Democratizing Expertise in Public Sector Innovation — Building a Community of Practice

Stories from the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab

Reflections from Moura Quayle, Lily Raphael and Lindsay Cole

The 2019 SLab Community of Practice Facilitation team (from L to R): Moura Quayle, Lindsay Cole, Sanmini Koffi and Lily Raphael


As the environment for municipal policy-making becomes more unpredictable, high-pressure and complex, local and regional governments face urgent and often intractable challenges such as housing affordability, climate change, declining trust in government, and growing inequity. The structures and culture of local governments were established for a different reality, 130+ years ago in the case of Vancouver when the colonial city began to be layered on top of Indigenous territories long blanketed by Western red cedar. In order to respond to this complexity, public servants need new competencies, capacities, and ways of working to help to make progress on these challenges and rebuild trust. The CoP was created in response to this call to action, as well as from the learning in SLab iteration 1.0. We had a hunch that if we remained focused on running short-term labs on complex challenges and cultivated a small “expert” innovation team, that the likelihood of the lab having durable, lasting, transformative change at the personal, organizational culture, and systems levels would be limited.

The CoP was designed to invert this idea of an expert team common in most public sector innovation labs. Instead the purpose of the CoP was to build social innovation leadership and expertise across our organization by supporting a network of City staff to build their capacities, competencies, leadership, and connections with one another. This community of practice model would also ensure that the intent of SLab would live on even if this specific manifestation of an innovation attempt was shut down, as many labs have experienced. A shared language, vision, ambition, and set of foundations and tools would connect people together in ongoing relationships, across departments and teams, so that this social innovation work would have impacts, and an afterlife, beyond the specific boundaries of what is called “Solutions Lab.”

This article talks about what a CoP is and what problem we hoped it might solve for SLab. We then share some details about our learning design for those who might like that deep dive. We close with sharing what we’re doing for our 2020 CoP, as well as reflections from each of the authors.

You’ll probably be interested in this article if:

  • You believe that organizational and systems change is deeply connected to, and contingent upon, personal transformation.
  • You design and deliver learning experiences for adults working collaboratively together to support one another’s development, and like learning about what other people have tried to do in this space.

Briefly — What is Vancouver’s Solutions Lab?

What is a Community of Practice?

Figure 1: Adapted from Wenger et al., 1998

What problems did we hope the CoP might solve for SLab?

Another problem that we hoped the CoP would help to solve was that of challenging existing mindsets and practices of skills building and development within the public sector. Much of the professional development on offer focuses on adding tools to people’s tool kits, helping them to do their existing jobs more effectively, an approach called horizontal development. This approach doesn’t consider that the public sector context is rapidly changing, and that we need our workforces to develop and not just skill up in response, an approach called vertical development. Our model of a CoP that was open to City staff at all levels, departments, and roles, and with a focus on personal development working alongside organizational culture and systems change in the face of growing complexity, was a departure from what was then on offer to most staff. The collaboration with the UBC School of Public Policy was critical here to add pedagogical, teaching and action research expertise, as well as to bring credibility and resources to something quite experimental.

We focused on three action research questions for the first prototype of our CoP:

2) How might we move away from a “instrumental” tool and technique orientation typical in public sector pro-d, to artful and conscious foundational framing that integrates innovation theory alongside decolonization and equity thinking, and then builds practice and application from this foundation?

3) How can we evaluate the impact of these learning-focused innovations in structures, processes, and culture on local government’s responses to complex health and environment challenges?

The action research was guided by two objectives:

2) To evaluate the contributions of the learning journey to a sustainable and effective CoP as a model for applied professional development in the public sector.

What did we do?


  • To generate, test, implement, and potentially scale meaningful and innovative solutions to some of the city’s most complex challenges; and
  • To build a creative, engaged, and joyful community of shared learning and practice with a cohort of City staff where we support each other’s personal and professional development.

Policy Domains

  • Greenest City Action Plan
  • Healthy City Strategy
  • City of Reconciliation
  • Equity Strategy (in development)

Core Competencies/Practices


The Core group included 18 people, and they brought complex challenges that they were actively working on into the CoP, and were applying their learning to that challenge to the CoP. This group committed to the full learning journey, which meant 4 hours of in-session time each month plus invitations to practice in between sessions.

