I chaired a panel session at OK Festival in Helsinki in September on the theme of reuse of digital public innovation. Below is a reflection on the discussion.
We are experiencing a wave of change across city halls in Europe and beyond as a host of new digital civic services are being created, many built on newly released open data, frequently through collaborations with disruptive technologists, some directly with citizens. This is increasingly accompanied with a willingness to share practice, to find platforms and networks to tell others about these trials in a welcome move towards more openness between cities. That said, it would seem that those running our cities are much better at opening up their own inventions for others to imitate than they are at copying innovation from elsewhere. As Philip Ashlock, US Presidential Innovation Fellow, commented at OK Festival, cities are more likely to share than to borrow.
Herein lies a problem of supply and demand. Whilst the application of open source principles to sharing practice between city halls is a trend to celebrate, it’s not a simple case of ‘if it’s open, they will come’.
Why is this?
We know that some of the greatest innovations are iterations of earlier versions created by others. The iPod was not the first digital music player; Apple imitated others’ products but made them more appealing. The copycats often end up as the winners, benefitting from lower development costs and less risk as the innovation has already been market tested.
And in fact as human beings we are programmed to copy. Thinker and author Mark Earls identifies that much of our success as a species stems from the unoriginal, describing us as ‘homo mimicus’. To borrow unashamedly from the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde:
‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’
This despite the fact that we live in a world where originality and first mover advantage is celebrated and competition is a governing force for how we relate to one another. It is the problem expressed by F S Michaels in Monoculture in which she describes the power of a dominant culture which becomes so engrained as the only reasonable reality and which directs our actions without us knowing much about it. The twenty first century ‘monoculture’ is economic and competitive behaviour plays a key role.
There are, however, examples of good practice which succeed at encouraging cities to get beyond the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Code for America Commons is a marketplace for digital city applications, supported by the movement which Code for America has created in the US to connect technologists and civic leaders, and which has been a key resource in showcasing innovations and providing a ‘menu’ for cities in devising their own digital solutions. ENoLL – the European Network of Living Labs – brings together over 300 labs from across the continent to share practice in their work involving experimentation with user driven innovation. At Nesta, we have encouraged cities to publish their priorities for innovation through our Creative Councils programme and the authorities we have worked with have come together to share, to suggest and to build on experience of peers.
There are several lessons that these examples tell us. One is that it’s important to provide safe spaces for sharing practice which break down preconceptions and encourage those running our cities to see similarities in their day-to-day work. Nesta’s Creative Councils programme brings teams from different cities together for two day camps – open workshops in which peers support each other in implementing radical innovations in their city. The Code for America Commons, likewise, creates a space for conversation and is explicit about its goals to spread practice.
Second is the obvious point that it’s not just local authorities who decide how our cities are run. Citizens shape demand and there are a host of providers actively listening to what city dwellers are asking for. City halls are wise to keep up with what services are proving popular elsewhere and may find they are being asked, ‘why don’t we have one of those?’ The spread of bicycle hire schemes across European cities may be in part explained by cities seeking to keep up the offer to their citizens.
A third but strangely often overlooked point is that evidence of real impact can make the case for imitation a no-brainer. In a time of limited resource, there is a need to spend whatever money is available on the best, most successful approaches. If there’s proof that a pilot or prototype service is delivering on a small scale in one city, just think what it could do for you. Nesta’s Alliance for Useful Evidence is championing the use of and demand for evidence that is rigorous, accessible and appropriate.
Finally – and back to F S Michaels’ analysis of dominant cultures – ego often still rules. Those leading our city halls may still need to be convinced that being a world class city means borrowing from elsewhere. The business case, proof of demand and space for sharing with peers needs to be accompanied by messages that you just aren’t in the same league unless you have opened up your data, created a Living Lab, crowd sourced spending decisions. Should we create a high profile award for city majors and leaders who are the best at imitating excellence?
Nesta is leading a campaign with partners in six European cities to encourage more sharing of digital public service and to understand more about the benefits and incentives to borrow from practice elsewhere.
 Wilde, O (1905) De Profundis
 Michaels, F S (2011) Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything