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“What is innovation in the public sector?”
“Are there lessons to be learnt from innovation and creativity in other areas, such as haute cuisine in Spain?”
“How can we develop services that meet real needs?”
“How can we co-design innovative user-centred services?”

 These were some of the questions that a group of keen participants from local, regional and national administrations across Europe set out to explore at EIPA (European Institute of Public Administration) and Design for Europe’s Public Sector Innovation Lab event in Barcelona in December. To set the scene, the group was invited to reflect on local examples of internationally acknowledged innovation and creativity – such as Ferran Adrià of elBulli, one of Spain’s most famous and original chefs, who revolutionised haute cuisine. With a mix of lectures, workshops and study visits, during the two day event the attendees experienced different approaches and models of how innovation can work in public administration.
 
Learning from leading-edge projects that had won at the European Public Sector Award 2015 (EPSA 2015), as well as from cases of ICT-enabled (social) innovation, local innovation systems and innovation in public policy design and co-creation, what these examples have in common is an iterative and fluid process that unites many different actors within and outside public institutions. Enabling something new to emerge thus involves cross-disciplinary approaches and breaking down of traditional silos and barriers to collaboration.
 
Furthermore, collecting citizens’ points of view and involving them in the co-creation of solutions can generate new perspectives on service provision or lead to the re-framing of problems and trying out new solutions. The potential of ICT in driving innovation in the public sector should not be underestimated in this respect, not only because it can trigger real improvements in service delivery and back office processing, but also for the whole policy cycle.
 
No matter what transformation processes are opted for, leadership and adequate resources are needed to initiate change and anchor new processes within organisations. Consequently, public innovation strategies have to be embedded in well-functioning governance systems.

One of the key messages was that designers are not the only group who can have or learn to use design skills.

One of the key messages of the session run by the Design for Europe team at Nesta was that designers are not the only group who can have or learn to use design skills. Using the Herbert Simon quote that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”, they encouraged participants to adopt a new perspective on their daily tasks and to take a fresh look at the development of creative ideas and solutions. To do this, the participants applied the methods of customer journey mapping and prototyping to develop new solutions to problems and challenges faced in real-life.
 
To complete the first day of the lab, the group then visited the Barcelona Design Centre, a promotion and information centre devoted to all aspects of design, where they learned about co-creation approaches for improving services in the children’s hospital Sant Joan de Déu in Barcelona and how design thinking could be used in the identification of needs of the elderly population of the City of Barcelona.
 
With this knowledge, participants were ideally equipped for the workshops of the second day led by Bee&Butterfly, a recently created consultancy, in which they developed project ideas and an innovation strategy for a fictional case that required re-using an old, but well-located school building in two different scenarios (a mid-sized town with an age-diverse population vs. a mid-sized village with an ageing population). The “innovators” in the groups developed the different local settings by adding possible existing problems and were put into the shoes of the inhabitants with the help of persona maps. Brainstorming possible ideas and solutions based on the various needs identified, the teams then developed their projects and pitched them to the wider group at the end of the workshop.

Having a strong vision, bringing together different disciplines, working in teams, sharing ideas and combining new things is what underpins innovation.

So thinking back to haute cuisine, what can we learn about how to innovate in the public sector from Ferran Adrià of elBulli? This seminar showed that having a strong vision, bringing together different disciplines, working in teams, sharing ideas and combining new things is what underpins innovation – much like Adrià clearly did when re-inventing dishes in his kitchen. At the same time, trying out different things and prototyping is essential, and very importantly, “Design and innovation are about doing things”. In that sense, public sector innovation is about implementing new solutions that increase public value.

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