If You Want to Practice Inclusive Innovation, Start With Values

January 24, 2018
Jennifer Bradley, Director, Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute

"My values are foundational… They are the architecture, the pillars that I'm building things on, and when I don't have the right ones in place … then everything that's built on top of that is flawed." -Mia Birdsong, Writer and Advocate for Families

One of our first projects at the Center for Urban Innovation was to convene about 30 leaders of businesses and non-profits, government officials, and philanthropic grantmakers in a working group on the topic of inclusive innovation. Our goal was to learn more about how people implement inclusive innovation in their own organizations. Over the course of three convenings, the group identified four high-priority topics: values, tools, co-creation and civic engagement.

Over the next several weeks the Center will post interviews that will let working group members and other practitioners share how values, tools, co-creation and civic engagement play out in their work. Over and over, our working group members said, "None of this matters if we don't start with values."

Through this work, I came to some important realizations. First, all policies and practices are based on values, including efficiency, preservation of the status quo, disruption, maximizing profit, equity, inclusion, and countless others. But (while there are many wonderful exceptions) organizations, governments, and people are often not explicit about the values that guide their work. People and organizations tend to be good at articulating goals, but if they don't also articulate the values that form a foundation for those goals, they can't be held accountable for whether those goals are aligned with those values or whether the processes they use to achieve them are aligned with their values. An institution might, for example, display a fervent commitment to benefitting underserved people, but unwittingly exclude underserved people in the process of achieving that stated outcome.

Second, I learned that inclusion and co-creation are hard and messy, and it's easy to get frustrated and waver in one's commitment to this work. Values provide a North Star when letting go of familiar processes and expectations of what "good" work looks like. Because inclusion is not the default setting in most policy-making or implementation, practicing inclusion can feel uncomfortable, even upsetting, for people who have thrived under the status quo. I experienced that discomfort many times with this working group. For example, like a good D.C policy wonk, I thought that the inclusive innovation working group meetings would result in a toolkit that would provide best practices for inclusive innovation. But working group members pushed back in favor of slowing down, staying messy, and hearing from practitioners themselves. Inclusion won't always produce what you expect.

In the interviews, I asked:

  • What values guide your work?
  • Can you tell us about a time when some of your values were in conflict, and how you resolved that?
  • What do you think is the purpose of values?
  • Tell me about a time that your organizational values guided you through a difficult decision.
  • How do you hold yourself accountable to your values?

How would you answer these questions, for yourself or your organization? Are your values reflected in your policies, processes, and practices? If not, what values are being enacted instead? What would it take to create alignment?

The Center for Urban Innovation's values are: inclusion, integrity, collaboration, respect, clarity, and empathy. We are also drawn to efficiency and measureable, rewardable, fundable results. Our consistent challenge is to find the right balance when those good things don't all go together. When do we stand down on efficiency and stay steady in the slow and hard to measure work of inclusion, collaboration, and empathy, especially when we don't know what will result?

I hope these posts inspire readers to investigate implicit values, to talk more about revealed as opposed to stated values, and to embrace values that challenge the status quo with respect to inclusion and innovation. If our values never cause discomfort or drive hard choices, we should ask whether we've chosen the right ones.

Jennifer Bradley is the Founding Director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute. The Center was created in 2015 to connect and support leaders from government, business, non-profits and philanthropy who want to drive inclusive innovation in America's cities and metropolitan areas.

This blog series is supported by the Citi Foundation, a vital early supporter of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute. With the Citi Foundation's help, the Center convened leading-edge practitioners to develop a shared set of principles to guide a cross-sector approach to inclusive innovation in low- and middle-income neighborhoods, and to determine how the Aspen Institute could support this practice.

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