Transformation + Emergence in Public Sector Innovation

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?

  • 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.

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.

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.

  • 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?

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.

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.

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.