A few months ago I received a press inquiry from James Pethokoukis of US News & World Report. He wrote:
I am currently writing a story on innovation for US News & World Report, and I trying to cast a wide net for ideas and insights. Let me ask you this: If you were appointed America’s Innovation Czar (no idea what such a gig would pay), what three things — include more if you wish — would you recommend that government do to foster innovation or make our economy and/or government more innovative? I am trying to get beyond “push kids to study science more” or “cut capital gains taxes.” Any insights would be most appreciated!
It’s kind of a crazy question, but what the heck. I sent in a long answer, but I guess it never made it into the piece. Anyway, I’ll share it with you all here…
If I was given this prestigious new position, I would do a few things. I would demystify the sense of innovation by encouraging problem solving in small areas. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle (as do many other newspapers) runs a regular section called Chronicle Watch. In it they present reader-reported problems typically in public space. A misleading sign, a broken curb, construction materials left behind, a trip hazard, rotting stairways, littered highways, and so on. They also publicize the agency and individual responsible. When fixes are made, they publish their results, or when fixes are delayed, they update the status. The fixes themselves are not innovations. Repairing a curb, fixing a handrail, posting a sign – these are solutions we’ve long since known how to create. The problem is why these situations recur and are so challenging to address. The Chronicle is an attempt, at least, at an innovation in process. Cutting through bureaucracy where possible, although sometimes their failures highlight the difficulty of doing that. My point here is that there is a great deal of small improvement to be done; sanding off the rough edges of the things we touch every day. It won’t create a new Internet or iPod to do this, but solving these small problems (that are hard to solve) will improve the underlying fabric of everyday life. Buckminster Fuller spoke of the “trimtab” – the small change that has a big effect; perhaps finding ways to address this sort of thing would qualify.
I would introduce empathy processes into government, especially departments that interact with the public or with businesses. Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis (say, once per year). DMV clerks who stand in line (as the obvious example) will have an opportunity to see what the “other half” experiences.
The neat trick with empathy is that it leads to understanding, and then leads to problem solving. Seeing what the tax filing process is like from the perspective of someone else begins to suggest how it might be improved. There are lots of examples of this in business, many that go even further such as the elder-suits that car designers wear to restrict their mobility, sight, and so on. Since they can already drive a car, there’s little empathy (or problem solving) created until they more accurately simulate the conditions of their “users.”
A goal would be for the government to develop a set of best practices for user-centered-design – where design is making anything that gets used or experienced by someone else, apply those as broadly as possible throughout government, and then help businesses adopt more of these into their own practices. The thrust being to get people out of their own environments and their own mindsets, into the moccasins of those who are they are trying to serve. Creating empathy, understanding, and problem solving.
That would remake life in our culture, and if that isn’t an innovation, I don’t know what is!