Intendencia de Montevideo
How three new city innovation labs are sharing lessons—and shaping their identities
More and more local administrations around the world are developing “innovation labs” to build their capacities to take more experimental and people-centered approaches to problem solving. And like many of the people working in these labs, Marjolaine St-Arnaud, an innovation advisor in Montréal’s upstart Urban Innovation Lab, is new to this kind of work.
So when she got to meet with 200 of her peers from Latin America and elsewhere who, like her, are part of this new movement, it was a career-shaping opportunity. The 2019 gathering in São Paulo, hosted by the Brazilian capital’s own city innovation lab and cosponsored by Metropolis, mobilised stakeholders from all sectors. It fueled St-Arnaud’s thinking about how to encourage city governments to open up to ideas that are generated and shaped by residents.
“The innovation ecosystem in Latin America is very dynamic. There are many public innovation labs or units with different approaches, maturity levels, and organisational models. We don’t have that kind of diversity in Quebec.”, Marjolaine St-Arnaud
“It gave me so many ideas and inspirations for how to develop the Montréal innovation lab,” said St- Arnaud, who joined the lab in 2018 after working most of her career in the sustainable transport sector. She was especially excited to learn about the very grassroots and citizen-oriented focus of the people she met from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, and other countries. “The innovation ecosystem in Latin America is very dynamic. There are many public innovation labs or units with different approaches, maturity levels, and organisational models. We don’t have that kind of diversity in Quebec.”
The innovation conference served as the launchpad for a smaller and more intensive collaboration that has continued among three city innovation labs from São Paulo, Montréal, and Montevideo. That collaboration is supported through the Metropolis “Pilot Projects” programme, which brings together cohorts of urban practitioners from different continents to learn from each other.
It’s a critical time for this kind of exchange to take place. These innovation labs are young and still developing their identities—even the meaning of the word “innovation” and the role it can play in metropolitan governance is up for debate. Some people associate innovation with technological advances, while others associate it with taking more resident-focused or experimental approaches. The leaders behind the labs say it’s important to hear how their peers in other cities are coming at it, and how the labs’ missions are evolving. “Innovation is a very diffuse concept,” said Fernanda Balbino, Director of Partnerships at what São Paulo calls its (011) Lab. “Each of the laboratories has a different take on it and how to engage people and also the public servants.”
“It’s really about finding new ways of designing and implementing public policy.”, Fernanda Balbino
Balbino is new to the municipal innovation field as well. She joined the (011) Lab last year after getting her master’s degree in international public policy at the London School of Economics. “I knew very little about innovation at first — I thought it was basically people using colourful Post-It notes and writing on the glass,” Balbino said. She’s come to see innovation as a powerful force—in São Paulo’s case, for bringing residents into meaningful conversations with civil servants about how to revamp the city’s digital services, for example. “It’s really about finding new ways of designing and implementing public policy.”
Through the Metropolis collaboration, each city learns from the others about projects where they applied their innovation methods. Following the São Paulo conference, the three city teams had planned to get together in-person again, but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of that. Instead, they meet online every other month.
The COVID-19 crisis added another unexpected dimension to the collaboration, to which they quickly responded: The three teams organised to use this common context to study their different approaches in response to the pandemic. Montevideo shared work their lab has done around connecting people in vulnerable situations with volunteers who can help pick up medicine or run errands for them. Montreal’s lab shared a project they did around food distribution. And Sao Paulo’s lab shared projects they’ve done around helping city employees transition to telework.
“This project with Metropolis has been a very important exchange space for us”, Andrea Apolaro
The exchanges have produced concrete learnings that the cities have already put to use. São Paulo was inspired by a project the Montevideo team had worked on exploring how residents felt about a public market in their neighbourhood. They did something similar in the neighbourhoods surrounding São Paulo’s network of “fab labs” in hopes of getting residents excited about taking advantage of opportunities to use the high-tech manufacturing spaces. “This project with Metropolis has been a very important exchange space for us,” said Andrea Apolaro, coordinator of Montevideo’s MVD Lab.
In the coming months, the three cities will produce a report to share the lessons they’ve learned with the rest of the world. It’s sure to be a must-read for city leaders who are contemplating next steps for their own innovation labs or thinking about launching one for the first time.
From Montréal’s perspective, St. Arnaud says the most helpful part of the Metropolis-sponsored collaboration has been helping the innovation lab define what kind of a role it should play within local government. “We are a very new lab,” she said. “To see how the other labs work has given me a new perspective of our role and place in the organisation and knowing our limits. When you are very young, that can be difficult.”
“If you don’t have the mindset of a rebel, you’re no longer an innovation lab,” Marjolaine St-Arnaud
And St-Arnaud says she’s picked up one specific piece of advice from her São Paulo colleagues: that an innovation lab must always be thinking differently and challenging assumptions. “If you don’t have the mindset of a rebel, you’re no longer an innovation lab,” St-Arnaud says. “You always need to be challenging the status quo.”