Staff that participated had the following characteristics:

  • (Core) They had a highly complex challenge on their plate without a fixed solution, and they could really use some new frameworks, tools, and supports to help them come up with different and more innovative ways to approach it. Ideally they joined as a small team with 1–2 other people working on the same challenge.
  • They’re curious and open-minded, have a thirst for new knowledge that they can apply to their work, and like to challenge their habitual ways of thinking and working in order to grow.
  • They like learning in a supportive, dialogic, and diverse community, and they love to support others’ learning in this way as well.
  • They are a good listener, and know how to co-create safe and inclusive spaces.
  • They can commit to regularly attending the CoP learning sessions, and to regularly working on their creative question in between to apply their learning.

Learning Commitments

Learning Journey Design

In between sessions, Core members applied the theories, frameworks and methods learned in the half day sessions to their creative questions and prototypes, and also shared their learning and progress with colleagues on their work team. The CoP facilitation and support team were available for “office hours” in between sessions as needed to coach, curate resources and tools, give feedback, help navigate stuck situations, help with research, prototyping and user testing, and whatever other supports may be needed. We used Slack as a way of communicating among CoP members. We were fortunate to have the use of the City of Vancouver CityLab creative and public engagement space for our CoP sessions.

The program design inevitably changed in response to the directions that our CoP learning community wanted to take it. This is the outline of where we ended up in terms of the content of each session, including the in-session time and the invitations to practice in between.


In session:

Learn: Strategic Design + Public Sector Innovation Landscape

Dialogue + Reflection: Co-creating an inclusive and productive learning community

Practice + Peer Feedback: Honing in on your complex challenge

Invitations to practice (in between session work):

Build your design brief + refine your creative question


In session:

Learn: Social Innovation + Stories of empathy building practices

Dialogue + Reflection: Building empathy

Practice + Peer Feedback: Design brief feedback, observation + action research

Invitations to practice:

Gather data, collect insights using human-centred and action research methods


In session:

Learn: Decolonization, Inclusion and Equity + Systems Practice

Dialogue + Reflection: Decolonization, inclusion, equity and me

Practice + Peer Feedback: Building your systems map and identifying potential points to intervene

Invitations to practice:

Ongoing research, and making sense of research findings through systems mapping. User testing your systems map. Looking for points of leverage.


In session:

Learn: Leadership + Transformation, Self-in-System

Dialogue + Reflection: Retreat + reflect, mindfulness, co-presencing

Practice + Peer Feedback: Workshop design brief, research, and creative question. Who am I? What is my work?

Invitations to practice:

Prepare creative question canvas — point of convergence


In session:

Learn: Ideation + Creative Process

Dialogue + Reflection: Creativity and experimentation in the public sector

Practice + Peer Feedback: How to prioritize, rank, sort and evaluate ideas

Invitations to practice:

Further ideation; sorting, sifting and ranking ideas


In session:

Learn: Prototyping + Experimentation

Dialogue + Reflection: How to choose where and how to experiment in systems interventions

Practice + Peer Feedback: Build prototype concept 1.0; make workplan for remainder of CoP

Invitations to practice:

Prototype testing, refinement and iteration


Invitations to practice:

Prototype testing, refinement and iteration


In session:

Learn: Telling Stories of Transformative Change

Dialogue + Reflection: What am I testing? What am I learning? What is my next wise move?

Practice + Peer Feedback: Creating your story of your learning journey in the CoP

Invitations to practice:

Finishing up story of your complex challenge in the lab in an engaging way; developmental evaluation


In session:

Learn: Celebrate + Storytelling: invite larger City community and share stories of change from the CoP

Dialogue + Reflection: Personal, organizational culture + systems change; leading in times of change; evaluation

Practice + Peer Feedback: Embedding — what comes next for me and this work; what comes next for our CoP?

What’s Next — the Solutions Lab CoP in 2020

Some things that worked well that we’ve continued or scaled:

  • The set of foundations and tools that were built during the 2019 CoP, as well as through other SLab work, have been codified and made freely available as designed and descriptive resources.
  • We’ve refined our core competencies to these six areas: social innovation; strategic + systemic design; experimental governance; decolonization + equity; developmental evaluation; and transformative learning. Our work in learning and practicing the interconnections amongst these core competencies, and how they define what “innovation practice” means in our work, continues to deepen.
  • We remain focused on the same policy domains, however we’ve added Climate Emergency as a recent and related priority area in our city.

