Next for city innovation: creating backbones for enabling multi-stakeholder solutions

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Next up: Tim Draimin, Senior Advisor at the McConnell Foundation in Canada

The 21st century heralds the arrival of cities. For the first time they are home to over half the world’s population. By 2050 it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will be city- dwellers. Cities are where it is at. 

The good news is that cities unlock the ability to deploy human and physical capital in ways in which a city’s positive attributes scale superlinearly, according to Geoffrey West. 

The bad news is that urban ills also scale; think persistent inequality, mental illness, unsustainable consumption patterns or social isolation. 

Since cities are now home to the bulk of the planet’s wicked problems, we need to dramatically grow their social innovation prowess. In my view, the biggest gap on cities’ innovation horizon is the lack of dedicated on- ramps for multi-stakeholder solutions platforms. 

Many cities boast an enviable innovation track record in supporting and accelerating the development and scaling of individual innovations, whether technological, business or social. We all know examples of cities offering individual entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs new funding programs, educational accelerators, and hands-on innovation incubators. 

Where cities have stalled is with the creation and support for dedicated on-ramps for convening key actors together from civil society, business, universities and the public sector to enable the startup of new collaborations collectively addressing complex local challenges. Tough problems eclipse the ability of individual organisations and siloed sectors to solve them. Increasingly we require the capabilities, assets, collective intelligence and collaborative zeal from many disciplines, people and organisations that need to come together in creative ways to generate scaled social impact. This is described variously as collective impact, big teaming, or collaborative boundary-spanning problem solving. It is tough to knit these collaborations together and dedicated on-ramps doing the convening and incubation are essential ecosystem assets. 

Our goal over the next decade is to ensure that every city boasts an ecosystem of solutions curators and backbones that enable multi-sector, multi-stakeholder collaborations deploying targeted problem solving initiatives. 

This shift is part of a larger change in local and national innovation systems ensuring societal resources are aligned around solving big societal challenges. 

Toronto, my hometown, is privileged to have had local civic leaders identify this need nearly two decades ago. This led to the creation of a solutions incubator, CivicAction. 

With a small staff of about 15 people and an annual budget of C$1.7 million, CivicAction runs a series of programs supporting a four-year cycle running from challenge identification through to building scaled solutions. Every four years CivicAction re- loads the process by convening a major summit with about 1,000 city builders, drawn from across all sectors: community, business, academic, local-regional-national government, the arts, etc. 

Each summit’s goal is to develop an action plan to tackle the priority issues meeting 5 criteria: 

• an intractable or emerging challenge that would get worse if not addressed; 

• requiring a multi-sectoral, collaborative approach; 

• strong potential for high impact; 

• lacking any other appropriate home to address them; 

• ability to capture the passion and energy of the leadership to take them up. 

Since its inception CivicAction has incubated numerous successful initiatives, such as: 

The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council: TRIEC takes on the challenge of an immigrant-receiving city to help immigrants connect to employment that fully leverages their skills and talents; 

The Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce: it took a “place-based” approach to policy recommendations tackling neighbourhood decline and concentrated poverty in the inner suburbs that led to over 1,200 initiatives over 6 years across 13 priority neighbourhoods; 

MindsMatter: a new program providing an online assessment tool designed to help companies assess their organisational abilities to support their people’s mental health and how to better support them; 

Race to Reduce, one of the largest regional energy challenges in the world, engaged owners and tenants of commercial properties across  

Toronto, responsible for 20% of the region’s carbon emissions, to increase energy efficiency over 4 years achieving a 12% reduction of GHGs. 

As well as its many discrete projects, programs and spun-out organisations, CivicAction strengthens a social impact solutions culture in Toronto, harkening back to a frontier “barn- raising” spirit that relies on cross-sector collaboration. CivicAction has become a leadership pipeline for newly elected officials. Both the current Mayor and the province’s Minister of Environment are former Chairs of CivicAction. 

CivicAction is but one of many successful models for growing the global solutions ecosystem. Many such platforms are codifying and open-source-sharing their “social technology” for building high impact collaborations. Here are a few of the global leaders that we can learn from: 

• Global Development Incubator, which incubates partnerships to spark collective change in the international development sector, published a guide entitled More than the Sum of its Parts: Making Multi- Stakeholder Initiatives Work; 

• The consultancy FSG, in partnership with others, has created the knowledge hub The Collective Impact Forum sharing best practices and lessons learned; 

• Living Cities is a US city network working with cross-sector leaders building a new urban practice dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people. 

Cities need to think about architectural innovation: how do they proactively design, set-up and combine the missing features of their innovation ecosystems in order to catalyze big teams solving problems originating between the silos? A short term priority is supporting how cities, their allies and partners build the critical on-ramp for unlocking their communities’ collective intelligence to solve their most complex challenges. 

Tim Draimin is Senior Advisor at the McConnell Foundation in Canada, which supports city building through its Cities For People program. McConnell is also a founding partner of Future Cities Canada, a new national city building network. Tim serves on the boards of Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) and Green Economy Canada.