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2016 Will be Year of Innovation and Resilience

David Zelenok — Hr Green, Inc.

2015 has been a year of recovery for many communities. As the economy has steadily improved, leaders in local governments have moved from survival mode to planning for a more predictable future.

The pressures of the economic downturn created an environment where leaders had to do more with less and think creatively. The ideas that developed during this time are now being improved upon and implemented. 2016 should see some of these ideas become trends and more communities will use them to build resilient organizations.

Most leaders want nothing to do with uncertainty and risk, but that is what is needed to prosper in today’s climate. It is difficult to ask hard questions and one should not be afraid to ask for help. In 2016, creating a culture of innovation within an organization, thinking creatively with the Public Works arena, and assessing, as well as, taking advantage of emerging technologies, will occupy local governmental leaders.

Thinking creatively

In 2016, creating a culture of innovation within an organization, thinking creatively with the Public Works arena, and assessing, as well as, taking advantage of emerging technologies, will occupy local governmental leaders.

Culture of Innovation

Dozens of cities have created new positions solely dedicated to institutionalizing what is now often called a “culture of innovation.” Often, these positions are responsible for defining and standardizing organizational innovation processes, though they may also serve as advocates for specific initiatives. And, others serve a broader role – not only as Chief Innovation Officer, but as Chief Information Officer since the application of emerging technologies is often viewed as integral to the position.

By examining some of the best examples of local government innovation programs, a number of common themes are emerging which can help ensure that a successful and sustainable program of innovation in local government is achievable.

Four key attributes, which some of the most successful innovation programs share, include:

  • Senior Leader Support – Whether a mayor, city manager, or county commissioner(s) oversee the agency, both the senior elected officials and senior administrative staff must be engaged and publicly committed to the success of an innovation initiative. Since it’s best to often be “the best source of the worst news” – senior leadership must acknowledge up-front that the process will be neither cheap nor easy and most likely will go through “fits and starts” along the way. Inevitably, these senior leaders will be needed to provide support and advocacy when challenges and barriers are encountered, and be prepared for both accepting and expecting occasional failures.
  • Dedicated Resources – While no precise “organizational construct” is mandatory, dedicated teams with 3 to 5 full-time members have shown excellent results. Some of the best innovation team leaders often have 20-plus years of experience and have varied, often non-technical backgrounds while their teams’ less senior and associate members should possess a background in statistics and data analytics. Others heavily rely on fellowships and internship arrangements with local universities, many of whom themselves are, not coincidentally, simultaneously creating academic “certificate” programs in Innovation.
  • Staff augmentation – The team members must be seen by their colleagues as augmenting staff members’ work in other agencies, rather than “piling on” to their existing burdensome workloads, or worse yet, “stealing” their most promising projects and then “basking” in the accompanying recognition.
  • Cross-functional Support with Defined Objectives – The chief executive must make it clear to both the entire organization and the innovation team that well defined, data-driven results are paramount. Simply put, the benefits created by the team must outweigh its costs; and while intangible benefits (think: “improved quality of life”) are always welcome, quantifiable benefits (think: millions of dollars saved) provide the best argument for sustaining the team against future critics. Since collaboration is crucial, key staff in other “silos” must understand they are obligated to support the team; while the team accepts they are obligated to assume some of the workload from those agencies to advance the most promising initiatives.

Innovation and Public Works

Part of innovation and creative thinking has already begun to filter down to transportation and urban planning for public works officials. Several emerging topics are of particular importance for planning public works infrastructure: adaptive signal controls and new geometric designs, traffic calming, smart growth and traditional neighborhood design. These complex issues are increasingly interrelated and may have profound effects on the future of the public works profession, and the nation’s urban infrastructure.

Several emerging topics are of particular importance for planning public works infrastructure: adaptive signal controls and new geometric designs, traffic calming, smart growth and traditional neighborhood design.

New technologies and techniques, in the way we plan our communities, are having a profound effect on the way Public Works professionals must manage their systems and resources.

