In July 2016, San Francisco came together with local nonprofits, several universities, and the federal government to launch a shiny new venture: Superpublic, an innovation lab. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the lab’s 5,000 square-foot space in downtown San Francisco, the city’s former mayor Mark Farrell called the project “the future.”
But within a year, the lab had shut its doors.
Over the past decade, civic innovation incubators like Superpublic have become something of a trend in city government. Though their work can vary widely, their basic goal is to fuse out-of-the-box thinking into government, often by implementing new technology. The labs bring in tech companies or university researchers to spitball ideas with municipal officials and then pilot new projects — like a city-services app or a school bus tracker.
Innovation labs are growing in number because they are critical for modern government, leaders at labs across the country told StateScoop, but, as the case of Superpublic illustrates, they are not always sustainable.
“The reality of government innovation is that it’s actually very difficult. It’s very hard. It goes very slowly. Whenever you change things, you’re basically up against the status quo,” said Jorrit de Jong, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who specializes in public sector innovation.