Selecting Pilot Cities for the Community Innovation Labs

Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation, EmcArts
Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation, EmcArts

This post is the third in a series that chronicles the journey of the Community Innovation Labs from conception to design through piloting. Read the first and second posts and stay tuned for more this fall. – Karina

In January 2015, we announced the Community Innovation Labs in a short email to our list. The message was shy on specifics (we were still early in the design process), but the idea of a process framework that deeply integrates artists into the cross-sector efforts at systems change clearly struck a chord. We heard from folks all across the country that expressed interest in the program, had questions, or wanted to follow along as the pilots unfolded. Two months later, we officially launched the pilot identification process and started accepting formal inquiries.

In all, we received 92 inquiries from 71 communities in 28 states. Inquiries came from city agencies, arts councils, non-profit leaders, individual artists, community organizers, some solo and in coalitions of several of the above. We thought this a remarkable number and range of responses at such an early stage. We were encouraged!

In this post, I’ll reflect on how we went from 92 inquiries to arriving at the five cities we visited and the two we selected as pilots.

But first, our big takeaways from the selection process as a whole.

What we learned while selecting the pilot sites:

  • Keep the inquiry process simple: Since we were only able to select two sites to pilot the Community Innovation Labs, we kept the formal inquiry process short and simple. The inquiry form had three questions, which captured just enough information to help us figure out whether the inquiry was on the right track, then we followed up with a call (or two or three).
  • Recognize that written materials are of limited use when dealing with complexity: It’s challenging to communicate in writing about complex, interlocking community issues. One of the key features of complexity is that the problem itself is often hard to define. We were careful not to disregard inquiries that were not crisp and clear about the challenge, and instead, created space for more clarity to emerge through follow up calls and emails. This felt countercultural to a typical application review process, where good quality writing, a feasible plan, and clearly defined outcomes get high marks.
  • Start by listening: Most of the communities we spoke with were new to us. Throughout the inquiry process we spent most of our time listening, asking probing questions, and sensing the tensions and possibilities for each applicant. Sure, we also spent time explaining the program, but since we were still in the design stage, many of the details were being held lightly. In fact, the listening we did during the inquiry calls contributed in many significant ways to the evolving program design.
  • Develop criteria and be radically transparent about them: As we narrowed the list and honed in on 11 communities as possible sites to visit, we began circulating a 3-page document in advance of our follow-up calls about what the site visit would entail. The document included the 22 (very) detailed questions our internal team was considering in the site selection process. For example: Is an arts-integrated (but not an arts-centered) approach evident in the site visit attendees? To what extent is the system to be changed nested within larger systems (locally, regionally, nationally) whose dynamics would also have to change? We could have kept these questions to ourselves, assuming that it was too much information to the sites to find useful, but we felt that it was far more useful (to us and our potential sites) to be fully transparent about what we were wrestling with behind the scenes. 
  • Anticipate that pilots will have special demands: If we were launching a full version of the Lab framework, this process would have looked different. But we weren’t. We were setting out to pilot the front end of the Lab approach in just two cities in a tight timeline. This being a pilot required that the sites be willing to be oriented to learning, prepared for uncertainty, and have the capacity to manage emergence. This was going to put special demands on the sites we selected and acknowledging this throughout the selection was important.

Selecting sites to visit

By April, we’d narrowed our group of possible communities from 92 to 11. The two most common reasons for an inquiry not being considered a fit for the pilots were:

  • The focus was organizational, not systemic, in nature: The Labs are intended to take on messy, complex challenges that aren’t the responsibility of any one organization or agency. A number of inquiries focused on organizational challenges that would have been a better for our Innovation Labs for the Arts. 
  • The challenge was entirely arts-centric: The Labs were designed to take on challenges that do not sit squarely in the arts sector, but rather within the wider social sector. Challenges about funding in the arts, access to the arts, or executing an artistic project were not considered a fit for the pilot Labs.

The decisions and dilemmas involved in narrowing from 11 to 5 for the site visits were considerably more difficult, and complicated by the reality that this is a pilot initiative. That means we have to balance the potential for impact for the sites with the potential for learning for EmcArts, all while recognizing that we were only piloting phase 1 of the full Lab framework, without guarantee that there would be funds to complete the full arc of work – a considerable uncertainty for us and for the pilot sites.

