Public Sector Innovation: Learning From History

At a conference attended in December on the “Future of the Crowdsourced City” a major topic of discussion was how city governments — or other city organizations — could embrace new technologies.

Although nearly 20 years old, I thought this article was remarkably relevant for debates today about how to foster technology-enabled innovation in local governments. Titled “Implementing GIS for Planning: Lessons from the History of Technological Innovation,” the article is written by noted planning scholar Judith Innes and a former student David Simpson, and was published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 1993.

Observing that GIS had recently become widespread in government, the article poses the question how planners can adapt this technology to their unique needs. In order to answer the question, they argue planners should approach GIS as a socially constructed technology. Contrary to the view that all innovation is produced by an inventor and recognized by a market, this view stresses innovation resulting from an iterative, nonlinear process. Therefore innovation is “only integrated into practice through mutual adaptation between users’ practices and technology’s capabilities.” Following a study by Bikson about organizations adopting computer systems, they argue successful introduction of new technology requires several factors: organizational mission to implement the technology, training programs and rewards for employees who learn to use it, user participation in development.

Introducing technology alone may not be enough: what is needed is creating a culture of innovation? The article identifies five principles for innovation success from Rogers (1983):

  • simplicity
  • observability of benefits
  • relative advantage
  • ability to make small trials
  • compatibility (with community’s culture)

Does your innovation meet these criteria? This paper concludes that although GIS violates the conditions more often than not, they are cautiously optimistic about the ability of planners to “develop strategies that will encourage transformations of planning practice in response to the opportunities that GIS offer.”

Without going into a full discussion, the prognosis was prescient. Although GIS has emerged as a discrete technology and profession, planners have influenced its development and have created new tools to fit their needs, such as web-based data viewers or specialized analysis tools. In a recent exchange, several scholars argued the field had lost some control over the technology, while others answered new Web 2.0 technologies may actually be much more suited for the collaborative nature of planning practice than older technologies were.

Although new technologies today are radically different than those who spawned these theories, following them seems reasonable advice for success. However they also caution against naive assumptions technology leads to organizational transformation. According to the the principle of compatibility, if an innovation is not compatible with the prevailing organizational culture, winning acceptance may require nothing less than cultural change.

JAPA: “Implementing GIS for Planning: Lessons from the History of Technological Innovation

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Nice article, it reminded me of this article from Tim Harford, one of my favorite economists, on the adoption of technology by industry. Here’s a quote:

    “New technology takes time to have a big economic impact. More importantly, businesses and society itself have to adapt before that will happen. Such change is always difficult and, perhaps mercifully, slower than the march of technology.”

    Full article at:

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  3. Somewhere in Florida is a city called Winter [forgot] (Winter Park? Winter Springs?) Who had on their city website some cool pro-business tools using mapping. On this site you can look for office space, retail space, refine by zoning, square footage, etc and get the contact info of the management or landlord.
    My own home county has a slow system, but chockfull of info, where you can go to a map, click on a property, find all the public info related to that property- owner, permits, taxes, and pdfs of related documents- divorce, death certificates, quit claims, mortgage docs (minus any SS#s), etc. From that I could see a property that I was going to buy had at one time in the housing bubble a $144K loan, up from the $20k-40K it had sold for in the surrounding 20 years with 6 other owners.

    So the local government in Florida (at least) provides useful information for people looking to invest capital in those areas.

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