A city innovator who’s both a practitioner and an academic February 16, 2022

A city innovator who’s both a practitioner and an academic

February 16, 2022

Title: Solutions Lab Manager

City: Vancouver, Canada

Lindsay Cole is the rare urban innovator who is both a practitioner working inside city hall and an academic expert in public-sector innovation itself.

Cole is an adjunct professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia, where she earned a Ph.D. and wrote her thesis on public-sector innovation labs across Canada and Europe.

She also founded Vancouver’s Solutions Lab in 2016 to be a place inside city hall where civil servants can learn new ways of working, particularly when it comes to complex intersectional challenges such as sustainability, health, and equity. They do this in two ways. 

One is through “labs” that bring together cross-disciplinary teams of city staff and community partners. They come with a challenge (a recent one was reducing food waste) and go on to prototype a range of possible solutions.

The other is through “learning journeys.” Teams from different departments come together for monthly sessions on different topics related to innovation, such as systems mapping, prototyping, evaluation, storytelling and more. These sessions are meant to build a community of practice across the organization, Cole says, “so that the lab doesn’t become the place where innovation happens and everything else stays the same.”

Recently, Cole collaborated with her university colleagues to scale up the learning journeys model to a dozen cities across Canada. Cities sent teams of anywhere from two to eight people from a mix of departments to a series of innovation sessions called “Transforming Cities from Within.” Cole and her colleagues are now working on an evaluation of what cities learned along the way. 

That space for reflection, Cole says, demonstrates the value of wearing an academic hat along with her practitioner hat. “The collaboration with the university allows us to be a bit more reflective and spend time thinking about what is it that we’ve learned,” Cole says. “When you’re only in a practitioner role, you often don't have the time to think about that very much.”

Pro tip: “If innovation isn’t leaning toward sustainability, justice, and equity in some way then we’re not fulfilling our potential.”