Transformation + Emergence in Public Sector Innovation

Lindsay Cole (she/her)
13 min readNov 11, 2020

Public sector innovation practitioners need to think much more about what to cultivate within ourselves, and what to nurture around us, in order to create stronger leadership and enabling conditions for transformative and emergent innovation.

Image by Maggie Low


This article follows a powerful research question about the transformative potential of Public Sector Innovation Labs (PSI labs), which comes from my Ph.D. research as well as my work with the City of Vancouver Solutions Lab (SLab). This research question is a mouthful: How might we systemically intervene in complex public sector challenges to create stronger leadership and enabling conditions for transformative and emergent innovation?

I went down this path because I think that innovations that truly get at the root causes of complex public sector challenges must necessarily look beyond the dominant paradigms and structures that created them. This is the space of transformation and emergence, not simply a space of change. Working on transformative and emergent innovation is often slippery and hard to describe, and has poor measures to tell us when we are ‘there.’ And to be frank, when we’re working on systemic interventions that challenge the dominant systems, structures, and narratives there will be push back, and practitioners need to be ready to navigate that. I think that public sector innovation (PSI) practitioners need to think much more about what to cultivate within ourselves, and what to nurture around us, in order to create stronger leadership and enabling conditions for transformative and emergent innovation.

I followed this line of inquiry by asking my ~90 co-researchers about leadership and enabling conditions for PSI, reviewing some of the practice-based and academic literature on these ideas, and by experimenting in my own practice. I’ll first describe some key differences between what change, transformation, and emergence mean, and why it is important to differentiate between these ideas when doing innovation work. Then I’ll share what my co-researchers had to say about leadership and enabling conditions, shaped as nine patterns of systemic interventions for transformative and emergent PSI. Next, I’ll describe some dominant narratives about leadership and enabling conditions for PSI that I think we need to pull apart and examine more closely to see how this might be limiting our thinking about what feels (im)possible. I’ll then share some theories and frameworks that might aid and expand our thinking and practice when it comes to transformative and emergent innovation. I’ll conclude with a few questions and thoughts about how practitioners and action researchers might continue cultivating some of these ideas. This article draws from many different thinkers in addition to my community of co-researchers, and I’ve done my best to source some of them without turning this into a literature review. If you’re interested in more detailed sources for any of these ideas please be in touch.

You might be interested in this article if…

  • You are working in public sector or multi-stakeholder innovation efforts, and would like more/different ways to think systemically about increasing the impacts of your work
  • You regularly interact with theories and frameworks describing change and transformation and feel some potency around them, with this potency feeling something like ‘overwhelm’, ‘excitement’, or somewhere in between
  • You’re interested in how Ph.D. action research into public sector innovation labs is being turned into useful thinking for practice, while this thinking is in process (meaning — you enjoy a little messiness!)
  • You know that there aren’t any shortcuts in this kind of work, and you like to stay engaged with the deeper thinking and feelings of non-resolution required for taking ongoing wise action over the long term

Change, Transformation, and Emergence

This collection of terms is used fairly regularly when talking about innovation — in the public sector, and elsewhere. Each has a different meaning, with a different ambition, that can provide an interesting and useful view into what it is that an innovation effort might be trying to do, and how it might work toward that ambition. This section draws on work from Benyamin Lichtenstein, as well as from some of the frameworks shared later in the article.

But first, an important note about levels and scale. Please pay attention to how/if personal, organizational culture, and systems levels and scales are at work in how we think about innovation. Many of the definitions and frameworks that innovators use tend to focus on organizational and systems level change, and omit the personal/individual level of transformation. It’s my view that innovation needs to work at all three levels, and to think about how the levels may amplify or get in the way of one another. It is interesting to think about if- and how the different terms and frameworks shared throughout this article may or may not apply at these three levels, so I’d encourage you to stay attuned to that as you keep reading, and I’ve tried to give you a few prompts and reminders about this along the way.

Change happens through incremental adaptations. The foundations of the current system remain unquestioned and unchanged, and the focus is on making things work better through small improvements. Change looks like horizontal development at the personal level, and efficiency-type improvements at the organizational and systems levels. This can be a good goal in many situations, however, for the rest of this article I’ll focus on transformation and emergence because we think about and work these ideas much less frequently, and I think that they are important ambitions for public sector innovation efforts.

Transformation is a more significant shift in people, structures, processes and systems. It is often triggered by a growing problem, challenge, or crisis, and this pressure is what is required in order to shift or dislodge a stable or stuck approach into a different state. At the personal level, this looks like moving up a stage in vertical development or integral theory, and may mean reframing goals, roles, or structure of an organization or system.

Both change and transformation modify, respond to, and/or adapt existing elements, processes, structures, behaviours and routines. They are path dependent, meaning that the change or transformation is dependent on the history of what has come before, as well as on whatever it was that triggered it. The result of the change or transformation is predetermined by the existing state of the person, organization, or system.

