By Christian Bason/MindLab

New institutional forms are needed that are able to bring structure to chaos and create meaningful solutions. i-teams offer an answer.

Ask citizens and bring order to the chaos of society


New institutional forms are needed that are able to bring structure to chaos and create meaningful solutions. i-teams offer an answer.

Just before the summer break it seemed as if Park Won-soon, who had been the mayor of Seoul for the past four years, was set to lose his bid for re-election. Surprisingly, however, he was successful in winning the position back, with a significant majority (despite standing as an independent candidate against a well-funded leading candidate from South Korea's ruling party). One of the issues Park went to election on was focus on citizens' safety, after the disastrous shipwreck this spring in which over 300 South Koreans lost their lives.

But close observers also attribute Park Won-soons re-election to a secret weapon: during his first term, he established Seoul Innovation Bureau, an innovation unit, or i-team, with 58 employees who work across city departments and that reports directly to him. The organization's mission is to support the Mayor's overall vision of establishing policies and initiatives that make a positive difference in people's lives. Seoul Innovation Bureau does this in the following two ways: partly by creating and implementing practical initiatives that can be felt by the individual (such as a shared housing scheme where older citizens make their excess square metres available to students) and partly by constantly listening to citizens, inviting them to discuss their challenges  and  share their ideas. During Mayor Park's first four years in office, the Bureau held no fewer than 6,000 workshops with participation from a total of 600,000 citizens with a view to gathering their input. This corresponds to over one out of every twenty citizens in Seoul having been specifically involved in the development of ideas and having thus influenced the city's decision-making processes. Could this by why Mayor Park was able to implement such a successful campaign that effectively  reflected the citizens' concerns and gave them the confidence that Park's ambitious political promises could be put into practice and make a difference in everyday life?

Growth in "i-teams"

Seoul is far from the only city that has chosen to institutionalize systematic input from its citizens as a way of renewing the public sector. Cities from Barcelona to Bogota and Boston have also established internal innovation units.

At the end of June, the philanthropic organization of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg , in partnership with British think tank Nesta, launched a brand new survey of this type of institutions, or "i-teams". The report describes in detail how 20 selected i-teams work and the what principles on which they are built; principles which are very similar to those I have previously highlighted – and which virtually all have in common that they put people at the center of public development processes.

As I also wrote back then, this growth in innovation units and teams  seems to be a global trend. But why now exactly?

When the i-team report was published, a round table discussion was held at Nesta in London where this very question was raised. One participant pointed out that he had looked historically at when society has placed a particular focus on issues such as social innovation and renewal and that the last time this happened was in the early 1970s; so basically, an era that was characterized by a global energy crisis, new cultural and social conflicts, as well as new technologies and in fact, by major global changes generally. Sounds familiar? Are i- teams really just an old idea that has been recycled?

Order from chaos

It would seem that history is repeating itself, unfortunately. But I do think that our ability to organize ourselves in ways that deal more effectively with social turbulence and chaos has  improved since the 1970s. Back then it was only few years previously that researchers Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in the book "The Social Construction of Reality" had written that all societies are structures that we create to manage what would otherwise be chaos. With few exceptions - think NASA during the space race, for example - there were few ideas about what it means to work systematically with innovation in a social context.

During the debate at Nesta, I therefore replied to the contributor  that the reason why i-teams like Seoul Innovation Bureau were now growing in number and importance globally is not just  that  we are living in a time of increasing uncertainty, complexity, and sometimes chaos. Fortunately, we are also getting better at creating forms of organization that can help us through the major social transformations that we face. Berger and Luckmann's insight was that our society is the result of the opinion that we mutually ascribe to it. Therefore, you might consider i-teams as organizations that help to create meaning in chaos by inviting, involving and engaging citizens, policy makers and other stakeholders to find new and more powerful solutions for society. You could say that they institutionalize innovation processes. If they are successful over time and are able to help ambitious people like Seoul's Park Won-soon stay in power, then i-teams are likely to have a bright future. At least until we run out of challenges, that is.