The Case for Municipal Innovation Officers
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
I had a fleeting thought not long ago that municipalities ought to hire a local or regional “Innovation Officer” — someone whose job it would be to identify and tackle municipal hurdles in a manner that provides unique, forward-thinking solutions to local problems, adding to overall municipal sustainability.
I was quite pleased with myself for the notion, and even thought “Innovation Officer” had a nice ring to it, but — as is seemingly the case with all things in 2021 — I wasn’t the only one to have thought of the idea. After posting my suggestion on Twitter, and receiving feedback from a few within the municipal sector, I decided to explore whether Innovation Officers already existed (spoiler: they do), and what impact they could have on municipalities.
Admittedly, there’s not a ton of information out there on the practice, as it is new amongst municipalities. However, what I have found is that the title of “Chief Innovation Officer” is beginning to be used at the local level in the United States. In Canada, there is slower movement towards such a model, but there is some initiative amongst Ontario municipalities.
In my initial Tweet, I had predicted there is risk to such a position resulting in farfetched schemes that would prove unrealistic in the municipal sphere, but that the role of Innovation Officer could result in really interesting approaches and solutions. Outcomes could realistically see municipalities take the lead in establishing local sustainability, potential growth, innovative economic development, cost reductions, environmental improvements, and more — not to mention potential combinations of multiple such areas.
While municipal administration and staff expertly tackle day-to-day problems and specific projects of varying impact, the role of an Innovation Officer would be to look at things with a wider-angle lens. Even I roll my eyes for wanting to use the term “big picture thinking,” but that doesn’t make it the wrong qualification of the position’s intent.
Responding to my Tweet, former Strathcona County mayor, and current municipal consultant and member of Alberta’s Land and Property Rights Tribunal, Roxanne Carr said the initiative would see municipalities “hire a bright light to look for regional solutions to problems that are common in adjacent regions.” She noted examples of dealing with issues such as animal shelters, and plastics recycling and reduction.
“Let’s take on the big issues and create jobs,” she added.
My own initial thinking had first centered around environmental sustainability — finding innovative solutions to ‘go green,’ so to speak, while leveraging regional economies of scale and bolstering the local economy. I also thought the role could have an impact on how municipalities handle ‘mature’ neighbourhoods (and therefore older municipal infrastructure), as well as in finding organizational efficiencies unlikely to be discovered within the municipal organizational structure, itself.
In 2019, the City of Bend, Oregon, with a population approaching 100,000, made the move to hire its first-ever Chief Innovation Officer. The city is widely known as the home of the world’s last Blockbuster, to the point of scoring the movie rental store its own documentary on Netflix. Though less exciting on the pop culture scale, the city’s move to hire a full-time Chief Innovation Officer deserves a spotlight of its own.
The initiative was made after Bend became the new home of tech companies relocating from adjacent areas, and with an influx of residents moving to suburbia. Such reaction to a shift in industry, specifically, is not unusual to local governments and regions. In Alberta, for example, we’ve been hired as Project Manager for the Battle River Economic Opportunities Committee (BREOC), as the region looks to shift its economy away from a dependence on coal. This is nothing new; hiring a municipal Innovation Officer is.
As far as I’ve been able to learn, the position of the Chief Innovation Officer in Bend has focused on a wide range of issues, from municipal data use and technological innovation, to affordable housing and transportation.
Back in Canada, Dave Shorey holds the title of Innovation Officer with the Municipal Innovation Centre (MIC), which serves eight regional municipalities. Shorey’s role is outlined as seeking to understand “how issues impact people,” positioning the Innovation Officer’s duty as that of a “catalyst for developing shared solutions to shared problems.”
The execution of the role, though, is more interesting than the available job description. Shorey has publicly outlined his involvement in numerous initiatives including:
Flood risk mapping;
Enhanced broadband and cell connectivity;
Affordable and attainable housing;
Municipal service mapping; and,
The portfolio of an Innovation Officer seems to cast a wide net. While a municipal director or manager is typically segregated to one portfolio, or a few at most for smaller municipalities, the role of Innovation Officer is about solutions more than it is about area of focus.
Where can innovation lead to efficiencies? Where can regionalization positively impact member municipalities? How can municipalities embrace technological shifts? And, perhaps most importantly: How can municipalities become leaders?
In a Laurier Alumni piece — with Shorey having attended and been a member of the faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University — Shorey stated: “I actively engage community members, councillors, and municipal staff in discovery work to better understand the emergent issues in our communities, and I facilitate collaborative processes to co-develop and co-source solutions.”
Though the role of Innovation Officers is becoming somewhat more prevalent in the U.S., it has only existed for a few years. In Canada, even less, with the MIC having launched in early-2020. My assumption of the role is that it would shift fluidly to align with municipal or regional needs and goals of the day, but that the overarching objective of an Innovation Officer would be consistent in following through on its namesake: Innovate.
In an ever-changing scape, bolstered by new technologies that add to local innovation, and with municipalities facing emerging and evolving pressures — internally and externally — now is the time for local government to pick up on this trend. Innovation Officers could lead the way in determining which municipalities stand out most and attain true sustainability over the next decade.