Similarly, much of our work will involve filling gaps for which policy levers are insufficient. For example, policy is a good tool for setting priorities and creating incentives, but it cannot force individuals to want to change their behavior. According to Anne Khademian (2002):

“[T]he interest in culture as a public management tool is more than an imitation of business. It also reflects frustration with past reform efforts, a frustration shared by organizational scholars and public managers alike. In the past thirty years public managers have participated in many reform efforts, including management by objectives, performance program budgeting, zero-based budgeting, and decision making based upon cost-benefit analysis. The primary objective of these reforms was to rationalize the management of public programs by requiring agencies to be clear and more exacting in their decision making. While some of these reform efforts linger in the work of public organizations, most have gone by the wayside. However, today reformers argue that the key to reform is a change in culture--the less tangible and less formal dimension of an organization that can support or sabotage change (7).”

By focusing on people and process, we believe that culture can eventually lead to necessary policy changes. And we flatly reject the idea that policy alone can change culture. Culture is an artifact of collective human behavior and we need to poke at the factors that motivate behavior rather than attempting to force behavior change through policy.

Our “culture first” approach will tackle head-on distrust toward our public institutions. We intend to lead by example and reinforce a cycle of trust that will enable greater experimentation and risk-taking in the civic space.

4. Capacity Building

We’re not just providing capacity for collaboration but, more importantly, capacity for innovation. The Sacramento region does not have a shortage of smart, creative people with good ideas. Instead, we lack the capacity to turn those ideas into great ideas and great ideas into reality.

5. Incubation

As a civic incubator, we want to help innovators develop, test, and refine their ideas. We want to serve both public agencies and social entrepreneurs. Public agencies need a safe space where they can take risks, and fail early and often. This can be done without great expense to taxpayers and presumably has significant potential to improve outcomes and reduce costs in the long-run. In other words, we need to celebrate failure and change our perspectives if we want to generate truly breakthrough solutions. Our hypothesis is that, over time, the public will gradually begin to trust their government more than they do today.

We also want to incubate new social enterprises and develop the next generation of change agents. In the past, the only way someone could make a difference outside of government was to become a political activist or start a nonprofit. Today there are a variety of alternative models for social impact including for-profit and hybrid organizations.

6. Measuring Success

Today’s ubiquity of open data means that it’s much easier to measure quality of life and our impact on its trajectory. Moreover, it gives us the opportunity to hold ourselves accountable for those outcomes which we’ve committed to achieve. Change is hard and it’s even more difficult to link an organization’s output to quality of life outcomes, particularly when macroeconomic and other societal factors are at play. But there is intrinsic value in simply placing an organization’s outputs alongside the indicators it is working to improve, whether in education, health, or public safety. This juxtaposition can help members of the public better understand how change happens and, more importantly, inspire a conversation about what to do when we collectively fall off-track.

7. Storytelling

One of the most surprising findings in our work to date is how much progress already is happening on the ground, but of which there is little awareness. Today’s new media environment enables anyone with a camera phone to launch their own video channel on YouTube. While that may be an overstatement, the cost of high-quality digital video production has dramatically fallen in recent years with the advent of DSLR cameras and other affordable tools for independent filmmakers. Similarly, the opportunities to curate user-generated content are virtually infinite. We are committed to telling the stories of innovators and their projects to raise awareness of and appreciation for the complex ecosystem that’s emerging.


  • Bason, C. (2010). Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society. The Policy Press.
  • Brown, T. (2012). "Why social innovators need design thinking." McKinsey and Company. Original Source.
  • Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. (2012, October 9). "Entrepreneur Guru Brad Feld Illustrates How to Build a Startup Community in New Kauffman Sketchbook Video." Original Source.
  • Hargadon, A. (2012). Lecture notes.
  • Hargadon, A. (2003). How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Harvard Business School Press.
  • Khademian, A. (2002). Working with Culture: The Way the Job Gets Done in Public Programs. CQ Press.
  • McKinsey and Company (2012). Can fresh thinking solve the world’s most intractable problems?. ROriginal Source.
  • Moore, M.H. (1995). Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government. Harvard University Press.
  • Norman, D.A. (2011). Living With Complexity. MIT Press.
  • Witzel, D.T. (2012). Designing Open Projects: Lessons From Internet Pioneers. IBM Center for the Business of Government. Original Source.

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