Developing Citizen-Centric Urban Services: End-user Innovation in Birmingham

Originally published as a CityREDI blog

Citizens have direct experience of the ‘problem spaces’ within urban systems and are more likely to be motivated to change existing services than incumbent providers (Noveck, 2016; Borgers et al., 2010). Consequently, it has proven valuable for the public sector to co-create with citizens (users or consumers), through capturing their ideas and integrating users’ knowledge into their service designs. Research on the private sector has found that citizens (users/consumers) not only help producers to innovate, but also can themselves be the agents of change, as they invent and modify new and existing products. This is labelled as end-user innovation (Von Hippel, 2005). In contrast to research on the private sector, end-user innovation in public services has received less attention. Consequently, we have a limited understanding of whether it remains an untapped and unexplored resource within public services.

‘Work Package 2’ of the Urban Living Birmingham project aimed to address this gap by undertaking a detailed review of end-user innovation, exploring its application to urban services, specifically in Birmingham. The primary method of data collection was 20 semi-structured interviews with representatives from Birmingham’s public services, exploring examples of where Birmingham’s citizens had been involved with changes being made to public services. The research found that end-user innovation (where the citizens themselves are the agents of change) is not common practice within Birmingham’s urban services. Instead, citizens engage through consultations (e.g. workshops connecting NHS patients with healthcare professionals) and co-creation activities (e.g. working alongside the transport provider to identify intelligent mobility solutions). The findings also highlighted how citizen engagement in Birmingham tends to be reactionary rather than proactive. The reason for this is specific barriers that restrict end-user innovation within public services. Examples of these barriers include:

  • Citizens lack the motivation to drive change
  • Citizens lack the technical expertise and/or the resources (time, money) to innovate
  • Procurement restrictions – a public service provider needs a 2 year history of accounts (something that end-user don’t have).
  • Lack of harmony of standards and systems – there are lots of different organisations involved all with different priorities.
  • Public services are so complex and bureaucratic that it is difficult for even those embedded in the system to have the ability or know how to make changes.
  • Local council funding cuts and cost pressures restricts the financial resources available to facilitate end-user engagement.

Consequently, in order to take advantage of the fact that end-users can innovate, Birmingham’s public services providers need to help or facilitate the end-users with particular tools or methods. For example:

  • Prize-backed Competitions – increases exposure and public awareness and provides encouragement through financial incentives.
  • Demonstrating that social innovation projects can have a visible impact is important for motivating end-users to innovate – reduces scepticism.
  • The abilities of end-users also increase with access to small micro-grants, as it helps them to overcome financial barriers.
  • Intermediaries are also valuable for linking end-users to relevant projects and in doing so, increasing the confidence and capabilities amongst the users. For example, Sustainability West Midlands set up a Green Communities Network to connect individuals interested in community energy practices, local energy schemes and green space parks.
  • Open data policy – one of the biggest ways that end-user innovation can be facilitated is by making access to public datasets free and easy via data sharing platform. Access to data is important since by providing access to knowledge it can stimulate end-users creativity and support the development of new applications.

These tools have the potential to empower citizens to care for their future cities and facilitate the development of citizen-centric services in the face of budget cuts and disengaged communities.

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