Return to Blog

Innovation, Risk, and the Public Sector

Tags: Forum for Civic Advancement Regional Partnerships

Sabrina Ragaller

National Public Radio recently ran a series on the groundbreaking work of Australian scientist Scott O’Neill, who has developed a process for genetically modifying mosquitoes to be resistant to dengue fever.  For two decades, O’Neill’s laboratory has spent hours upon hours painstakingly injecting mosquito eggs with the dengue-resistant bacteria. The success rate was often frustratingly low. Sometimes 18,000 carefully injected eggs resulted in….nothing.

As I marveled at O’Neill’s dedication and otherworldly patience, I was most struck by his willingness to invest 20 years in one big risk.

If Americans were asked to describe government in one word, I can guarantee virtually no one would say “innovative.”  Or adventurous, daring, creative, or entrepreneurial. Risk-taking simply does not belong in the realm of government.

Yet that is exactly the mindset Nigel Jacob, co-director of the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, is trying to change. Created by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the Office is an incubator – not of mosquito eggs, but of new and creative ideas that will change and improve how government operates.

When looking at the impressive list of the Office’s successes – apps that track school buses and interact with autistic children, collaborative walking tours, and GPS-improved city repairs – it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Office has also failed. I am confident that its success rate is much better than one in 18,000, but it is certainly less than 100%.

The point is, sometimes great success requires taking a risk. We expect risk-taking from our scientists, our business executives, our athletes, and our artists. But when it comes to our government, failure is not an option. Where does that leave the public sector when every other organization has the imperative (and freedom) to modernize, move forward, and innovate? In the mind of many civic innovators, leagues behind.

That’s why El Pomar’s Forum for Civic Advancement is hosting an event focused on innovation in the civic sector. With a speaker list including Nigel Jacob, Dace West of the Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships, and Colorado Springs’ very own Nick Kittle, head of the Office of Innovation and Sustainability, the evening will feature lively conversation on the role innovation should (and could) play in the public sector.

Interested in attending? Click here to RSVP.