Government in the 21st Century: An Innovation Launch Pad

by Apr 24, 2013Smart Cities

Lauren Sinreich

Lauren Sinreich is a writer and qualitative researcher focusing on sustainable development, community engagement, urbanism, and civic innovation. She works to better understand, communicate, and act on how we can improve our communities and environments. Lauren is also Co-founder of ArtHERE.org, a platform for crowdsourced revitalization through the matching of spaces and art.


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Innovation. Strategic risk. Efficiency. Opportunity. These aren’t typically words associated with government offices. They’re words used in the technology and start-up worlds. Yet, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation just released A Start-up Called Government, a retrospective of the innovations and partnerships it catalyzed in its first year in office, showing those words can and do apply to government.

The first office of its kind, the Office of Civic Innovation established itself as a leader in the nation, driving landmark open data initiatives and driving impact through citizen engagement. Chief Innovation Officer, Jay Nath, explained, “Historically persistent challenges in San Francisco could only be addressed with participation of our citizens and help from across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. That’s why we focus on creating a culture of sharing, collaboration, and co-creation to work with partners to improve the way government serves its constituents.”

Leveraging their collective experiences in the private sector, the Office of Civic Innovation engaged thousands of San Franciscans and launched game-changing platforms in their first year of operation for less than one percent of the total San Francisco City and County budget. The platforms they created acted as a launch pad for partners and companies that capitalized on the opening up of public datasets. Companies like Appalicious and Motionloft, who used public open data to launch new services, are now creating new business models with these resources, showing how public-private partnerships can result in innovation and new opportunities.

The open data and citizen engagement initiatives of the Office of Civic Innovation detailed in the retrospective were built on principles much like those of a new tech start-up:

  • The Platform Play: Invest in innovations that serve as platforms from which other innovations can launch.
  • Leverage and learn from their network: Strengthen existing relationships and cultivate partnerships to support initiatives and expand capacity.
  • Iterate forward: Make small bets, take calculated risks, and create minimum viable products.


These fundamental principles will continue to drive further innovation in 2013 and set the tone for government in the 21st century. The successes of their first year in operation have won credibility in their innovative approach, which has, in turn, created new opportunities to expand their efforts to help companies and individuals stay competitive and have access to the resources they need to live and work in San Francisco. As Peter Hirschberg, Chairman of GAFFTA, said, “The Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation truly serves as the connective tissue between San Francisco’s ecosystem of innovation and its government, bringing the most current and innovative thinking and new approaches to urban communities.”

Most importantly, they showed that this old dog we call government can learn new tricks – and according to the retrospective, it’s ready for more. In 2013, in addition to building on existing engagement and open data initiatives, the Office of Civic Innovation will focus on:

  • Real-world demonstration of innovation in designated geographic zones and City assets, like the new clean tech and smart city solutions piloting this year.
  • Improving entrepreneurs’ path to deployment and scale through Business One-Stop and the Civic Marketplace.
  • Driving a culture of innovation to streamline the work being done and stake strategic risks throughout government departments.

In 2013, the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation is growing its innovation portfolio built on the underlying principles of open government, economic development, continued engagement, urban revitalization, and smart city technologies. And it wants your help. A Start-Up Called Government is not only an account of its first year in office, it’s a glimpse at the future of government and an open invitation to companies, communities, and individuals to work with them to create “government  that thinks and acts like a startup: scrappy, hungry, lean, and full of world-changing ideas.”

Can your business help the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation disrupt the status-quo? It just might help you do the same.

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