Govlaunch Podcast

Aurora, IL embarks on new social innovation initiative to promote local nonprofits and strengthen the city

Episode Summary

Led by Aurora’s Chief Innovation Officer, Adrienne Holloway, Ph.D., the Innovation Department in Aurora is helping support local nonprofit and social organizations through an incubator program and co-working space in their downtown.

Episode Notes

The goal of the social innovation initiative? A sense of community and collaboration to promote development of local nonprofits to ultimately strengthen the City. Launched in early 2020, Thrive Collaborative Center is the first co-working space in the Fox Valley area that supports the social sector. Read more.

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Featured government: Aurora, IL

Episode guests: Adrienne Holloway, Ph.D., Chief Innovation Officer

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Episode Transcription

Lindsay: (00:05)

Welcome to the Govlaunch Podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast we’re sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I’m Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host. 

Local government news in the U.S. has been abuzz with Aurora, Illinois’ recent move to expand their 605 Innovation District city-wide. While we applaud these efforts to drive technology-centered innovation at such a large scale, we did just cover a similar undertaking in Dublin. And with a majority of local governments around the world being far less resourced to tackle these massive endeavors today, we’re looking for actionable innovation projects that a government of any size can try. 

So today, I have the pleasure of sitting down with Adrienne Holloway from Aurora, IL to drive into a project focused on economic growth and support of startups, nonprofits and social enterprises in the greater downtown area….one you may be able to do in your government.

Let’s see what Adrienne and her innovation team in Aurora are up to. 

Lindsay: (01:14)

Hi, Adrienne. Thanks so much for joining me today. Can you quickly introduce yourself and share a bit about your role? 

Adrienne: (01:19)

Sure. Lindsay is such a pleasure to join you today as well. Hi, I'm Adrienne Holloway. I am the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Aurora, Illinois, the first innovation officer as well. So I had the pleasure of actually creating what we call the innovation and core services department. Really just determining what innovation was going to be like for the city of Aurora as a governmental entity. So we actually created more of an umbrella approach to innovation for the city where we focus both on social innovation and tech innovation. And there are many activities that we've been able to be involved in as a result of that structure. 

Lindsay: (01:56)

In the past year, you've been involved in the deployment of a project aimed to help grow and support local nonprofit organizations. Can you share a bit more about this project specifically? 

Adrienne: (02:06)

Sure. It's a very exciting project. One that we've been working on for probably about a year or so. It's called the Thrive Collaborative Center and what it is. It's an incubator plus a coworking space designed to support what we call the social sector. And that includes both nonprofit organizations as well as social entrepreneurs. And what we wanted to do was really create an environment that accomplishes many different outcomes. One, trying to build the capacity of both of these enterprises, such that they would be able to deliver the services that our residents desire and need in a much more efficient and effective fashion. And then the other area we really wanted to help them with is really develop the working relationships, a collaborative relationship with each other, so that they can leverage their unique strengths and their unique program offerings and move away from the competitive nature that we sometimes see the nonprofit community embrace, but look more towards partnerships and helping them determine how that can work and executing them with some guidance that we will provide. 

And then finally, to help them realize some savings in their operations by providing them a workspace that was conducive to the work they were doing and the services they were offering at a below market rate with the intention that they would reinvest any savings they incurred back into the growth and strength of their organization. So that's what Thrive is all about. A very exciting endeavor. We did a lot of research on the onset to determine why we should do something like this and what it should look like and we are still iterating as we go along, which is always the exciting part of innovation.

Lindsay: (03:56)

Everyone I talk to in local government will stress the importance of strong partnerships, especially for a program of this size. I sense you're no different. Can you share some of the partners that are helping with this program and how?

Adrienne: (04:08)

I think what actually started this was actually our existing partnerships with nonprofit organizations. So we interviewed many of them. And through those conversations, just trying to learn more about the services that they offered, we began to learn that they really needed some assistance and investment in their growth and the strategic development that no one really was addressing. And that I would say was our first partnership because they provided us the story that we were trying to address with the issues that we're trying to address. And then in the launch, we obviously needed to partner well with the city and all of its departments to not only recognize that there's something we should be doing as the city of Aurora, but also what that should be and how all of the departments that became involved were really instrumental in our success. And then other partners kind of evolved from there. So we partnered with a local university to provide coaching to our nonprofits, a local organization of business execs that provide coaching to our social entrepreneurs, small business development center, a business law clinic from another university. So as we get the word out of what we're trying to do, we find people really wanting to work alongside us to help that investment actually reach a much more deeper state. So it's really great to see this commitment to growing our social sector by many different stakeholders and partners.

