Rinat Guy is Chief Innovation Officer at the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. We asked Rinat to tell us about the innovation program she runs and the fascinating story of how it came to be.
In recent years, the management of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, Israel’s cultural, business and nightlife center and 2nd most populated city, headed by Mayor Ron Huldai, has been leading a move to assimilate innovative thinking into daily work at the municipality.
We are not talking about innovation to make a nice impression, nor is it innovation created in conference rooms in Tel-Aviv’s magnificent towers nor from Silicon Valley laboratories. It’s innovation born out of real needs, real challenges and mostly from listening to what’s happening on the ground, created from employees, from people and for people.
We have become an organization that asks questions about how one can innovate and what can be done differently to get better. This isn’t about technology because innovation is not just technology. It is a different form of thinking and looking at problems, thinking about the existing out of a desire to improve it.
Six years ago I was working for the municipality as a cross-organizational project manager. When I suggested to the city administration that we set up an innovation program for employees the reactions were very doubtful such as: “We love innovation, it’s just a pity there is no budget”, “We are doing so well, so why change?”, or “This will be a waste of time” .
Finally when the mayor realized I would not give up he told me “You now have a new project. Build a plan for innovation, but without a budget, without dedicated manpower and without tools and do not forget your current work since this is in addition to your current role.
So it took me almost a year, and I studied the subject in Israel and abroad, in academia, in business and public bodies. The one person who believed in me, was Ahi Gvirtsman, an innovation expert who was at the time, VP of innovation at HP and is currently the co-founder and CKO of Spyre. He was always happy to advise me, help me and kept telling me not to give up because when innovation is introduced there will be cynicism, disregard, ridicule and that it is part of the process and this dream I have must not be given up. Another thing that he helped me with was the methodology that he devised which I was able to use as the basis for my work.
After a year, I came to the conclusion that innovation is not a project that begins and ends. Innovation is not a slogan, innovation is a way of life. The way to change and improve the lives of all of us, our community, the way we see reality. So how do we do that? How do you innovate in a complex bureaucratic organization with 15,000 employees? The Tel Aviv Municipality encourages innovation in various ways. We harness the resources around us to improve the quality of life in the city. We started with our human capital – the workers. We believe that innovation starts with people and that employees are a source of inspiration for innovation. The innovation unit has developed the ITAY (Innovation Tel Aviv Yafo) model which is a groundbreaking urban model. A diverse human cluster (employees, teachers, students, researchers, residents) collaborates around joint initiatives that address the challenges of the city and community with a focus on strategic innovation, internal organizational innovation, educational innovation and open innovation.
We started with the employees. I believe that every employee has the ability to innovate, change and create added value. Employees get a firsthand experience of the problems and the needs and they are the ones who can also invent great innovative solutions. We just need to create the conditions to allow that to happen. We just need to offer them a platform.
The goal was to reach out to all city employees and encourage them to come up with creative ideas for the benefit of city residents. But how do we reach 1,000 employees?
We have trained innovation ambassadors. We selected 30-40 creative and motivated employees who were suitable to be agents of change. We conducted the same course of 8 sessions in which they were exposed to a wide range of approaches / techniques for dealing with urban challenges. Content such as Design Thinking, Lean Canvas, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), Presentation skills and standing in front of an audience and much more. Today we have 194 innovation ambassadors whose job it is to be agents of change in their units and encourage their colleagues to think of creative solutions for the well-being of the city’s residents.
- Over 3000 employees have actively participated in the program.
- Over 100 ideas are submitted every year.
- Annually, about 10 workshops are held, dedicated to the needs of various units.
- 3 courses of innovation ambassadors a year
The change in perception of this model is that the municipal management presents the challenges and the employees themselves bring the solutions. Once a year we hold an innovation competition. Employees take the stage and present their TED-style ideas in the presence of the mayor, city council and 500 guests. Good ideas get a budget for pilot implementation. If successful the pilot will expand the venture and replicate it to more places in the city.
So far 22 ideas have been fully implemented and 5 more are in advanced stages of implementation. The process is systematic and not one-time. It is a radical act that we have only benefited from and it is an organizational culture that every organization can and must in my opinion adopt.
A particularly exciting example was the “John 4 On” project – the integration of students with complex disabilities in the world of employment, which won second place at our Urban Innovation Conference in November 2019. The project was conceived by an art teacher, who participated in an innovation coaching course, from the On School, which is a rehabilitative social educational framework for students with cerebral palsy (C.P) and complex disabilities.
The project for the senior class (18-21) has been successfully implemented and takes place in a variety of unique workshops, with 15 students participating, some of whom are approaching adulthood. The purpose of the project is to prepare students for professions in the market as well as to help prepare work portfolios that will assist in finding a suitable job after graduation. The workshops are held with the help of volunteers from various fields – product design, fashion design, architecture, building computer games, etc’. Some of the volunteers themselves have disabilities or are parents of children with disabilities and beyond practical learning, there are also lectures on how to handle clients in the various professions and how to manage and work in an office so that students can integrate into the labor market as easily as possible.
We started with the employees and we continued with residents, with primary school teachers, special education, with kindergarten teachers and we have a partnership with Tel Aviv University.
The “Tel Vekach” project – a community object library allows you to borrow practical, space consuming items such as a drill, a cage for cats, a baby seat and return it when you finish using it. This saves our city’s inhabitants money and also precious storage space in the apartment.
We are in a constant process of encouraging creativity and different ways of thinking among employees, teachers and residents. The projects come from completely different content worlds, yet they all try to solve urban problems or community challenges in new and fresh ways.
We cultivate a supportive atmosphere for startups. In the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo, there is the highest concentration of startups in the world per capita. At any given moment, there are about 1,700 companies operating in the city. City management is promoting policies to help startups and reduce taxation. We have established 7 urban workspaces in one of which we are also located called “Cityzone”. Here we host startups that can apply their technology to urban challenges as a Beta site and test it for up to a year. There is a large field of experiments here on urban issues in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the municipal Atidim company.
What Tel-aviv’s innovation program has produced in recent years demonstrates that only those who are deeply familiar with the needs and challenges – can come up with excellent answers. The freshness of the city of Tel Aviv – Jaffa is not only in its streets. It actually seeps into the corridors of the city’s municipality and infects everyone there with great enthusiasm. Tel-Aviv’s nickname is “A city that never stops”. It has now become a city that never stops renewing itself.