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
This blog is part of a series that tells stories from the second iteration of the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab (SLab) 2.0, which ran from July 2018 — February 2020. This piece describes the design, delivery, outcomes, and learning from the first SLab Community of Practice (CoP), collaboratively created and delivered with the University of BC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs from February — December, 2019. This SLab 2.0 project was funded by a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant as well as in-kind support from the City of Vancouver.
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 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?
The Solutions Lab (SLab) is a public sector social innovation lab inside the City of Vancouver, Canada. SLab is inspired by, and aims to contribute to, the current proliferation of innovation units working in- and with- governments around the world. We began our efforts in 2016, and are now entering our third iteration. SLab brings people together in creative and experimental processes to seek transformative solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing Vancouver. We focus on five policy domains: City of Reconciliation, Equity, Healthy City, Greenest City, and Climate Emergency.
What is a Community of Practice?
Communities of practice are a way for groups to come together to share knowledge, build practice in their shared interest area, and implement new learnings that have been generated as a result of coming together. As a result of convening, members of CoPs tend to learn more quickly than if they were continuing to work in an isolated way. Together the group defines their Domain (practice area), Community (who is involved and at what level, and Practice (the kinds of practices they build together). A great resource to learn more about CoP’s is Beverley and Etienne Wenger-Traynor’s website. SLab has also taken inspiration from the Government of Chile’s Experimenta program focused on building innovation capacities and competencies, find out more here.
What problems did we hope the CoP might solve for SLab?
The creation of the SLab CoP responded to an important collection of insights that emerged from the developmental evaluation of our first SLab iteration. In SLab 1.0, we relied on external consultants working with a small internal SLab team to design and deliver co-creative lab experiences. By working in this way, we realised that the deepest and most impactful learning about designing, delivering, and evaluating these experiences was happening for a very small group of people, most of whom were external to the organization we were interested in changing. If we wanted to have a chance at transforming organizational culture and systems, this learning and experience needed to be cracked open and democratized, made available to others within the organization, and the core foundations and tools needed to be codified so that others could readily pick them up and use them again and again.
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:
1) How might we build the capacities, competencies and confidence in experimentation-as-learning practices within the City of Vancouver SLab?
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:
1) To design, test, evaluate and share the effectiveness of a new learning journey pedagogical approach that will provide public servants with the competencies, capacity and confidence to change workplace processes and culture in response to their rapidly changing contexts; and,
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?
We wanted to share the design of the CoP learning journey in some detail here, as this may be of interest to some fellow practitioners exploring these ideas. If you want to go straight to our learning and reflections, please skip ahead to the next section.
- 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.
SLab 2.0, and the CoP as well, focused our work in four policy domains:
- Greenest City Action Plan
- Healthy City Strategy
- City of Reconciliation
- Equity Strategy (in development)
This learning journey focused on building and practicing competencies in six areas: social innovation; strategic design; decolonization, equity and inclusion; and developmental evaluation. We drew from an eclectic collection of theories and techniques from a variety of fields to help guide participants’ learning at the individual, organizational and systemic levels. Please see the post about the SLab Theory of Change for more information about these influences.
We designed the nine month long learning journey for two types of participants, all of whom were City staff or staff working in arm’s length City-funded organizations (e.g. library). The Constellation group included a contact list of about 70 people, of which about ½ regularly attended. They came to the first 90 minutes of each session, where we focused on the “teaching” component.
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.
The CoP co-created a set of nine learning commitments that members agreed to during the course of their learning journey. These included commitments around welcoming ambiguity and experimentation, listening deeply and reflecting regularly, and using this time together to be courageous and ambitious, testing out new ways of learning and doing while developing unique forms of leadership.
Learning Journey Design
The sessions were generally organized in three parts: learn; dialogue and reflect; and practice. The Core and Constellation groups attended the Learn session together, which generally involved a theoretical context to the area competency. This content was delivered either by Lindsay or Moura or by an invited guest. After the Constellation group departed, the Core group held a 30 minutes dialogue and reflection session followed by “practice,” where they connected theory to actually doing and experiencing one of the techniques on their applied challenges. This practice time always included a delicious lunch, to honour our work and build connections with one another.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
We’re already well into our 2020 CoP, the Pandemic Edition. This iteration has kept many elements of the 2019 CoP prototype, and has also made a few changes.
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.
How often does a great partnership opportunity come our way? It’s often serendipitous — people coming together (Moura and Lindsay), a need from both of the partners (City of Vancouver’s Greenest City and Healthy City challenges and UBC Policy Studio’s desire to learn more and employ students), and a funding opportunity — in this case the federal government’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) granting program. For those of you who have never understood research granting — there are 3 Councils in Canada — one for social sciences and humanities, one for natural sciences and engineering and one for health. All of the Councils are getting into supporting partnership — partly because to solve the challenges we are encountering in the world, we need each other — diverse, intersectoral modes of thinking and solving. So we took advantage of a new and nimble grant — the Partnership Engage Grant (PEG) which provides $25,000 to the partnership to do good stuff. The key point is that the non-university partner — in this case the City of Vancouver — has to have an explicit need that can be satisfied (at least partly) by the university partner, UBC. Our successful proposal was titled: Scaling Social Innovation for the Green, Healthy City: Building a culture and practice of experimentation and learning in the City of Vancouver. I have worked with the City of Vancouver on and off throughout my career as a landscape architect and as an academic. This project gave me the wonderful opportunity of connecting again with committed and talented public servants who want to learn and improve their capacity to lead change. I hope that the City of Vancouver realizes their capacity and makes the needed investments for their success.
Three years ago I had not heard of communities of practice, but now I can attest to their potential to create change at the personal, organizational and systemic level. In addition to having a lot of fun creating and testing learning materials during the CoP sessions while building a repository of resources to support people’s learning, I find myself grateful for many things that have come from this experience. I am particularly appreciative of the opportunity to work in a way that stretches traditional power and hierarchy dynamics amongst colleagues and embraces the “non-neatness” of transformative learning journeys. By creating space for the CoP to change direction and evolve according to the participants’ needs, we remained nimble and welcoming of unexpected pathways to improving CoP-ers’ learning experiences. Working in this way has taught me to embrace the current and course of a complex challenge, staying open to where it might lead me rather than exerting energy trying to control or shape a process and its outcomes. Both SLab and this CoP have nurtured my own personal adaptive capacity, reminding me that I need to change as the circumstances around me and my work change.
As we’re writing this blog, I’m deep into coding and analysing the interview data from the 2019 CoP participants for my Ph.D. work. I’m struck by how, where, and why this leadership for innovation learning showed up. CoP members led “from the middle” of our organization, rather than from positional authority, and as such took some significant personal and professional risks in the work that they did in the CoP. Many had one foot firmly planted in community and the other in the public sector, and led in heart- and values-centered ways. They stepped into a complex understanding and practice of “innovation” based on the core competencies, and not based on buzz words, seeking novelty, looking for quick fixes or a simple tool-kit approach.
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.