Author: Lauren Deaderick, Graduate Student USC, Sol Price School of Public Policy

Cities across the world are increasingly investing in innovation, seen largely in the creation of and work done by Offices of Innovation (or similar name). Civic innovation is a phrase that generates a lot of buzz and excitement, but what does this concept really mean? Civic innovation goes beyond governments adopting new technologies to provide “cool” or trendy applications. To start examining the true meaning, let’s look at the dictionary’s definition of the two components of civic innovation:

  • Civic: of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship or community affairs
  • Innovation: the introduction of something new; a new idea, method or device

By simply combining those definitions, we can say broadly that civic innovation means, “a new idea, method or device that improves a city’s operation and/or the lives of its citizens.”  Even more generally, the civic innovation field can be summarized to include any person or organization “applying new solutions to improve public problems.” In words civic innovation may appear simple, yet in practice it is complex. In practice, it requires many factors, such as an engaged local citizenry, critical problem solving, collaboration across sectors, public resource investment, and dedication as incremental institutional changes are realized.

Most current discussions and definitions of civic innovation focus on the “innovation” (particularly technological) aspect rather than the “civic” portion. However, civic innovation (more specifically and recently referred to as civic tech or govtech) is much more than local governments harnessing and incorporating new technology. Civic innovation is driven by individuals who are motivated to change the current system and looking for ways to make a societal improvement. By ignoring the “civic” side of civic innovation, the fundamental purpose for civic innovation to exist is lost. Civic innovation’s main benefit is that it primarily enhances citizens’ connectivity to their government and having a say in how and where improvements in quality of life happen. It provides an opportunity not only for those working in government, but also those individuals or organizations outside of government to evaluate and re-imagine government processes and services in order to improve everyday lives. With increased civic engagement and empowerment, governments can be more accountable and responsive to public concerns.  Civic innovations assist governments in its decision-making process as public input and data can be gathered more efficiently and effectively.

The growth in and importance of civic innovation can be seen in urban mobility projects. From smart phone applications to report potholes to providing real-time public transit data maps, civic innovations have allowed the public to engage with the urban transportation system and notify their government officials about priorities like never before. Local governments now have more reliable data to incorporate into their transportation decision-making processes. Providing easy and accessible traveler information, such as with CivicConnect’s trip planning tool in Fort Lauderdale, improves resident and visitor experience.

As investment in civic innovation initiatives continue to grow and civic entrepreneurs continue to emerge, it is important to emphasize and re-focus on not only the efficiency gains, but also the quality of life improvements offered through these innovations.