Lindsay: (05:37)

This concept you bring up around social innovation is an interesting one. And I think more local governments are looking toward this in their efforts to create more community engagement and collaboration. What metrics do you have in place to measure the success of this innovation initiative?

Adrienne: (05:54)

For this particular one, we have a program manager who is managing the entire operations and overseeing some of the membership activities. So what we try to do initially is developed kind of a matrix of the variables that are important to us. So what is the starting budget? What are the current relationships or partnerships that an organization or an entrepreneur may already have in place? What are their goals as an organization? How have they designed their progress forward through some sort of systematic way? We capture all of that in our conversations with them and have regular ongoing meetings with them to determine what progress has been made through investments and access to the resources we're providing. We know we keep track of all of the partnerships that yield some sort of tangible endeavor for our members to get involved in and then find out whether they've taken advantage of that access. So we then capture that as well, because ultimately after a period of time at Thrive, we want the nonprofit or social entrepreneur to be able to come back and say, as a result of these series of workshops and meetings with the coaches, we have been able to do X, Y, and Z, and that is yielded A, B and C. And that's what we want to be able to have as one of those final conversations with our members.

Lindsay: (07:20)

The last time we spoke, you had even talked about rolling out a Thrive 2.0 or you'll have to correct the name, but in essence, a program that you can move to once you've graduated from the original membership and are more of an established entity, um, maybe you can afford to pay a little bit more in rent, for instance. Can you walk me through that a little bit?

Adrienne: (07:38)

One of the things we wanted to make very clear to our members coming in was that this wasn't intended to be a long term relationship at Thrive, ideally because we do want to see growth in our organizations and that growth then in turn should allow that organization to return to the market because we know we are below market. So there's why it’s so important to have those metrics that we're measuring to determine if the growth is occurring, what may be additional barriers we need to address. But once we see the growth occur in organizations will be at a position where they can re enter the market, or maybe not quite there, we might need a little more support. We had this concept of this thrive two or thrive 2.0. I like that. Lindsay might, we might borrow that. The idea was still having some access to resources and partnerships that Thrive has established, but not having all of the call it support or hand holding. Also helping to identify the appropriate space that that organization may need in order to effectively deliver services. And then in return that that will provide, they would serve as mentors to the new Thrive members that come in afterwards. And what we hope to achieve in that type of relationship is this community of organizations and businesses continually supporting one another. That goes beyond just being in a building we call the Thrive Collaborative Center.

Lindsay: (09:09)

With this program also having the elements of a coworking space, I imagine this has been impacted by COVID. Can you walk me through the effects of the pandemic on this project as a whole?

Adrienne: (09:19)

Sure. We initially had three levels of membership and mind you, the building isn't quite large. So we had to scale back our big vision of what Thrive was to what the building would support, but we did have the ability to offer these three. One, It was an office membership, the other was a dedicated desk. And then there was a day pass where someone could come in for the day and not only be able to take advantage of the resources available, but also participate in webinars and really meet other organizations that were trying to improve their delivery of services. In the need to provide enough social distancing, we had to eliminate for the time being our day pass membership, because we had to move our desks further apart till the offer for that membership to be a bit more robust and a little bit more to keep track of as well.

Adrienne: (10:13)

We hope to bring back the day passes once we've successfully exited the pandemic, but another opportunity presented itself because of the pandemic. And that was the offering of a digital membership, where we have contracted out with a variety of different providers to deliver curricula associated with different outcomes for organization and operations, the strategic planning and the like, and we've been approached by organizations and businesses who may not necessarily want a physical space to operate from, but they surely wanted to access the resources and the packages that we're putting together. So we've decided to figure out how to build out this digital membership, where a member would be able to have access to a certain slew of resources on a monthly basis, all designed to help them grow without them having to incur the cost of a physical space and because of the proliferation of the use of technology and zoom and WebEx, and everyone becoming familiar with how to conduct business virtually and attend trainings virtually, it's been something that it becomes a bit easier to conceptualize if not to execute.

Lindsay: (11:25)

Yeah, that's great. And the digital membership piece is an interesting one and great that you're able to pivot so quickly to incorporate something that wouldn't limit the number of participants in the program. And yet another example really of how this crisis we're facing has actually gotten teams like yours to think outside the box and leverage technology to engage an even greater number of people. In order to do this project, you've really had to create a business plan from scratch for this kind of unique service offered by local government, which may sound a little intimidating for some of our listeners. Can you share with us a bit about your approach in developing the program and things you had to take into consideration?

