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Redesign and “Minnovation,” toward common good and economic growth

Date Published: 02/21/2013

Author: Dane Smith


Watching a PBS documentary recently in which naturalized U.S. citizens describe exactly why they love their new country, I was struck by the number of people who praised not just freedom and the opportunity to get ahead and start a business, but by many others who marveled at the safety and security and the equal access provided by our innovative governments.

One Latina woman, for instance, gushed over the miracle of 911 emergency service—how in America if you are in grave danger or need, no matter how much money you have in your pocketbook, you can just pick up a phone, hit those three little numbers, and within minutes expert professional helps rushes to your assistance.

This innovation, a product of governments and innovative telecommunications businesses working together, with its roots in the LBJ administration, is one of the great unsung improvements in our communities over the last 50 years. I had reason to use it myself last year, and was mightily impressed by the speed, skill and professionalism of the emergency responders in St. Paul.

Everywhere one looks these days in national and state public affairs and media circles, the hot topic is redesign and innovation, for everything from large public institutions and programs, to tax systems in Minnesota, to business methods and ethics. President Obama in his State of the Union and Gov. Mark Dayton in his State of the State address repeatedly emphasized the theme, and this new innovation imperative now reaches far beyond the conventional realm of technology and business, or what used to be called “building a better mousetrap.”

We need to welcome this spirit and celebrate it, and we need to keep after it, not letting it become a passing policy fad.

We can look back and be assured that public and private innovation has been a distinctive hallmark of our great state, ranging from grain-milling methods, to water skis and snowmobiles, to Post-It notes, to universal education access and emphasis, to coordinated metropolitan governance, to MinnesotaCare and better health for low-income working families, to one of the nation’s best new bike trail systems, to the Mayo Clinic’s outstanding results emphasizing coordinated care and collaborative practice.

Looking forward, next week a reception and celebration will be held at the Minnesota History Center, focusing on the current redesign efforts captured in the TPT-TV documentary series “Redesigning MN” and the “Beyond the Bottom Line” reports developed by leading Minnesota foundations, which outlines bold new ideas for improving the delivery of public services and containing costs.

Rapid technological change, which allows, for instance, anybody at all to audit an entire course taught by the best Harvard professors, is enabling and driving much of this interest in innovation. But demographic change is more important, namely, the challenges and opportunities posed by a much larger and more dependent population on one end of the age spectrum and a much more racially and culturally diverse population on the other end.

The good news is that innovation activity is bursting out all over in Minnesota.

These are among the most promising areas of thinking and advocacy around innovation, continuous improvement, and redesign in Minnesota, each of which offers webpage portals to lots of other constructive redesign information.

Redesigning Minnesota, an outstanding TPT-TV project, runs a webpage featuring links to video documentaries on the subject, and an excellent little video whiteboard presentation of “The New Normal” imposed by demographic changes. TPT-TV’s work will be featured at the evening event celebrating redesign on Feb. 27 at the History Center.

Education Evolving is a Minnesota-based national center for education redesign, led by some of Minnesota’s most experienced policy mavens, with a goal of “creating radically different and better ways for young people to learn and for teachers to work.” Recent focus has been on the value of “teacher autonomy” and the success of Finland’s educational system.

Grow Minnesota is a program of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that offers a quarterly update of companies “succeeding through innovation,” awards “Progress Minnesota” recognition to innovative companies, and works creatively with businesses and the public sector to solve problems, all aimed at retaining and growing businesses in Minnesota. The program’s recent report on success stories are fascinating and uplifting.

A Minnesota Local Government Innovation & Redesign Guide has been published by University of Minnesota’s Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center, under the leadership of Jay Kiedrowski, one of our state’s most respected policy experts. The guide, revised last month and labeled “Navigating the New Normal,” provides a comprehensive tutorial and dozens of examples of local government innovation, and the center regularly issues awards for the same.

Minnovations is a new resource that serves as a central repository with links to all things innovative going on in Minnesota, in state and local governments, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. The site was developed by Peggy Byrne, a former state legislator who also served in the now defunct Minnesota Planning Agency.

Change for the sake of change can be meaningless and superficial. And real innovation, doing something new and different that adds value, must be driven toward measurable goals and outcomes, with a grander purpose of common good and responsible private gain.

In other words, innovation and redesign are means and tools, not the ends or the final product. It’s heartening to know that so many Minnesotans are working so hard on new tools for improving the final product.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, February 21, 2013.

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