Why start The Centre for Civic Innovation?
I meet people from all walks of life when I’m managing engagements for governments. Most of them have different opinions. Still, all of them have one thing in common:
they care about their community and want to help shape the future of it.
Governments are not well set up to enable this kind of ongoing participation. Even the best community engagement and co-design processes result in a wish list for governments. The question isn’t how might WE (the collective) address this complex issue. It’s what should the government do and what can the government make others do to address this issue.
And that is what we expect. When governments use terminology like ‘shared responsibility’, it sounds like they are telling us what to do, instead of delivering for us. Or that they are not doing their job despite having access to our hard-earned tax-payer dollars. Most people want governments that do what we want. Governments that listen to and consult them. Then when they have enough evidence and support (or courage), we want them to deliver all the policies, plans, service, programs and infrastructure we need.
It is easy to see why some people argue that enabling communities is not the role of government. And I empathise with the role of the public servants and elected representatives who stand up to attempt this. Most of them are doing the best they can about the issues and communities they care about.
So why aren’t we doing the same? Is paying taxes enough? Are we part of the solution or part of the problem? Does our participation in our society, economy and democracy align with our values and the future we are trying to create?
If change has to happen, who is going to do it? What is your theory of change?
During work and outside of it, people share their concerns and ideas about the future with me. This usually turns into a discussion about values and how they might find more meaningful work. Then, inevitably, it turns to how they might work with governments to address the issues that concern them. I have had this discussion with hundreds of individuals over the years, most commonly with highly skilled professionals considering career changes. I also get approached by big and small businesses and companies developing innovation and social impact strategies, many offering staff time to volunteer.
I have worked with representative governments for 15+ years because it aligns with my theory of change. I engage people in government decision-making and planning processes at the intersection of the environment, society and economy; technology and society; and open government. My theory that government have the best tools for change at scale has been challenged over the last few years, so I’ve been testing it with a few experiments.
In 2017, I hosted a ChangeCamp in Sydney. I wanted to see what it was like engaging people about what they might do for their community and how might we maximise each others social impact. It was a Saturday and 120 people turned up. Participants were invited to host discussions about issues they cared about and their ideas to address them. Then they were encouraged to collaborate to take their ideas further. It felt good, the energy at the event was terrific. It sparked relationships, collaborations and helped to build a network of people wanting to do something for Sydney.
Wellness and sustainability were the most common themes raised at the event. Everyone appreciated the opportunity to talk about their concerns and ideas, but this question lingered in the room:
How might we do good for others but not at the expense of our health and families?
So, we all went back to our day jobs, unsure about how to make our ideas and initiatives sustainable. Including me. I knew I couldn’t sustain the engagement required without a viable business model. And that reality hit home, for all of us.
It made me realise how much we need organisations, sustainable ones that enable us to participate in the economy while doing good meaningful work. Work of the future.
It was clear that these active citizens, change agents and civic innovators needed some infrastructure around them to keep doing good, social infrastructure. Since 2017 I’ve discovered many organisations in Sydney, NSW, across Australia and the globe encouraging people and organisations that are delivering social change.
The social infrastructure that change-makers need in Australia does exist and is developing. Still, it is hard to navigate, even for an educated Australian born who works with governments. It is hard to know where to start, what pathways to take, what type of business, social enterprise or NFP type to register, how to get grants, and what support networks are available.
I know because I spent four months navigating them last year before setting up The Centre for Civic Innovation, a not-for-profit organisation designed to power people-led change. We work with civic innovations, delivering social innovation in local communities, for public benefit.
The Centre for Civic Innovation (CCI) is a front door for every-day people who want to do something for their community.
We provide a concierge, match-making service and help people find their way, getting them started so their ideas become actions and their initiatives become organisations. These are sustainable organisations with support networks (boards, advisors, partners) and clear objectives so that they can apply for funding and their socioeconomic impacts can be measured and maximised. It’s like micro-financing but with time.
The Centre for Civic Innovation was registered in January 2019 by Stephen Rutter, Tom Dawkins and I. Kerry Graham and Ross Dawson have joined us on the board. At our first meeting, we discussed our business model and decided we needed to meet with potential partners and sponsors to do some user testing on our concept and funding assumptions. Liverpool Council, a smart city, loved our idea and offered us a space to build a prototype and test our approach with their community.
The first Centre for Civic Innovation opened in Liverpool in October. We will be there in a pop-up shop until December 12. Liverpool is a hot-bed for development as one of the three cities identified in NSW Government’s vision for greater Sydney. The community is incredibly diverse, and I am loving engaging people of all walks of life and cultures.
People, local businesses and community groups are responding well to what we’ve created and how we are with them when they walk in, and the word is spreading. It feels needed. I feel needed. And it’s incredible to see these people, many new to our country, light up when I listen to them and encourage them to deliver their ideas for their community.
I’m also loving the connection to my community engagement, cross-sector collaboration, open government, smart cities and participatory governance work. Encouraging active citizenship, do-ocracy and share responsibility alongside my work at engage2 feels right. Like two sides of a coin. Like we are building capabilities of the people and organisations that will grow the work and partnerships of the future.