Emergence is a distinct and fundamentally different process. Emergence is a dissimilarity (rather than a difference), where the parameters themselves change, rather than the variation of existing parameters that happens with change or transformation. Emergence is creation sparked by aspiration, the ‘becoming’ of a vision for a new/resurgent opportunity that was not there, not seen, or perhaps oppressed before. Because it is catalysed by aspiration rather than crisis, emergence invokes an entirely different set of behaviours, and holds a positive affect focused on creatively imagining and generating possible futures. Emergence tends to vastly expand the potential, capacity, and capability of people, organizations and systems to work on the challenges that they face.

Signals from the Data

When I interviewed my co-researchers about leadership and enabling conditions for innovation, nine interrelated patterns emerged from the data. Each pattern holds a core mindset or paradigm about what transformative/emergent innovation might be, and a pair of ideas that we concurrently move away from and move toward. While it is important to hold these patterns lightly and consider them as interesting signals, it also surfaces how ‘innovation’ can become a way to mask or hide hard-to-face truths about how current systems are failing us in many ways.

The aim of these patterns is to point to both generality as well as nuanced specificity. Generality in that these patterns are relevant for those working toward transformative and emergent innovation, at personal, organizational and systems levels, on a variety of different topics (e.g. housing, climate, racism) and also a variety of innovation types (e.g. service improvements, policy change). Nuanced specificity in that these patterns try to move beyond dominant narratives about PSI, and get right to the heart of what is stuck when it comes to transformative and emergent innovation, and to identify promising systemic intervention points that might help to shift these stuck patterns into something more generative.

The first column shares paradigms and mindsets that might be held within a transformative and emergent approach to innovation. The second column names a pattern to move away from, and gives an example of what this pattern looks like in practice. The third column describes what we concurrently move toward, again with an example. This is a map of possible routes, not a designated trail with a clear end point.

Nine patterns of transformative and emergent innovation

Dominant narratives about enabling conditions

Let’s now connect these patterns with some dominant narratives held by researchers and practitioners about enabling conditions for innovation. Remember to think about the differences between change, transformation, and emergence, as well as the personal, organizational culture, and systems scales as we go. Joan Munro (2015) named five enabling conditions that generally capture the dominant narrative about what leadership and enabling conditions for PSI look like. Her work comes from a study of 34 local authorities, mostly in the UK. These enabling conditions are: (1) agreement on a clear strategic direction and innovation priorities; (2) leadership for innovation at senior leadership level; (3) foster an organizational culture that encourages innovation, with risk management of particular importance; (4) devote sufficient time and resources; and (5) build effective intra- and inter-organizational collaboration on major innovations.

Does this sound familiar and connect — generally — with your experiences? I think that it does a good job of capturing dominant thinking about leadership and enabling conditions, although there is a great deal of nuance and detail that can be explored further from other researchers and practitioners.

Here is the point I’d like to make on this though. I think that there are important, relevant, and helpful ideas about enabling conditions for innovation from these dominant narratives. AND — at the same time, many of these narratives consider certain constructs as unchanging realities and thus, in my view, limit a more expansive exploration of leadership and enabling conditions. If we’re in this work because we’re interested in catalysing transformative and emergent innovation, then we need to look closely at these seemingly fixed constructs and look for opportunities there, otherwise we’ll likely end up in the ‘change’ space. From my experience and perspective, here are three examples of these types of limiting constructs.

  • The existing colonial systems of governance, and existing systems and structures of power, privilege and access, are unchangeable. Although some innovation efforts are concerned with democracy, engagement, and/or equity, most take as a given that current governance structures and paradigms are fixed. In Canada, where I do most of my work, our colonial governments are actually very young and there are a wide variety of much older Indigenous systems of governance based on very different values and ideas. It’s important to think deeply about why many of us who identify as public sector innovators view the existing dominant system of governance as being fixed, and to also think about who benefits from maintaining and protecting these constructs.
  • Innovation leadership exists in people with positional authority. Leadership in the public sector is most commonly understood to be top-down and hierarchical, with ‘leaders’ being those that hold positional authority. It follows that people with this positional authority must be actively engaged in an innovation effort in order for it to have any chance at succeeding. Lots of descriptors are used for how these innovation leaders need to behave, including agile, adaptive, courageous, humble, creative, risk-tolerant, charismatic, bold, and many more. There is some truth to this understanding and description of leadership, however it’s unnecessarily limiting when thinking about systemic leverage points for transformation and emergence. Many of the people that I interviewed in my research were people without significant positional authority, and they exhibited extraordinary leadership that took a variety of forms. Conversely, many of the people that I spoke with who held positional authority described feeling constrained in their ability to lead and create enabling conditions for innovation. They also tended to be much more committed to work within the dominant system, and understand their personal success as achieving more positional and other power within this system. So how else might we conceive of leadership for transformation and emergence in the public sector to open up more possibilities? And then how might we identify, support, and cultivate it?
  • Innovation is catalysed by increasing pressures on governments to respond to acute challenges, as well as by rapidly changing conditions and contexts. Examples include climate change and growing inequity, and rapidly changing conditions like surging digital and technological change. Or, say, a pandemic. Although these can sometimes create enabling conditions for innovation, they can also have the opposite effect and lead governments to double down on current, stable, and known ways of working that result in predictable outcomes, particularly when there are fiscal or public pressures that protect the status quo. According to the definitions of change, transformation and emergence, this dominant narrative won’t lead to emergence, as it is reacting to what already exists rather than arising from a different source of inspiration. It’s possible that these pressures might lead to change or transformation, but it is not a guarantee. What then are some other ways to spark and catalyse innovation that don’t rely on these types of pressures?

