Innovation is messy, but can transform the built environment

A man in a work overall uses a fabric-cutting machine while three women observe.
Pattern Project: learning from innovation in the fashion industry. (Pic: Pattern Project.)

There is a lot of talk about ‘innovation’, but how can we put that into practice to make better urban places? We brought together public sector leaders and private sector entrepreneurs to find out.

London faces a host of ‘wicked problems’, including inequality, the climate emergency, and the cost of living and doing business. These large, complex and interconnected challenges can seem impossible to solve.

Our City Makers’ Forum event highlighted that to make real, long-term change happen, we need to think and act differently. We can also learn much from other sectors so we invited people from fashion, technology and innovation policy to consider lessons for the built environment sector.

But we must ensure that the processes and outcomes of innovation are inclusive and equitable. We must be open-minded and prepared to learn from failure.


Start by diagnosing the problem

Our speakers agreed that innovation means focusing on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. For public sector organisations like the GLA and LB Camden, the goal is to improve social and economic outcomes for local people, especially against the background of Covid-19 recovery and the cost-of-living crisis.

Clearly defining problems as overarching ‘missions’ can be a first step in large organizations becoming more agile.

Being innovative as an entrepreneur also means making applications or products that solve real-world problems in smarter and more efficient ways. One of Brainnwave’s projects hinged on the ability to use AI to track shipping movements in real time. This enabled a client to flip its business model into a much more profitable market.

At Pattern Project, Shruti challenges the problem of overproduction by the fashion industry. This is the result of an entrenched business model based on large-scale manufacturing with long-lead times, leading to waste on a massive and unsustainable scale.

Instead, Pattern Project harnesses new AI tools in a more responsive ‘test and repeat’ business model. This makes it simpler for the many small garment factories in and around London to produce clothes locally on demand for major brands.

Innovation can happen on the front line

Innovation doesn’t always emerge in labs and offices. We should learn from what happens in frontline services and in daily life. Sandy explained that working outside of existing silos and crowdsourcing solutions by Londoners is the foundation of the Mayor of London’s open innovation challenges. These are co-designed with partners based on need, creating a ‘sandbox’ where new concepts can be seed funded, prototyped, tested and scaled up.

Shruti also spoke about her previous work at the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), highlighting innovations already being deployed ‘on the ground’ in humanitarian medical care, such as solar-powered oxygen generators.

Innovation must be transparent, equitable and inclusive

Our panel and audience questions highlighted the importance of including the widest range of voices in an equitable way.

Sandy explained how the Mayor’s open innovation challenges seek to bring creativity and ideas from across communities and business to tackle thorny issues that might otherwise remain unresolved. Similarly, Nick described the Camden renewal missions as a form of collective imagination and visioning, co-created with local people.

Breaking down silos through collaboration is hard but necessary: innovation is ‘messy’. However, there can be an underlying power imbalance.

Bodies such as the GLA try to recognize their position of power and that it is difficult to engage in true co-production. Sandy explained that the GLA seeks to do extensive user research, frame the problem in a responsive way and make sure all the right people are in the room from the beginning. But there is always an element of competition for limited public funds.

Steve also emphasized the need to be aware of inherent bias in AI and data, and to set up an inclusive governance structure to ensure there are no unintended consequences when new systems are put in place.

Engage with culture, capabilities and leadership across your organisation

Large organisations, whether public or private sector, can be slow to move, burdened with constraints and resistant to change. They need the capability, the capacity and most importantly the right leadership to help drive forward structural change.

This can demand a major shift in mindset to one that not only delivers core services effectively, but also allows the space to innovate.

Nick explained that this mindset needs to be mainstream across an organization, bringing together internal communities of interest and practice. In the public sector, this can also mean drawing capacity from sectors such as service design, which are traditionally outside local government. Changing internal systems can be difficult and time-consuming, but this is where sustainable change happens.

Steve pointed out that entrepreneurs need to find ‘intrapreneurs’ within organisations who strive to break down barriers to new ideas. An ability to ‘pivot’, said Shruti, is also essential.

Pattern Project started by making sewing kits for people to use at home. The company changed direction once fashion brands became interested, and later again when it received GLA seed funding to set up a factory in south London.

Innovation is about embedding a culture of continuous learning

Honesty about lessons learned – ‘working in the open’ – is a vital path to sparking further innovation, said Sandy.

Solutions that emerge from the open innovation challenges are increasingly being viewed as a portfolio that offers opportunities for more radical systemic change. Peer learning among different challenge cohorts is also part of this process.

Successful innovation hinges on allowing failure and embedding learning from that failure in future work. But, as one audience member asked, how do you deal with failure when your communities are facing such crises?

Strength of leadership at executive and political levels is the way in which Camden responds, said Nick. An organisational culture that allows leaders to tolerate and be responsible for risk is essential. However, the public sector doesn’t always incentivize that. Regular ‘dialogues’ also bring together the council and local people to talk about the problems that the community faces.

Five takeaways for innovation in the built environment

  • Clearly defining problems is often the first step in large organizations becoming more agile.
  • Include the widest range of voices from the beginning in an equitable way.
  • Being more open about the complexities of how the public sector works could help innovators to understand how best to engage.
  • Be aware of inherent bias in AI and data, and set up an inclusive governance structure to ensure there are no unintended consequences from implementation of new systems.
  • Successful innovation hinges on allowing failure and embedding learning from that failure in future work.

The City Makers’ Forum covers the big urban topics and provides a place for the future leaders of our cities to build their professional networks. Look out for more events from the City Makers’ Forum by signing up to our newsletter. If you have an idea for a theme you’d like us to focus on next, please email Sarah.

City Makers’ Forum is supported by Hatch.