Some of these include:

  • Traffic Calming: Many neighborhoods are experiencing speeding, cut-through traffic and unanticipated volumes. Numerous newly-developed design techniques – both physical and social – can help address these problems.
  • Smart Growth: This moniker is often used to embrace a variety of anti-sprawl policies and improved community planning techniques. However, adopting many Smart Growth principles may have serious and unintended consequences for local governments. These principles can include advocacy for consolidation of local governments, increased state/ provincial control over local planning decisions, changing street design standards, requiring certain pedestrian features and even “social engineering” efforts such as encouraging mixed-income neighborhoods.
  • Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND): TND advocates are encouraging the large-scale abandonment of the suburban “fabric” that has become commonplace in North America since WW II. Rather than developing automobile- centric neighborhoods with cul-de-sac streets and mandatory vehicle trips to/from schools, shopping and employment centers, TND principles encourage mixed-use developments that allow residents to shop, work, recreate and live within walking distance of many destinations.
  • Transit Oriented Development (TOD): An emerging topic related to TNDs is TODs – in which housing, employment centers and activity centers are located within walking distance of a transit hub – often within a 10-20 minute walk, known as the “last half mile.” The essence of these planning principles is to reshape the fundamental layout of our future cities and decrease a community’s dependence on SOVs – single occupant vehicles.

Innovative Communication

As traditional news outlets dwindle for smaller communities, and people become more connected using mobile devices and social media platforms, municipal leaders must follow suit. These new digital media sources are not under anyone’s control and they can be disruptive, especially to those raised on print newspapers and rotary phones. It is important for leaders to understand the unknown, even more than the known. These communication channels can provide much more insight to community leaders than many imagine. For instance, a complaint on social media that a streetlight has not been fixed for an extended period, or potholes are going unfilled for months, may appear to be small, seemingly insignificant problems to an overworked and perhaps understaffed city department. However, to a resident it can be an example of a city that does not care about their problems. This growing negative sentiment of these “little” things can make one seemingly small issue eventually becoming the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and then can quickly escalate tension within one’s community should someone’s rant become a viral story on social media.

Emerging technologies

Many cities are developing their own municipal broadband networks – often by interconnecting their traffic signals and even street lights with fiber optics. Now, with advances in technologies, it’s possible to increase the speed delivered to a home from a typical 10 megabits per second to over 1,000 megabits per second by using the untapped capacity in their existing fiber optic networks. One city in a Western state, for example, is delivering this kind of unimaginable internet speeds to their residences for less than $50 per month – and turning these seemingly worthless lengths of fiber optics into their latest profit centers earning tens of millions per year to assist with city services and economic development.

Even basic infrastructure is now being connected in ways – and for reasons unimaginable just a few years ago. While technology can make our lives and tasks easier, experienced and responsible leaders must keep in mind the return on investment and perform due diligence when moving toward new technologies.

LED Street Lighting

Even basic infrastructure, such as street lighting, is now being connected in ways – and for reasons unimaginable just a few years ago.

Street Lighting is one example. While the advent of LED technologies can reduce the power consumption by about 50 percent, these energy savings can result in important cost reductions for cities that own their own lighting and purchase power via an unmetered rate. While most cities don’t own their own street lights, those that do find converting to LEDs may take years to result in a return on their investments. For example, while cutting power usage in half sounds impressive, a 100 watt bulb may only consume $4 in electricity per month, so a 50 percent reduction ($2/month) with a $400 replacement cost may not yield an ROI for 200 months. That’s about 16 years, which may exceed the life of the new bulb itself and may not make the best economic sense, even in the long-run.

For cities that simply “rent” their lights at a flat rate from the local power company there are other issues. Often, these cities are charged $20 for perhaps $2-4 in power, with the remaining funds paid to depreciate, amortize and/or maintain the aging street lighting systems, and often contributing handsomely to the profits of their local power providers. Now, in some states, cities are realizing they can purchase the street lights from their power companies at a fixed, depreciated price and reduce their annual expenses by about half. So, in a city of 50,000 – with perhaps 5,000 street lights – they may save about $10 per light per month – That can add up to millions of dollars of true savings for even small cities.

HR Green has the capability to assist communities looking at assessing their organization’s structure or undertaking new and exciting initiatives and inform as well as guide leaders to make smart choices as they work toward becoming smart, connected community with a modernized, intelligent backbone.

To learn more about how HR Green can help you with organizational review, innovation and building a resilient community, contact Dave Zelenok at dzelenok@hrgreen.com

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