Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Innovation, implementation and community resilience

Innovation is: production or adoption, assimilation, and exploitation of a value-added novelty in economic and social spheres; renewal and enlargement of products, services, and markets; development of new methods of production; and establishment of new management systems. It is both a process and an outcome.Wikipedia

If our communities are to become more resilient, then they will have to innovate.  They will have to become “learning organizations” that are developing the tools needed for tomorrow today.  Most of us know this almost instinctively; but what we seldom pay attention to is the not-so-trivial last step of the innovation process:  implementation.  There are literally hundreds even thousands of innovative ideas floating around in each of our communities; they are worthless if not implemented.

As a voracious reader literature in a variety of fields, I say without fear of contradiction that for every paper that focuses on implementation of innovations there are at least 100 delving into what innovations are needed or useful.  It’s a human trait to focus on the novel – the new shiny bauble; and to ignore the nitty gritty of how it became real.

In the following, I want to focus on implementation – the back end of the innovation process.  I will use material I’ve adapted from the “Implementation Science” website (who knew there was a science of implementation – my thanks to David Eisenman, who did).

Implementation Science has collected lessons learned from successful implementations of medical, educational, and other advances in the “soft sciences.”  I’ve slightly modified these to reflect my own experience developing, providing and implementing innovations in STEM fields.

Implementation can be considered as the product of a useful innovation and a context that enables success.  “Implementation Science” stresses that success in implementation can be thought of as the arithmetic product of these, i.e., both are necessary.

 Context

We can further refine these into the Implementation hexagon (again adapted from Implementation Science); the components of a useful innovation on top, and of an enabling context on the bottom.  Each of these plays an important role in the implementation process.

 Implement hex

The usefulness of an innovation can be thought of as consisting of three components – opportunity, effectiveness and fit.  An innovation’s usefulness is the product of these three, i.e., all are essential if implementation is to occur.

Opportunity:  The opportunity itself has to result in a benefit for the community, e.g., a solution to an unsolved problem or an enabler of improvement.  Ultimately, the size of the opportunity comes down to return on investment – how much the community benefits vs the costs of implementation.  It is important to recognize that the investment is never only financial – it includes development of the human capital needed to deploy the innovation and, often, the political capital (e.g., working with a regulator) to gain acceptance for implementation.  Clearly, the costs and the benefits may be perceived differently among different parts of the community.

Effectiveness:  A innovation’s effectiveness is simply how well it does what it is supposed to do.  An effective innovation should work both for a nominal average or expected set of conditions and also over some range of possible conditions, i.e., it should degrade gracefully.  An innovation successfully implemented in one setting may not work in another.  This uncertainty of “Will this work in my community?” can be a significant barrier to implementation.

Fit:  In today’s interconnected communities, any innovation has to be effective in the community’s setting.  In addition, an innovation should slice through a problem as neatly as a surgeon’s scalpel and leave the rest of the community undisturbed.  In real life, there are always side effects and unintended consequences.  Fit refers to how well an innovation can be integrated with the rest of the community’s processes and systems.

The context of implementation also consists of three components – the innovation provider, the readiness of the innovation to be implemented, and the implementer.  The degree to which the context enables success is again the product of all three; all are necessary.

Innovation provider:  During one of the sessions at the recent Natural Hazards Conference, a member of the panel echoed something I’ve found in my own experience.  Successful implementation requires an implementation team consisting of a technology provider and an implementer. The technology provider plays important roles in the implementation process.

  • Supplier.  The provider understands the community’s needs and supplies an innovation to meet the need. The supplier is often not the developer of the innovation, but rather a sort of technologist who understands the community’s problems and finds the right science to solve them.
  • Interface to and advocate for the innovation’s developer.  This is an important role because developers (“scientists”) often do not fully recognize the constraints imposed by working in a community setting.
  • Support for implementation.  In most cases, the implementer’s staff will have little relevant experience working with a particular innovation.  The provider can provide a buffer while the implementer’s staff climb the learning curve.  In some cases, the developer can play this role; however, researchers seldom have both the patience, the communication skills and
  • Improvement.  Once implemented, the provider can also help the implementer find solutions to unforeseen problems or to provide incremental improvements, reaching back to the developer when necessary.

This suggests that the provider may be the key link in the chain connecting fundamental science to implementation.  It is this link between fundamental science and community practitioners that is crucial for implementation to be successful.

Readiness:  An innovation’s readiness for implementation includes not only its maturity but also includes several other factors.  Among the most important are

  • Buy-in by relevant stakeholders;
  • Identification of what’s required for successful implementation;
  • Availability of required supporting materials.

Implementer:  The implementer is that part of the community (e.g., a department in municipal government, a community coalition, an NGO) that is responsible for putting the innovation in place.  An easy way to think of the implementer’s role as that of an investor:

  • Financially investing in facilities and equipment;
  • Investing in its own human capital through hiring and training;
  • Investing political capital to get the buy-in of other stakeholders, including regulators and external groups such as the state and potentially federal agencies.

Quite simply, successful implementation is unlikely if the implementer is unwilling to invest in and advocate for an innovation. In doing this, the implementer will usually work with the provider to make the case for investment.

Our communities won’t be more resilient in the future using the tools of the past.  Innovations are necessary to deal with the old and new challenges our communities will face.  It is fun and easy to brainstorm and dream up all kinds of new approaches, new tools, new policies.  Implementation is hard work, but it is absolutely necessary if our communities are to innovate; if our communities are to become more resilient.