These are only three examples of how dominant narratives about leadership and enabling conditions for PSI might be limiting our thinking about leverage points for systemic change. Hopefully they help to illustrate the concurrent moving away from and moving toward described in the last section. What are some other dominant paradigms that you have experienced, or regularly guide how you approach your work? What are some of the things that appear to be unchangeable, yet if we could think about reframing them might unlock entirely new possibilities for thinking about what PSI might be? What dominant narratives do we rely on that offer some partial truths, and at the same time are more nuanced than we tend to treat them? Who benefits from reinforcing these dominant narratives about innovation in the public sector? Can the nine patterns shared earlier offer some other ways to think about reframing dominant narratives about enabling conditions?

Adding another layer: theories and frameworks about transformation and emergence

In my own work I’ve been drawn to certain theories, frameworks and practices to help me to understand what I’m trying to do. How do I design an experimental process? What are some ways that I might think about building capacities and competencies in public sector innovation? What is a technique that I might use to work on a particular dimension of a challenge? Many co-researchers take a similar path, with some generating their own curriculum, tool kits, and field guides to codify their practice, and to share this with others.

When we look to theories and frameworks that relate to transformation and emergence, systemic interventions, and working with complex challenges, there is a relatively wide field of thinkers, theories, approaches, and practices that practitioners draw from. These don’t always make it into the tool kits, and I think that there is an opportunity to explore what this set of theories and frameworks, and more particularly what the plurality of ideas in this field might tell us about our shared work. How might we harness this nuanced divergence for higher impact PSI approaches? How might these different theories and frameworks help us see a broader field of possible ways to think about and work on systemic interventions for transformation and emergence? If we look at the nine patterns shared earlier through the different lenses that these theories and frameworks offer, what other possibilities can we see?

I’ve gathered some of the theories, frameworks, and techniques that I and my co-researchers go to when we’re trying to understand and work on systemic interventions, transformation, emergence, and complexity. Fear not! I’m not going to go through each of these here, but I’ve grouped them into four types and provided links to a resource for each of them if you’d like to explore them more fully. I’d encourage you to check out a few that you don’t already know to start to get a sense of what this plurality might offer, and where there are areas of convergence and divergence.

Theories and models

Stability landscapes, multi-level perspective (and bonus content about rock ‘n roll), Cynefin framework, leadership of emergence, actor system dynamics, transformative learning, integral theory, horizontal and vertical development


OPSI facets of innovation, portfolio approaches, two loops, three horizons, adaptive cycle

Process archetypes

Theory U, social innovation, strategic design, systemic design


Points of leverage (and the dancing version), iceberg model, fractals, systems mapping + feedback loops, architectural model

In closing

What does this collection of definitions, patterns, dominant paradigms, theories and frameworks provoke for you? In addition to the many questions that I’ve asked throughout the article, I’m left with one really big curiousity. Can we imagine what emergent innovation might look and feel like, how it might behave, what it’s source and spark might be, and how we might midwife its arrival and help it to grow? I can see the seeds and sprouts of transformation all around, but emergence is harder for me to spot in the public sector innovation context. I’m excited about the potential that public sector innovators hold — in our roles, responsibilities, permissions, and power as well as our hearts, minds and ambitions. So let’s commit to do the very best that we can with the opportunities that we’re given, and try to not fall into the trap that the dominant narratives about change, leadership, and enabling conditions set for us. I hope that this plurality of ideas provokes some interesting thinking for you, and if so I’d love to hear about it. Let’s continue to hold this potential together, and to nurture and support the conditions for transformation and emergence in ourselves and each other.


This work is inspired by the land + sea + kin that I am privileged to live with as an uninvited settler on the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations, and the swiya of the self-governing shíshálh Nation.

Many thanks to Olive Dempsey, Derek Masselink, Moura Quayle, and Sean Blenkinsop for helping me wrestle with these ideas, and to the co-researchers who are building the foundations for this work by sharing their thinking and experiences with me.



Lindsay Cole (she/her)

Lindsay Cole is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, exploring transformative public innovation at Emily Carr University and UBC.