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

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


You’ll probably be interested in this article if:

  • You think about developing and enabling the capacities and competencies of people to work differently on the most complex of challenges.
  • 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?

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

The action research was guided by two objectives:

What did we do?


  • To learn, discuss, practice, and teach new theories, frameworks and methods that support public sector innovation;
  • 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


  • (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

What’s Next — the Solutions Lab CoP in 2020

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

  • The partnership between the City and UBC for this work continues; we’re currently working on scaling this learning journey to a national scale through another SSHRC grant, where multiple local and Indigenous governments learn together, with a focus on climate, decolonization, and equity related work.
  • 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’ve opened up the CoP to include community partners working in policy domains of focus in order to build a stronger network of interconnected people and organizations learning and practicing together.
  • 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:




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.

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Lindsay Cole (she/her)

Lindsay Cole (she/her)

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.

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