First, there is the fully admitted reality that even if the concept of disruptive innovation within the public sector is viable, in any aspect, that achieving it will not only be difficult but actual occurrences are likely to be few. What this post will attempt is to provide some insight why the perceived need for disruptive innovation in the public sector and how the realization for the need was arrived at.
There has also been some push back or questioning of the notion that certain ideas or programs in the public sector arena, whether developed within the institutional system or outside it, are not disruptive. One example being Code for America.
Code for America can be considered a disruptive element or perhaps it would be better to term it a disrupting element. It could potentially be considered a so-called disruptive technology for the implementation of an actual disruptive innovation, but it cannot be considered a disruptive innovation in its own right as defined by Christensen’s theory.
The difference is that the type of disruption made possible by Code for America, through what has been referred to as sustaining innovations in recent past posts, can be thought of as at most rebellions to which current often entrenched local governments sometimes acquiesce. If not, the rebellion moves on to a more favorable target. These rebellions, regardless of how often they occur, do not seem able to coalesce into the type of revolution needed to truly bring us into a twenty-first century economy. Such a revolution needs to be transformative, as non-destructive as possible, at a level of social evolution. The current crop of disrupting applications through sustaining innovations will not reach the required tipping point by waiting for enough local government institutions to become self-enlightened enough to create the change themselves or in D.I. terms self-disrupt or for community advocates to put together the necessary components to overcome entrenched city halls.
Disruptive Innovation is put forward as a means of revolution through redefining the community relationship of power to scarcity and abundance and the process by which change in the system is implemented.
Disruptive innovation is a potential organizing principle that could energize a number of different approaches, including among others, radical community engagement, placemaking, community ecology, economic gardening, participatory budgeting, design thinking, systems thinking, and even adaptive complexity systems in redefining our communities to reach a critical mass needed for transformational change. Yet, as with many other innovative approaches to civic institutions, alone they remain not capable of creating the necessary momentum. They do have the potential though and have provided fuel to the creation of a strategy incorporating disruptive innovation as has the many interactions with professionals in a variety of different fields.
Among these are those with Della Rucker of Wise Economy, who has been featured in this blog a number of times, in particular Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm, and Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations then Make sure They are Disruptive. She has been an important element in developing new ideas within this blog.
Back in May of this year, I had a conversation on Twitter with @DellaRucker, starting with my re-sharing of her observation regarding people’s willingness to participate in a community’s positive disruption and the resulting pushback from city hall through a City Crackdown on Tactical Urbanism. Tactical urbanism can be seen as a potentially disrupting combination of community governance with placemaking. Potential because some cities quickly quash such efforts but others, most notably New York, have now taken the concept from tactical to strategic.
One line of internal inquiry at the time was how to move from a tactical perspective of disruption, using tactical urbanism as an example, to a more strategic approach to disruption utilizing Professor Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. At that point, the concept which has been introduced more formally over the last three posts was still in the preliminary stages, still being formed and molded for the most part in forums directly dealing with disruptive innovation in the private free market economy. Such an approach when applied to the public sector would, however, be a part of what Della has termed an ecosystem or what I see as a systems based platform for a paradigm shift of both community and economy.
The next day, Della shared with me, Building and Connecting Communities for the Future in the Futurist magazine of the World Future Society, via another thinker on Twitter (a seemingly paradoxical idea for some) @SandyMaxey. For some reason though, despite trying to put not too negative of a spin on it, I had issues with the article. It has taken me this long to both come to grips with and to be able to state why, while at the same time putting forth a possible alternative, disruptive innovation.
The Futurist article asserts:
So economic developers will now need to expand their focus beyond creating jobs to building better places in which to live, work, play, and run a business. And it means developing their citizens into a Future Forward Workforce—i.e., agile workers who can take advantage of opportunities anywhere in the world without abandoning their communities, and who can move in and out of the three types of economies at will.
Undoubtedly, there is a need for change and those suggested directions are possible and viable, but there is no stated engine or source of momentum provided in the article for the transition to take place.
There is absolutely no argument with the proposition that the global economy, whether considered in totality or as an aggregate of local, regional and metropolitan economies of which it is comprised, has changed and that the traditional approach to economic development, and I would add community governance, no longer works for optimal benefit.
Also agree with the stages of economic transition from Industrial Age, to Knowledge Economy to Creative Molecular Economy and though some of their claims it could be argued are overstated, especially manufacturing, I don't have any disagreement with their elements defining a Creative Molecular Economy.
My primary disagreement is with the unstated or unexamined assumption that we can or will be able to passively transition from a materialistic economy into a transformational society, that this will be a matter of inevitable evolution rather than purposeful decisions. Disruptive innovation, admittedly, does not provide paint by numbers steps to implementation but it does provide an organizing principle and momentum.
The article does provide a possible framework for future deliberative democracy through a 'Mobile Networked Governance for the Creative Molecular Economy,' which could be an avenue through which community building ideas, sourced through the community, are nourished and brought to fruition but the article, at least implicitly, puts the community into a passive role.
Economic development professionals should not presume to develop their citizens into a “Future Forward Workforce” as if they were a passive commodity. Any redefinition of economic development through community building will have to involve the community, not as passive recipients but as active creators.
This is no longer a matter of economic development but a larger matter of community development in the most expansive sense of the term. This requires new systems or platforms for systems needing to be created but those now in power benefitting from existing system are not incentivized to change and those with the potential incentive don't have the power.
A call for reinventing economic development as a profession rings hollow if those called on to make the change have neither the controlling power over the existing system, this would be the often entrenched politicians, nor any real means of empowering those for whom and by whom the change should be made. Visionary leaders of this transition seem to arise out of the ether but in reality the current system will continue to regenerate itself and work to stop those that would change it unless enough momentum can be created to overcome this. That momentum cannot come from the economic development profession alone. It will require transformation of and by all social components, economic development, community development and all other sectors of the public sector and our means of community governance incorporating policy and politics.