England & Wales Communities and society, Personal and organisational development

Can universities help councils to be more innovative?


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There is a growing network of innovation labs, units and i-teams  supporting national governments and cities around the world to develop new policies and strategies to improve public services and deliver better social outcomes by thinking about things – and doing things – differently.  Nesta has mapped over 100 labs world-wide and the rate at which they are growing is truly remarkable as technological developments, increasingly sophisticated public demand and financial pressures has meant that new and innovative public-sector approaches are needed now more than ever.

The term ’innovation lab’ is somewhat ambiguous as it suggests a physical space (with people in white coats experimenting with test-tubes!) and it’s true that they can take many forms.  Importantly, it is widely recognised that labs can support the public sector to create safe and de-risked spaces, freed of legacy, to experiment and find pathways towards a more innovative and effective sector.  The common feature of all labs is that they offer the freedom to build the community, practice, and culture of innovative practice.

Like many other councils, in Camden we are keen to address our challenges and understand how we can do things differently – and better – to improve resident’s lives. The current context means that we have to do this at the same time as facing a significant reduction in our funding from central government. This is our challenge and we think that University of the Arts London can help us with it; we can learn from each other and learn by doing things together.

Together with Central St Martins, we are co-creating a Public Collaboration Lab for Camden that will enable us to work more collaboratively with each other, and bringing our residents and partners together to co-design innovative solutions to our challenges and improving the way we deliver services. We believe our lab is the first model of its kind and we are extremely excited about it!  Our vision for the Public Collaboration Lab is that it will provide a more strategic, systematic and collaborative way to harness the rich resources, expertise and vitality within our borough to support innovation, transformation and change.

The world of design provides core skills relating to research, making sense of problems, co-design processes and testing through prototyping. Our partnership with Central Saint Martins so far has identified some core areas of council activity that will really benefit from these skills:

  • Resident engagement: how we gather views and insights from our residents in a way that is meaningful to both us and them
  • Raising awareness: how we communicate important messages and information to our residents
  • Behaviour change: how we can help residents to live healthy, independent and resilient lives
  • Service re-design: particularly in light of the existing budget constraints, how we fundamentally re-think our service provision to be as effective and efficient as possible

The initiative forms part of a funded research programme exploring to what extent higher education and local government can collaborate in a lab environment to add value to the local community. Since we launched last year, we have worked with students from different disciplines on a number of different projects ranging from imagining the libraries of the future, finding new ways of engaging residents in local planning and redesigning our youth centres into more flexible spaces that will enable us to deliver services for young people more effectively.

We have been inspired by the energy and fresh ideas that have come about as a result of our collaboration with Central Saint Martins and hope that other councils and universities can learn from our approach and follow suit. To support this, we would like to get a better idea of how councils and universities are currently working with each other and would like to invite you to complete a short survey.