A beautifully eloquent reflection of the process of innovation, from Omar Khalifa, developer of the Go! Fix app.

He wrote [as part of a recent crowd-storm http://artoftakeup.wordpress.com/]:

I believe in the concept of empowerment as the most powerful force for change in individuals, communities, organisations and even nations. When people are empowered they don’t just expect others to solve their challenges or issues for them. They begin to lean forward not sit back. They take over Tahrir Square. They sign petitions that can change policy overnight. Empowerment is a liberator of thought, imagination and creativity – it leads to innovation and enlightened solutions.

Too often we see things back to front – we seek to somehow “create” innovation as if it were a stand alone product – yet innovation is the culmination of many factors not some label to be slapped across a box or job description. Innovation at Apple Computer does not come from an Innovation Department – it flows through every decision and the bloodstream of every employee regardless of where they are – it is the baseline expectation and motivation for everything they do.

My recent focus on Go! Alliance (and Go! Fix) is fuelled by this realisation that community engagement and action through empowerment is the best way we have to achieve results when government fail to anticipate, keep up with or embrace change. Top-down centralised politburo decision making is in many ways in direct conflict with societal trends such as faster pace of change, more individual expression, self-fulfilment and empathy. LGA’s should be able to be better attuned (and some like City of Sydney are remarkably so) to the shifts and needs of communities but too often lack the courage, resources or independence to do so. Councils are too often found defending the status quot.

A key agent of change is of course already enveloping us – it is the use of the internet for community interaction on a personal, commercial, social as well as affiliation level. What has not been fully exercised is to re-purpose the associated tools to enable community involvement, action and advocacy – in particular for under-served or minority groups in the community.

My own direct involvement in this area came from leading the development of the Livewire online community for young people with serious disability and disease at the Starlight Foundation; and then working to mobilise the cycling community at Bicycle NSW. The empowerment of individuals and communities being a common lesson and motivator.

Through Go! Alliance I have attempted to find new ways for individuals and community advocates working to improve transport and mobility choices to be more effective. I was able to demonstrate in a limited way that crowd-funding could be a useful method to fund projects; and in working with online petitions could be deployed to gather support and express a view more persuasively. In both cases I borrowed from existing capabilities.

My latest effort, Go! Fix is a similar initiative that allows individuals and community groups to be better informed and able to activate change – and an opportunity for government to be more engaged on terms and issues the community helps to define. Go! Fix was built using an existing platform in collaboration with leading online cycling community groups and clubs with over 20,000 members. I asked the memberships for input on key areas of the design including what issues needed to be listed. And even though I committed to underwriting the effort, I later found groups who saw the potential benefit and have contributed to the development cost. It’s deployment is completely reliant on the online groups supporting it and using it. In it’s debut week we have had 500 downloads and over 50 reports logged.

The Go! Fix platform suppliers themselves had always worked from the government/council side outward and were intrigued and supportive of our attempt to flip the solution owners to help bring a new dynamic to the use of the application. (for an inspired government implementation of the same platform see http://www.cityofboston.gov/doit/apps/commonwealthconnect.asp)

What have I learned? I am a traveller and the journey is just getting under way! I do know that what is going on has enormous potential for redefining roles and relationships in society. Government in many ways is the last to the table. However, change will not be led merely by a consensus approach and neither can it be irresponsible or appear disconnected or arrogant. Change needs to be guided by a vision that inspires and is willing to evolve.

Along this journey I even began to question who/what a “person” is. For instance, I sometimes found that some people who professed to be too busy to assist me directly (“really sorry, just don’t have time”) were among the first to contribute when I went to a community site to solicit the same inputs! It is a new phenomenon that is emerging where online trumps off when it comes to engagement. For many this increasingly is essential, committed time, and there is safety there – a place for expression that is both less demanding of fixed schedules and also generally less intimidating. Perhaps a place where ones online status even compels interaction. Similarly, fronting up for a council meeting is beyond most, but signing a well considered call to action is not.

The online persona may not be easily reconciled with the other. One member of our Livewire community was severely disabled but online he felt so liberated he projected himself to other members as little less than a Superman!

Government can learn from all of these. I have come to believe that people expect government today to experiment with well considered ideas and to inspire and even challenge them to think and act differently. To mainstream innovation effectively, not to pander to lowest common denominators. To “in-source” ideas and concerns from the broader community as well as from suppliers. To focus on governing, not development. To create new methods of engagement that are also fair, transparent and reflect the changing aspirations and undercurrents now flowing within society.

What not to do? Just deploying technology and new techniques or glossy campaigns is no longer sufficient just like adding “innovation” to a title or job description is not sufficient to create and deliver innovative ideas.

Finally, your government audience might consider that with more online tools and mobilisation opportunities the balance of power is now swinging back to Community and not to be caught off guard looking the other way! The surprise may be that their roles could be so much more fulfilling if they were willing to use empowerment as a method to governing innovatively and effectively.

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