In the beginning of the project I assumed that innovation was a product. I thought that innovation was something progressive, something that would bring concrete results. An example of this kind of innovation would be new, effective, and transferable practice, project, or local policy-making approach that would help to solve social problems in rural communities. I had to modify my assumption pretty soon. Most people I interviewed saw the innovation as process in which participants learned about “innovative ways of thinking.” For them the beauty of innovation was actually in the process of it’s making. This process took place in formal and informal get-togethers where people mingled, shared their stories, and got to know each other better. In fact, this process also took place in people’s minds, once they started to organize things in their municipalities. Ideas for projects resulted from interaction between people with overlapping aims and different types of background and experience. It is possible that for some innovation-in-process might be seen as a waste of time and money, however even the biggest skeptics today agree that there have been concrete results: 53 projects in 13 nomination categories! One advantage of the process-oriented innovation is that it increases the possibilities of learning for larger number of people. IC was a laboratory where ingredients of experiment were mixed together by participants themselves not by some crazy genius professor. This allowed participants to recreate the experiments they learned in IC in other labs under different conditions. In reality pure replication of innovation is impossible. Adaptation is always needed. Organizations have different cultures, their legal mandates and regulatory constraints are different, not to mention difference in political cultures and contexts. According to Bob Behn from John F Kennedy School of Government in Harvard who writes his monthly Public Management Report, says that successful innovators always should “stick to the core idea of the innovation, and always ask themselves what features of the original innovation they need to replicate from other municipalities and what features should they adapt to their unique circumstances.” Many participants thought they had learned how to be innovative by taking “something that works” and adapting it to “local conditions.” My impression was that some local actions were designed to deal with thought-out development problems, like in the project “World Class Community” by Robertsfors, while in other municipalities local actions went into strategic drift - a process of muddling through problems, solutions, approaches, tactics and experiences, that did not add up to coherent strategy, but was more like going with the best practice. True, that “muddling through” can also be seen as achievement of the project, because learning from other municipalities became “a way of life,” and a “standard practice” for some municipalities. IC project did not bring immediate results but it helped some municipalities like Murmansk and Suwalki to generate the concept of future changes in entrepreneurship, which would hopefully bring more certainty into their organizational and political environment. Consumer society offers us quick fixes for everything, starting from clogged toilets to personal relations, therefore it is tempting to reach in the shelf of best practices and grab something that seems to fit. There is a problem with this kind of approach in public management. Managers who are obsessed with adopting the “best practice” almost never contemplate about how this practice actually works. They fail to explain it to their colleagues, superiors and constituents. All they say that they have adopted the best practice, hoping that everyone will be impressed. Here is where all the workshops, excursions and interactive seminars paid off! IC helped partners to understand new concepts, elaborate their ideas and sell their projects to friendly insider audience, before going out and introducing the project to local politicians and people in their community. In the Expo, which took place in Druskininkai I felt strong sense of project-ownership among the IC activists, and I take it as a sign of success. Norwegian local election results show that being innovative can also help in winning the election. This has been true for Stein Haaland in Spydberg, and Knut Herland in Eidsberg municipality. Politicians should take up innovation agenda. It works! It is, of course, difficult to think about innovation in abstract terms - outside social, historical, geographical and cultural context. Partners in the IC represented a complex mosaic of modernization and quality of life indicators, and they each brought their experience and expertise to the project. Some municipalities, like Mysen, had already developed a rich pratice of youth entrepreneurship, and there the development of entrepreneurial competence were already an integral part education on all levels, while others like Cēsis and Druskininkai were learning from them. Some municipalities were advanced in other areas, such as urban planning, tourism development and heritage management. There were also interesting projects within the field of art, culture, leisure and event management. How do we encourage learning across cultures, areas and disciplines? What benchmarks do we choose for our projects in future? Researchers Bigoness and Perreault once wrote about three dimensions of innovation, namely the degree of innovativeness, the content of innovation, as well as the references to other innovations in particular social system. The first dimension assesses the level of innovativeness. The second dimension – the content of innovation helps to explain why organization are successful in creating specific innovations such as single product or technology, while less successful in creating innovation across broad spectrum of content areas, such as introduction of innovative governance principles in local government. Moreover, taking into consideration different social systems of the IC partners, the third dimension – reference domain, can help us to identify the boundaries within which partner’s innovativeness can be compared or contrasted. For example, a municipality which introduces youth Council in local municipality may be viewed as highly innovative in Baltic States and Russia, but not so innovative in Scandinavian municipalities where youth have been involved in local governance for quiet some time. Innovations are beatiful in their particular social, economic and cultural contexts, but they need to be a part of a systematic effort. Innovations are like children – they need care, attention and recognition to survive. Single spark of creativity is not enough to change the world in a longer run. Sooner or later in every part of the world people will have to cooperate more, and take actions to face big challenges, such as global warming, degradation of environment, decline in traditional energy sources, out-migration, and diminishing trust into institutions and politics. On 21st of September, 2007 IC partners established the Innovation Circle Network, which is more diffuse version of the Innovation Circle. The network will continue to bring together activists from different countries into development projects and events. I think that success of such network will depend on it’s political support, openness, partner resources, and circulation of ideas. IC created a shared identity among partnering municipalities. This will improve the quality of future exchanges among the partners and I am sure we will see some interesting projects very soon! Visvaldis Valtenbergs is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science in Vidzeme University College, Latvia. You can also read his project evaluation report ”Partner strategies and involvement in the IC project” here.
Visvaldis Valtenbergs in Telemark University College Campus, Notodden, Norway, 11-13 October, 2006.
References: Behn, R. (2006). The Imperative of Adaptation. Bob Behn’s Public Management Report. 3(12), August. Available at http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/thebehnreport/.
Bigoness, W.J. and Perreault, W.D. (1981) A conceptual paradigm and approach for the study of innovators” Academy of Management Journal, 24(1), 68-82.