How Can We Create the Conditions for Better Experimentation and Innovation? 

A Look Back at our Healthy Public Challenge — Part 1

The only way to innovate is to fail, fail fast, and quickly pivot from that failure.

For tech entrepreneurs, the idea of failure doesn’t mean that something is finished, instead it means it’s time to conduct more experiments that either validate or invalidate original assumptions. Many companies realize the only way to truly innovate is through this kind of experimentation, which includes testing, feedback, synthesis of learnings, and further experimentation with the new lessons learned.

Unfortunately, within the civic and social sectors, structuring grants for experimentation and iteration are not popular concepts with many funders, and innovation methods are not well utilized within many nonprofits and social good startups.

We know philanthropy wants to see new tools and approaches to create positive change. Whether it be through grants, accelerators, or fellowships, thousands of hours and millions of dollars are being used to spur new ideas on a variety of civic and social problems. Examples include everything from the Knight Cities Challenge to deepen civic engagement and community connection, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s investment in emerging trends and cutting edge ideas to help build a Culture of Health. We at Civic Hall Labs are eager to help leverage those investments in new models. We apply human centered design and product development know-how to ensure a seed of an idea has the chance to break through.

At Civic Hall Labs, our mission is to build technology for the public good and help others do the same. We seek to develop infrastructure needed to run and scale these programs, with an eye toward new models of civic engagement and expanding the field of civic tech. You can read more about our approach here.

Last year, through the launch of our Health Lab, we wanted to see if we could expand the impact and effectiveness of the innovation challenge model. 

We set out to see what would happen if the winning teams were given mentorship from domain experts, design thinking tools, and yes, financial support.With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we created the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge to catalyze innovation in addressing the civic determinants of health disparities. 

This health innovation challenge looks beyond the traditional question of what makes a population unhealthy to ask: “What makes a healthy public?” The challenge seeks innovations that tackle the problems that impact collective health disparities, and the chronic problems our communities face, such as isolation, disempowerment, and instability.

The Healthy Public Challenge had two primary objectives:

1. We wanted to spur investment and innovation across the three core areas we use to define a Healthy Public:

  • Civic Cohesion — the collective valuing of all communities within neighborhoods, municipalities, and our nation.
  • Civic Agency — the ability for all communities to actively and meaningfully participate in our democracy and civic institutions.
  • Access to Resources — the fair and equitable access for all communities to community services and resources.

2. More importantly, we wanted to test and build a strategy for how the fields of public health and civic tech can effectively cross-pollinate to create a bigger impact.

The Healthy Public Challenge was simple: entrepreneurs, designers, developers, nonprofits, and companies were encouraged to submit their ideas on how digital tools could be used to create a Healthy Public. After winners were picked, each civic innovator team would participate in a six month advisory period, which included mentorship from the Civic Hall Labs’ Experts in Residence Alistair Blake, Dr. Jack Saul, and Dr. Mindy Fullilove. Each mentor is an expert in community-informed programmatic design specifically in urban displacement, community mental health, and collective trauma.

Each team also received $10,000 over that six month period to build their solutions into viable prototypes that could make real impact in the health of our public.

We were working from the hypothesis that a small amount of seed funding, six months of expert advising, and a design process grounded in the principles of human-centered design would allow teams to experiment with their idea and find a viable path forward regardless of the problem each team was trying to solve. 

We ended up selecting 10 teams from a wide variety of backgrounds to participate in the challenge:

  • Civic Cohesion: The projects submitted from Hollaback!, Article 25, Looped, Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, and the Good Men Project all worked to strengthen and integrate disconnected or under-resourced communities through tech solutions tackling social isolation, inter-generational learning and support, and gender-based violence.
  • Civic Agency: The projects submitted from NYC Councilmatic, Reported PD, and the Participatory Budgeting Project built civic agency by increasing dialogue between neighborhood groups and local government entities to discuss the most pressing health and safety issues facing their communities.
  • Access to Resources: The projects submitted from Heat Seek and Justfix.nyc both had projects that used technology to protect fair, safe, and affordable housing for the most vulnerable communities in NYC.

By the end of the program, we emerged with a field-tested model that validated some of our core assumptions, but also provided new insights on how to use digital tools to contribute to civic and community health outcomes.

Over a series of blog posts, we’ll be exploring the different insights learned through the lens of some of our most interesting projects to emerge from the Healthy Public Challenge. 

These lessons include how:

  1. Even a Small Amount of Funding is Enough to Take Risks
  2. Expert Mentorship is Key for Civic Innovators
  3. Human-Centered Design Creates a Better End Product

We hope that by showing you our process and insights, funders, investors, and universities will be able to take what we’ve learned and innovate!