On Sunday, March 10th, I will take the stage at SXSW in Austin to share my journey as a Civic Innovator. Over the last two years, I have been wrestling with defining exactly what my experience in leading innovation projects means for the world. My resume reads like a wonky government employee, yet the stories about my projects and experience tell a completely different story. This conflict is exactly where I struggle in defining what I do. Sure, my eight-year career working at the City of Richmond screams government employee, but when I am able to personally explain the motivation, impact, and process for each project, the application of my experience has value. It was when I sat down to submit a talk to speak at SXSW that I was able to boil down the elements of my experience into a tangible topic. It was when I re-read my post from October 21st, 2015 labeled “Cultivating the Karass: My Civic Innovation Journey”, that everything came together and my submitted proposal “Cultivate the Karass: Innovating Cities” was selected.
Throughout my career, I worked with the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, partnered with Code for America, implemented civic technology app’s like SeeClickFix and NextDoor, and launched an open data portal with Socrata. I worked internationally with the City of Athens Greece, Warsaw Poland, and the European Funders Council at the EU. I have advised cities in their innovation projects in their partnerships with the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and German Marshall Fund. I have worked with everyone from CEOs of large corporations, leaders of foundations and non-profits, entrepreneurs and startup founders, and community leaders. Each endeavor refined the skills required to lead as a Civic Innovator, applying modern approaches like the human-centered design process, design thinking, and systems thinking to drive impactful outcomes to complex issues.
The role of a Civic Innovator is to find the best way HOW to achieve an innovative solution. Grounded in the experience learned by leading projects focused on driving equity and inclusion for economic development and healthcare and everything in-between, the role of Civic Innovator is multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional. “No” is not an acceptable end-point as there must be a way to make things work. Iterative ideation of possible solutions explores the possible, navigating through a sea of uncertainty and malaise to find the right answer for how.
In three weeks, I will take the stage in Austin Texas to share my story of becoming a Civic Innovator. The journey, the process, and the approach that each project revealed to me in how to find the best way HOW to address complex social challenges culminate in sharing a phrase shown to me by the late Jake Brewer. During his memorial, a photo of his work desk revealed a sticky note stuck to his computer that read “Cultivate the Karass”, a homage to Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Cat’s Cradle”.
karass n. — a group or network of individuals that, while unknown to them, are meant to achieve great works together.
Civic Innovation is often heralded as the technology solution, the progressive new program, or the transformative new policy that solves an underlying cause of a key societal imbalance. The most often overlooked part of each incredible solution is the people that came together that made it possible. The karass. As the meaning of this phrase was explained to me that day we honored the work of Jake Brewer, I realized that the true purpose of innovation was who I met along the way. Each project has its own karass, cultivated by the sharing of an idea, approach, or problem that united their passion. It was the karass that finds and develops the most innovative solution. My career was shaped by the people that guided me, taught me, showed me what was possible, and helped make it happen. That took my random crazy idea for a project and heard a call to help find out how to make this a reality. Each new person in the karass added their own experience, vision, and ability that made it even better.
I took a page out of the Derek Sivers TED Talk on “How to start a movement”. (It’s only 3 minutes, give it a watch). Each project took finding that first follower, that first person that saw what was possible and wanted to be part of this effort. That first follower actually becomes the leader as it is their joining the project that brings the next one follower. My career as Civic Innovator is not defined by the projects or solutions found along the way, it was the ‘cultivating of the karass’ that made each project possible. The hardest part of the role of Civic Innovator is finding the right question to ask the right people.
If you can’t make it to Austin, TX to hear me on March 10th, I am also scheduled to share this message on April 10th for the Tom Tom Festival in Charlottesville.