Solving Urban Challenges Through People-Led Innovation

More and more people live in urban settings. At the same time, and often resulting from the growing urban population, cities worldwide are increasingly confronted with complex environmental, social, and economic shocks and stresses. When seeking to develop adequate and sustainable responses to these challenges, cities are realizing that traditional methods and existing resources often fall short.

people-led-innovation-coverAddressing 21st century challenges will require innovative approaches.

The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, in partnership with the Bertelsmann Foundation, is releasing a new methodology aimed at empowering public entrepreneurs, particularly city-level government officials, to engage the capacity and expertise of people in solving major public challenges.

People-Led Innovation: Toward a Methodology for Solving Urban Problems in the 21st Century,” co-authored by Andrew Young, Jeffrey Brown, Hannah Pierce, and Stefaan G. Verhulst, focuses on unlocking an undervalued asset for innovation and the co-creation of solutions: people and their expertise.

The methodology incorporates lessons learned from multiple experiments and practices – including those by The GovLab such as Civic Challenges and Smarter Crowdsourcing – while drawing heavily on the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Transatlantic Policy Lab project, which used week-long living labs in Boston and Athens to source innovative and neighborhood-specific recommendations.

Designed for city officials, and others seeking ways to improve people’s lives, the methodology provides:

  1. A phased approach to helping leaders develop approaches in an iterative manner that is more effective and legitimate by placing people, and groups of people, at the center of all stages of problem-solving process, including: problem definition, ideation, experimentation, and iteration.
  2. A flexible framework that instead of rigid prescriptions, provides suggested checklists to probe a more people-led approach when developing innovative solutions to urban challenges.
  3. A matrix to determine what kind of engagement (e.g., commenting, co-creating, reviewing, and/or reporting), and by whom (e.g., community-based organizations, residents, foundation partners, among others) is most appropriate at what stage of the innovation lifecycle.
  4. A curation of inspirational examples, set at each phase of the methodology, where public entrepreneurs and others have sought to create positive impacts by engaging people in practice.

A Phased Approach Toward Unlocking the Expertise of People 


People’s expertise comes in a range of flavors – from interests and experiences, to skills and credentialed knowledge. But to design and deliver services in the most effective way possible, leaders need to unlock the knowledge and expertise of people at each stage of the innovation cycle.

To this end, the People-Led Innovation Methodology comprises four phases aimed at unlocking and applying the expertise of people to help city official innovate how they develop solutions to major public problems: (1) Define and curating problems, (2) Ideate and curating solutions, (3) Experiment and curating capacity, and (4) Communicate and curating feedback.

A Matrix to Determine How and Who to Engage in Problem-Solving

matrixWhile the People-Led Innovation Methodology is designed to engage people at every stage of the innovation cycle, it is equally important to identify and curate different groups of people – formally or informally organized – with different needs, expertise and capacity. Thus, complementing the four phases of the methodology is a “Matrix of People Engagement” that enables city leaders and others to identify who to engage at what stage and for what purpose.

This operational tool for identifying optimal pathways for engaging people in problem solving reflects the diversity of groups of people outside of government who can play different roles across the innovation lifecycle, including residents, nonprofits, local business owners, and resource partners such as foundations. It also illuminates the role people can play and how their input will be solicited, integrated and acted upon.

For More Information

To read the full report, “People Led Innovation: Toward a Methodology for Solving Urban Problems in the 21st Century,” click here. And to deploy the methodology in your city, or learn more about the project, contact Stefaan Verhulst at the GovLab ([email protected]) and Jeffrey Brown at the Bertelsmann Foundation ([email protected]).

The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering is an action-research center created to improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy by changing the way we govern. To learn more, visit, and follow on Twitter @TheGovLab.

The Bertelsmann Foundation seeks to promote and strengthen the transatlantic relationship through its research, debate forums and multimedia tools. The Foundation provides analysis and solutions to the most pressing economic, political and social challenges impacting the United States and Europe. To learn more, visit and follow on Twitter @BertelsmannFdn.