Philadelphia City Employees Learn to Innovate at PhilaU Academy

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Philadelphia city employees collaborate on innovative ideas at the Academy for Municipal Innovation.

For seven Tuesdays this semester, 19 Philadelphia city employees from a variety of offices came together in a Philadelphia University classroom to learn how to innovate in their jobs.

They were the inaugural students in the new Academy for Municipal Innovation, a partnership between the city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia University, which offers a novel approach to teaching employees to perform their jobs in a more collaborative and innovative way. It is likely the first such collaboration between a university and municipality to foster a culture of innovation throughout city government.

“The goal is to grow the network of innovators with the city,” said Andrew Buss, director of innovation management in Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology. “We have a lot of creative, young, smart people coming to work, and we saw an opportunity to really institutionalize innovation within the city.”

The seven-week program is based on PhilaU’s award-winning curriculum designed to promote innovation and a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration—an important foundation for driving innovation. Each class focused on a specific innovation-centric topic, including discovering opportunities through design-thinking; analyzing complexities through systems thinking; and developing value propositions through business analytics. Courses were taught by PhilaU faculty experts in the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce.

“The Academy for Municipal Innovation teaches that innovation is a process, it’s not the light bulb going off in your head while you’re in the shower,” said D.R. Widder, PhilaU’s vice president for innovation, who taught several of the sessions. “You can teach someone to be an innovator.”

Philadelphia University, in fact, plans to use its curricular model to meet the needs of other municipal governments, as well as businesses and non-profit agencies. Starting next month, PhilaU will offer a similar program for those in manufacturing firms through a partnership with DVIRC, an economic development business consulting firm.

The employees in the first Academy class work in a range of city offices, including the managing director’s office; innovation and technology; commerce; sustainability; fleet management; public property; human resources; arts, culture and the creative economy; parks and recreation; and procurement. Many said they welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues outside their own departments, fostering new connections and ways to see and solve problems.

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The inaugural class graduates from the Academy for Municipal Innovation.

It didn’t take long for this first group of entrepreneurial students to put their learning into practice. By the second class, several students said they had already used some of the principles learned the first week. Robert Allen, assistant managing director for special events, said he had employed the improvisation technique called “Yes, and” at a meeting, which he said helped foster brainstorming by limiting early negative feedback that could quickly derail novel ideas.

Rebecca Lopez Kriss, entrepreneurial investment manager for the city’s commerce department, said while she has had innovative ideas in the past, “now I have a better way to carry through on these ideas.” She said she and two other commerce employees in the program plan to use some techniques learned at the Academy during a department retreat next month.

During the course, the city workers had an opportunity to start developing creative, new solutions for the city of Philadelphia, with the expectation that their work would continue back on the job. The students collaborated on four team projects relating to services to help attract and keep businesses in the city; optimizing fleet management; making more city data available to the public; and improving park services and public outreach.

To keep the momentum going, the city is about to open a new Innovation Lab in the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, where the first group of Academy graduates—as well as other city workers—can continue to meet and develop ways to better provide city services, Buss said. The Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia has earmarked $100,000 to support problem-solving projects its employees come up with.

“This is a great group of people who are looking to gain a new experience as well as improve the quality of life in the city,” said Thomas Hall, fleet management supervisor, who acknowledged he was skeptical at first about the notion of going to class to learn how to innovate.

After the final class on March 25, the 19 newly minted municipal innovators were given diplomas during a ceremony in the DEC Center attended by top city officials, PhilaU faculty and President Spinelli.

“Your pioneering efforts to learn and implement the craft of innovation and apply it to the governance of the city of Philadelphia inaugurates new meaning to the phrase ‘public employee,’” Spinelli said. “You are armed with the intellectual skills and tools to be critical doers of the common good.”

Richard Negrin, managing director and deputy mayor for administration and coordination, told the city employees, “You are going to be ambassadors for innovation.”

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