Here’s how we made sense of the decision amidst all the unknowns:

  • How saturated is the community already with related initiatives? We received strong inquiries from large metropolitan areas such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New Orleans. These are major US cities, each with large-scale community development efforts already underway, from Promise Zones to ArtPlace and Our Town projects, to recently completed cultural plans, to Mayor’s Initiatives and Task Forces. We came away from our conversations with these cities convinced that in almost all cases a Lab could bring unique value and be of considerable use. However, in many cases we determined that it would take more time than the pilots’ timetable allowed to situate the Lab in a complementary way to other ongoing work and to untangle the local dynamics enough to find a high-leverage entry point for the Lab.
  • How strong are the conveners? The capacity, relationships, and track record of the conveners emerged as a critical factor at this point. With the rapid pace of the pilots (7 full days of activities from August to December 2015 and many more in planning) we realized it was essential to work with local partners who had strong existing relationships in the community across a full spectrum — from traditional power brokers to community organizers to residents. This also led us to a preference for joint inquiries, where conveners could draw on multiple networks. And finally, we determined it made most sense to pilot in places where the conveners had the baseline staff capacity and resources needed to hit the ground running and take on the logistics.

After careful deliberations and more follow-up calls, we decided on five cities to visit in May and June, each with a different proposed focus for a Lab:

  • Providence, RI – Focusing on public safety in the Trinity Square neighborhood.
  • Pittsburgh – Focusing on structural racism in the city as a whole
  • Bangor, ME – Focusing on the opiate addiction epidemic in Bangor and the surrounding rural area
  • Baltimore, MD – Focusing on schools and their role as community hubs.
  • Winston-Salem, NC – Focusing on inequities in employment along race and class lines.

In addition to meeting the criteria, hitting the right level of available attention, and having strong conveners, we also wanted to visit a group of sites that were varied in population size (from less than 30,000 in Bangor and over 2 million in the metropolitan area of Baltimore), and wide-ranging in issue focus, and in type of convener. This would give us the best opportunity to imagine how the Lab framework could play out in different contexts.

About the site visits

Each site visit lasted 3 to 4 hours with a group of 10 to 20 local stakeholders in each community. We asked the local convener(s) to pull together a group that was cross-sector and arts-integrated, which included people who hold traditional forms of power and those who are disempowered by the current system. We suggested that everyone should be an influencer, whether formal or informal.

Across the five sites, the visits included 72 people , including artists, arts leaders, city officials, police officers, doctors, community organizers, community development leaders, public health specialists, nonprofit leaders, business owners, funders, and many more.

The purposes of the visit were for EmcArts to listen and learn more about the community and the complex problem it’s facing, to work with community members to further clarify what a Lab approach would look like, and to assess the readiness and will of the stakeholders to move forward with a pilot Lab. We also intended for the visits to be an opportunity for community stakeholders to learn more about the EmcArts Community Innovation Lab approach and to assess the suitability of the Lab approach and EmcArts as a partner.

During each site visit, we explored six areas of inquiry through a combination of large-group discussions, small-group discussions, activities, and observation:

  • Scope of the Problem: What’s the complex social problem? How has it resisted traditional planning or problem-solving approaches?
  • Commitment to a Systemic Approach: How adept is the group at examining the underlying driving forces of the problem at a systems level? Is there an emerging awareness of what underlying drivers and leverage points might be within the system?
  • Clarity of Intention: What visions of the future are emerging? Is it moving towards justice and equity? What momentum is already in place? Are there overlapping or redundant initiatives already happening?
  • Strength of Leadership and Team: How credible and trusted are the core agencies? Were they able to convene a group that is cross-sector and arts-integrated? Are they able to begin to identify possible champions for a Lab?
  • Capacity to carry out the work: Is there a local agency with the capacity to manage the process? Is there local talent in terms of artists and facilitators?
  • Alignment with the process: How comfortable is the group with an experimental approach where the outcomes are fundamentally uncertain? How prepared are they for a process in which action is intentionally deferred to give space for reframing, building relationships and networks, and letting go of old assumptions?

Selecting the pilots

The site visits were tremendously valuable. We were able to dig deeper into the problematic situation in each community, get a glimpse of what a transformed future could look like, and uncover whether the Lab was a timely and good fit.

We learned that there were tremendous strengths in each community, and ample opportunities for learning. There were also risks and uncertainties in each. We would have been fortunate to work with any of the communities and courageous leaders we visited, and we hope to have the opportunity to do so in the future.

The nature of the pilot process, with it’s limited time frame and resources, however, meant that we had to select only two. We were grateful to have our areas of inquiry outlined above and our guiding questions, plus all we’d learned from the inquiry process as a whole to guide us in the process.

It was a tough decision, but in the end there were two communities that emerged as the best fit for the Lab approach, the most ready to dive into the work, and the best fit to the goals of our pilot initiative.

Tomorrow, on August 11th, we’ll formally announce the two pilot sites. We’re thrilled to be setting out on this journey with our local partners. We’re already learning a tremendous amount from beginning the work with them and look forward to much more.

Stay tuned for the announcement and for the next blog in this series, in which I’ll reflect on how we’re rooting the Community Innovation Labs deeply in each local community.



Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.