Some changes that we’ve made:

  • We split the Core and Constellation into two separate CoP’s, now called Nebula and Supernova. Nebula meets for 90 minutes each month, and cycles through three session types: stories from the field; learning foundations and tools; and case clinics. Nebula is imagined to continue in an ongoing way and build members over time, rather than having an annual cycle of renewal. Supernova meets for ½ day each month, and follows a similar learning journey to the Core team for 2019, although we’ve extended it to a 10 month experience, and are deepening the integration of decolonization and equity learning and practice in 2020.
  • With many of us now working remotely, we’ve shifted both CoP’s to online learning environments using a new (to many of us) suite of collaboration tools. While the magic factor of in-person sessions is impossible to fully re-create, we are continuously learning how to make our online sessions meaningful, interesting and an opportunity for processing and reflecting the intensity of what we are experiencing. We’re finding that we are able to offer an additional set of innovation practices to CoP members in the form of the online learning and engagement practices and tools that we are modeling and experimenting with.

Closing Reflections

From Moura:

From Lily:

From Lindsay:

As we finished SLab 1.0, and moved into iteration 2.0 where the CoP began, I’m emboldened by the important choice we made at that point to begin a new stream of work focused on building the innovation infrastructure, capacities, competencies and network in our organization. Innovation work requires personal transformation. It does not work if it is only focused outward on organizational or systems change. It is still difficult to explain what this work is about and what it’s outcomes are to an organization that tends to measure things in deliverables, policy reports, and quantitative targets being met. But the stories that the CoP members tell about the transformative nature of their applied learning experience speak volumes about the promise of this approach to bringing innovation learning and practice deeply into public sector organizations.

Finally, working with this team of talented women to design, curate, host, and facilitate this learning experience for others was also a learning-filled experience for me. Co-creating and holding an intentional, loving, and challenging space together was a real gift, the effects of which will ripple on in me for many years to come.

Vancouver’s Solutions Lab works in the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. Many generations of Indigenous Peoples have cared for the land, water, people and animals that call these territories home, and the SLab takes guidance and inspiration from this leadership.

Moura Quayle is the Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, Academic Affairs at the University of British Columbia (as of August 1, 2020). Prior to this appointment, Moura was the founding Director pro tem of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Moura’s interests lie in rethinking, refining and rebuilding collaborative spaces at the intersections of academia, government, business and civil society. Her teaching and research focus is on strategic design, designed leadership and an emerging Policy Studio that helps students and multi-sectoral organizations learn to use design processes and tools. Moura has been Deputy Minister of the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, B.C. Commissioner of Pacific Coast Collaborative, Dean of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, and Associate VP, Academic Programs at UBC Okanagan. Her book, Designed Leadership, was published by Columbia University Press in July 2017.

Lily Raphael is the Learning Designer + Storyteller for the Solutions Lab. She joined the Solutions Lab as a Healthy City Scholar in 2017, helping to prototype the Community of Practice and has stuck around ever since to support the Lab and CoP’s ongoing evolution. She designs learning materials for labs and CoP sessions, and supports session planning, delivery and evaluation. Committed to supporting community and planetary flourishing across various landscapes, contexts and scales, Lily is curious about the how of social change — from the ways in which we come together to make decisions and address complex challenges, to the ways in which we learn, deepen our capacities, and communicate knowledge. She holds a Masters in Community and Regional Planning from University of British Columbia.

Lindsay Cole is the founder and manager of the City of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, and a PhD candidate and Public Scholar at the University of British Columbia. She’s worked on a variety of exciting projects during her 10 years with the City, including leading the planning and public engagement process for the award-winning Greenest City Action Plan. Prior to joining the City, Lindsay co-founded and co-directed Sustainability Solutions Group, a workers cooperative consulting company doing climate change and sustainability work.

Lindsay Cole is the founder and manager of the City of Vancouver’s Solutions Lab, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia.