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Open innovation in the public sector

The demand for more open participatory models entails the creation of more digitized, transparent, horizontal and open spaces in the public sector, but also the empowerment of all social agents. Español Português

Libby Levi/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive - is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

Our institutions shine with a brightness similar to that of the constellations which, astronomers tell us, have been dead for a long time.

-Michel Serres, Petite Poucette

Michel Serres has so smartly brushed the dust off the word "intelligent" that it is hard not to invoke his rhetoric in any serious reflection on open innovation and democracy. Facing the digital age, the French philosopher says in his book Petite Poucette, are we not ourselves doomed to becoming intelligent?

Overwhelming, but undoubtedly original, this question challenges us in many ways. Essentially, it puts us directly before our ability to invent, to create other realities from a new "cognitive subjectivity" - to change the world in which we live. As Serres explains, this subjectivity arises from the extraordinary scientific and technological development of the last decades, which has freed us, definitively, from a vast number of intellectual procedures that digital technologies and computers can now do for us.

From this perspective, leaving aside the "smartsizing" of concepts and artifacts, we should approach the paradigm of open innovation in the public sector as a source of value and political capital. Today, the demand for more democratic and open participatory models does not stem from the executive and administrative insufficiency of the old representative systems, but comes from the collective culture and consciousness which increasingly calls for strong response mechanisms to the urgent challenges we are facing - many of them related to the survival of humans on this planet.

The list of all the challenges in a community or a city – be it small or big - is a list of well-defined interconnected sociopolitical challenges. In a recent article, Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí explains this phenomenon from the point of view of "rights" instead of "digital services", and this is an important point to note, for it counterbalances the excesses made in valuing technology at state level. There is always conflict in the public sphere, for it is here that tense social, political, economic and cultural relations coincide; new institutions that can form an active and dynamic body and shift the decision center towards open, transparent, digitized and horizontal environments, offer the possibility of softening and overcoming them.

The open innovation paradigm, as we shall see, can contribute considerably to overcoming this challenge. Taking political momentum as a foothold and a transformation vector, it can help the coming into existence of more structured scenarios, increase the public value of distributed networks, feed on processes of collective creation, and be sustainable in a material context defined by democratic and innovative devices. The following review of some of the experiences which we have analyzed and a summary of the most relevant connectors emerging from an investigation undertaken by the PuntoGov Foundation will allow us to corner the phenomenon.

Learning from others’ experience

True citizen expansion implies enriching the elements that lead to a rational synthesis generated by both technical and non-technical knowledge. For instance, the Brazilian platform CidadeDemocrática is an example of collective participation that takes advantage of the network and turns citizen demands into primary sources of information and solution to problems.

Another model worth mentioning is that of La Colaboradora in the city government of Zaragoza, Spain: a physical space of collective intelligence where a collaborative community of technicians, designers, creators and entrepreneurs creates projects for social challenges which are defined in a collaborative way. Run on the basis of a peer-to-peer, sharing philosophy and human contact, they are making truly significant progress.

Another experience in deliberative democracy is that of the Citizen Trials in Uruguay, the only country in Latin America that has so far managed to implement the "consensus conferences" designed and created by the Danish Committee for Technology, an independent parliamentary advisory body. This deliberative process, which deals with sensitive and controversial issues such as mining and nuclear energy, has produced a method for collective decision-making and conflict resolution that involves assumptions and premises quite opposed to the liberal-elitist and Republican ones.

From the perspective of innovation in public administrations which are open to and aim at the establishment of consensus, the feasibility of common-interest projects requires not only specific routines, but also political leadership – a type of leadership that is quite different from the traditional one existing in hierarchical and vertical structures. The first task to be undertaken here is not only to increase the number of social actors and the diversity of informants on a particular problem, but also to ensure the sustainability of the projects that emerge, since most of the initiatives developed in innovation environments are conditioned by their organizational context - that is, by a context defined by political dynamics.

Ten innovation connectors

How can innovation contribute to building an open democracy? The answer is summed up in these ten connectors of innovation.

  1. placing innovation and collective intelligence at the center of public management strategies,
  2. aligning all government areas with clearly-defined goals on associative platforms,
  3. shifting the frontiers of knowledge and action from the institutions to public deliberation on local challenges,
  4. establishing leadership roles, in a language that everyone can easily understand, to organize and plan the wealth of information coming out of citizens’ ideas and to engage those involved in the sustainability of the projects,
  5. mapping the ecosystem and establishing dynamic relations with internal and, particularly, external agents: the citizens,
  6. systematizing the accumulation of information and the creative processes, while communicating progress and giving feedback to the whole community,
  7. preparing society as a whole to experience a new form of governance of the common good,
  8. cooperating with universities, research centers and entrepreneurs in establishing reward mechanisms,
  9. aligning people, technologies, institutions and the narrative with the new urban habits, especially those related to environmental sustainability and public services,
  10. creating education and training programs in tune with the new skills of the 21st century,
  11. building incubation spaces for startups responding to local challenges,
  12. inviting venture capital to generate a satisfactory mix of open innovation, inclusive development policies and local productivity.

Two items in this list are probably the determining factors of any effective innovation process. The first has to do with the correct decision on the mechanisms through which we have pushed the boundaries outwards, so as to bring citizen ideas into the design and co-creation of solutions. This is not an easy task, because it requires a shared organizational mentality on previously non-existent patterns of cooperation, which must now be sustained through dialog and operational dynamics aimed at solving problems defined by external actors - not just any problem.

Another key aspect of the process, related to the breaking down of the institutional barriers that surround and condition action frameworks, is the revaluation of a central figure that we have not yet mentioned here: the policy makers. They are not exactly political leaders or public officials. They are not innovators either. They are the ones within Public Administration who possess highly valuable management skills and knowledge, but who are constantly colliding against the glittering institutional constellations that no longer work.

In short, they are the people who manage innovation, not technological fads. And these people are quite different from innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and other innovation agents. Innovation management does not seek innovation. It seeks to make organizations innovate and to help the different actors’ and citizens’ power and influence in the programmatic definition of common good projects find their balance.  The open innovation paradigm in Public Administration, like any paradigm, cracks the walls of the old bureaucracy and puts in check the autocratic paradigm we all know too well. It is for this very reason that the difficult task of putting into practice the reinvention of institutions gets delayed, in the midst of tensions and resistance, for it implies the distribution of power and decisions to frameworks of legitimacy and collective consensus. But it is worth trying because, since we are doomed to becoming intelligent, this offers us a historic opportunity to avoid highly worrying future scenarios and civilization patterns.

The challenge consists, after all, in setting governments up to the standards of modern digital culture: a new way of feeling, describing and perceiving the world.

About the author

Sabrina Díaz Rato es una periodista argentina, presidenta de la Fundación PuntoGov, entidad civil dedicada a proyectos TIC para el cambio social. Es consultora externa en el Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID) y miembro del Comité de Mujeres Líderes de las Américas. Investiga y escribe sobre Internet y Política, Innovación Social, Cultura Digital, Gobierno Abierto, Participación Ciudadana y TIC para el Desarrollo en América latina.

Sabrina Díaz Rato is an Argentine journalist, president of the PuntoGov Foundation, a civil entity devoted to ICT projects for social change. She is an external consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and a member of the Women Leaders' Committee of the Americas. She does research on Internet and politics, social innovation, digital culture, open government, citizen participation and ICT for development in Latin America.


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