Transformation + Emergence in Public Sector Innovation

Image by Maggie Low


  • 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

Signals from the Data

Nine patterns of transformative and emergent innovation

Dominant narratives about enabling conditions

  • 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?

Adding another layer: theories and frameworks about transformation and emergence

In closing





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.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Brave the Future: How to embrace the beauty of change in your life and career

2 Lessons From Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad That Can Make You Rich Even at Your 9–5


we see the future, we are the future.

When is the best time to hire your Chief of Staff?

Can I find my dream job in the midst of a pandemic?

Author Spotlight: Ali Divan

How To Cope Remoteness When Working From Home

Albert Einstein famously asked the question; “How would it feel to ride on a beam of light?”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
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.

More from Medium

Casting a facilitator team

What happens when we get together? Meet the Ohana Meetup.

Learning, trust, and empowerment: the core values of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Weeknotes for User Centred Design in the Regions 1/4/22