"I joke this is an arranged marriage," says co-Chief Officer of Innovation Kristine LaLonde. Fellow co-chief Yiaway Yeh laughs at this characterization, but both agree that the arranger, Mayor Karl Dean, deserves a lot of credit for bringing them together.
"The way the office came to be — it wasn't the result of a crisis," LaLonde says. It was instead, to coin a phrase, a vision thing. After Yeh, a former mayor of Palo Alto, Calif., had some discussions with Mayor Dean as he was preparing to move to Nashville, and LaLonde, a former Metro council member, had some discussions with various administration officials, "They were like, 'Come on, come do it,' " LaLonde says, "which is pretty incredible."
LaLonde hasn't had time to do much yet — the formation of the new office was publicly announced in April, but she had just started her second week on the job when she and Yeh recently sat down to talk with the Scene in the mayor's press room. Broadly speaking, the Office of Innovation's plans center on, as Yeh puts it, a "vision of a government that's more efficient, more transparent, more constituent-focused." Some of that, he says, "is driven by this desire to innovate in an environment that has a lot of innovators."
Much of the effort will involve connecting good ideas with people who can use them, and vice versa. "We can see things from outside a departmental silo," LaLonde says, "so maybe the solution to a problem in Department X lives in Department Y."
Yeh's focus will be on IT, data and entrepreneurship, and he says that will include fostering "an entrepreneurial mindset" within Metro while also looking for ways to connect progressive ideas around the city.
"Part of our role is going to be a connecting role," he says. "Picking through what does it mean to have this person who is passionate and has the skills that are coming from outside of government that might align really well with this department."
LaLonde's focus will be on social services, poverty and vulnerable populations — which is itself an innovation.
"There has not been an innovation office that focuses in on vulnerable populations," Yeh says. "It's great we have this two-person office where we're talking through it, and we're saying, 'How do these converge?' and that's the overlap we're identifying."
"Poverty is not a Metro issue, it's not a nonprofit issue — it's a citywide, community-wide issue," LaLonde says. Both she and Yeh share the mayor's sense that, as LaLonde puts it: "Government should be a collaborative partner with the nonprofit sector, with business, with citizens. It's a platform for engagement and change. It's not just a service delivery system."
And while the term "innovation" may call to mind digital technology and shiny new apps, LaLonde and Yeh insist that's only part of the overall picture. While data — and more importantly, finding the right data points for a specific problem — will inform all their endeavors, they say they won't allow tech-for-tech's-sake to drive their thinking.
"We do see innovation as a disciplined process," Yeh says. "It's not something that can just flash through and be done. The sustainability aspect ... is on our minds constantly. How do we make sure it has legs? That it has continuity?"
For now, the duo has been focused on sitting down with as many Nashvillians (and Bostonians and New Yorkers) as possible, to get a feel for how and where they can best apply their efforts.
"We both feel so lucky that we get to do this work," LaLonde says. "It's exciting."
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