Entrepreneurship is understood as a binary: make money or have social impact. Entrepreneurs focus on arriving at a product or outcome, and – with their eyes on that prize – default to walking the path of a “startup” or “social innovation.” Legal, economic and cultural systems rut those paths with norms, organizational structures, design processes, clients, governance models, scale strategies, legal incorporation, funding sources and expectations of returns.
As they rut into trenches, these two paths are increasingly divergent in the contemporary economy. Recent ‘mea culpas’ of mega-CEOs are, at best, a genial wave from travelers on one path to travelers on the other. Especially in the trendy field of ‘urban innovation,’ this plays out as a tech-oriented hunt for unicorns, and a panicked scattershot of philanthropic grants to projects that chip away at city-scale social or environmental systems.
Neither is the right model of innovation for cities. Granted, there are some forms that float in-between, like cooperatives, hybrid legal structures, “zebras,” and benefit corporations. These are encouraging, but there should be many, many more. In fact, if “innovation” is “creating value,” and if civic value reflects a city and is collectively defined by its residents, then each city should have its own ways of creating value. Yet this other form of innovation (not a third, but a carrier bag of many, contextual others) – this civic innovation – is simply not recognized as legitimate.
There are exceptions. In small niches, civic innovation emerges through contextual:• Ideation: creating value from a city’s specific assets or conditions
• Experimentation: discovering patterns of use, adapting the tech and local regulations
• Integration: becoming mutually dependent with social, political infrastructural systems
In other words, the creative process of “innovation” needs to treat all of a venture’s dimensions – from its network of stakeholders to its legal and organizational model, not just its products – as design opportunities. And cities are a remarkable territory to explore new venture forms, because they offer a spectrum of locally specific political, economic or cultural resources. Cities are unique sources of alternative “capital.” For example, civic innovation needs to be tested in urban space; the investment of political capital and social capital (regulatory exemption, local partnerships, and open engagement) is vital to success.
And if alternative capital is invested in a successful project, what are the “returns”? Civic innovation creates multiple, cross-sectoral value – value that doesn’t factor into scalable revenue models, or value that is hard to measure in annual impact reports for grants. Civic value includes things like – fostering a sense of opportunity and sense of self – and – generating surprise and delight – and – creating bonds for ecological systems in perpetuity – and – bringing together unexpected groups of people – and – knowing that my grandkids will get to see my favorite tree in the Boston Common.
Does that look like a startup? Probably not. Is it creating civic value? Absolutely.
If civic innovation is to create civic value (not exclusionary or extractive growth), we need to adapt the available support systems – most importantly, sources of capital (not VC, not philanthropic grants), and regulation (legitimate, open, publicly accountable zones for experimenting simultaneously with technology and regulation).
In sum, we should think of civic innovation less as startup or social ventures, and more as (ad)ventures: journeys that different players join at different moments, to genuinely explore unknown territory together, in search of civic value.