Adrienne: (12:02)

I would say, you know, we've had our bumps and bruises along the way as we move this forward. What we did consider was the fact that what we were developing was a business and it was a business that was being operated by government. So we knew at some point we were going to have to educate our colleagues, our peers in our organization and city government on how what we were trying to do would be quite different than the norm in terms of operations and logistics. So we had to allow ourselves enough time to be able to do that, but we also knew being a business, there were certain expectations that we wanted to be able to meet. So there was the financial obligations that was the scoping out of the space, making it appropriate. There was the equipment that needed to be purchased. There was the marketing and outreach and promotions that we needed to consider. A lot more than we would normally do if we were just offering a program at the city. So we had to make sure we were documenting this, not only to be able to show the leadership that needed to approve what we were doing, but to help us remember all of these steps that we needed to accomplish to get from point A to point B. And it's very different than what we would do with some of the other programs that we offered through the department, because it was already somewhat integrated in our normal operations. So that's how we've kind of structured even the department, how we have a couple of projects that are more business oriented and then some are government oriented and keeping track of the differences between the two.

Lindsay: (13:41)

What's been your biggest challenge so far. And how did you overcome it?

Adrienne: (13:44)

I would say our biggest challenge with coming in with a too big an idea of what we wanted to do, knowing that one of our challenges as a city was space and we have buildings and spaces that we own as a city, not many, it's probably good for many people to know who are outside of government, not many are really operational for the delivery of services, just not conducive to what we were trying to do. So we had to scale down our original idea to something that was aligned best with a space that was available to us at the time. And fortunately it was a space that didn't require a lot of investment to get it up and running in terms of aesthetics and cosmetics, if you will. But it was smaller than what we originally were hoping to launch this pilot from within.

So that was one of our challenges because we had to figure out how can we demonstrate the value add this would bring to not only the government, but the city in itself, knowing that our outcomes were, the numbers were going to be smaller. And how are we gonna be able to communicate that to a point where people are gonna see this was a good idea, and then we're still doing that, but we're using different metrics in an effort to make the case. So I think that was probably one of the bigger challenges. Again, I mentioned before, the other challenge was helping our peers within government and leadership as well to understand why this was something we should do and the way we were proposing to do it was a good try, a good attempt, and for them to consider supporting it. And that took some time as well.

Lindsay: (15:31)

Well, you've highlighted the pain point for so many in local government who may have a great idea, but often lack the resources to make it happen. I think you've really demonstrated though, that if you put your heads together and get creative and are willing to address the original scope of the project, as sometimes, that's going to be necessary, you can still be really successful. So for anyone still hesitant to try something this ambitious, what advice would you give them?

Adrienne: (15:56)

I would say first, do the research, the problem that you may be trying to solve, and the idea and a solution you may have arrived at as the vehicle you want to promote may not necessarily be the right one. So ensuring that you're getting the appropriate data necessary to support the initiative would be the best case because you can use that in your ability to communicate to leadership. So your governing body, what it is that you're trying to do and how you've arrived at that particular solution by demonstrating you've done your homework, especially if you can get that data coming from constituents, whatever those constituent views may be, because that really resonates well with, with our governing body. So I would say, do the research and then develop your prototypes and identify what would be the nonnegotiables of your prototypes and what would be the negotiables of your prototype in order for you to be able to demonstrate the success and then shop it around and talk to you, talk to the stakeholders that you trust to ensure that you're kind of covering all of the bases, make sure that you have champions who are within government that are going to help you identify the ways in which you need to get the buy in who you need to get the buy in from so that you can move your project forward.

So it's, I don't want to say it's much different than trying to bring something to market. It's just understand that there are different players that need to be brought to the table at different times. I think starting off smaller, like we ended up having to do because the building required us to be a little more narrow in our focus was really blessing in disguise because it became a much more manageable concept for our peers to put their arms around would have been a bit out of their norm to go as big as we want it to go. But now that we're in it, people are beginning to really become familiar with what we're doing. Be able to articulate what we're doing before it wasn't the case. And now we can get more champions when we're looking at what can, what can eventually be at Thrive 2.0.

Lindsay: (18:08)

So shifting gears a little bit, and to talk more generally about smart city initiatives or innovation projects within local government. There's of course, a lot of local governments, hard at work, developing innovation teams and establishing a strategic plan for innovation. You've been with the City of Aurora for over three and a half years now and know from experience, this is quite a bit harder than it sounds. Many we've talked to even very large well-resourced governments are having difficulty getting anything off the ground. As a leader in the quote smart city space, what advice would you give to those still struggling to launch a city wide plan? Where would you tell them to start?

Adrienne: (18:50)

I think it really needs to start with, with leadership and getting the necessary buy-in. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you don't have your leadership supporting the fact that you should be pivoting and moving in this direction, there they're the ones who are going to be your champions. So going to be able to communicate to their constituencies, why they made the decision to move forward and allocate the resources necessary in order to execute. So there's, there's that piece. And I feel that the planning part would already start engaging those various stakeholders. So again, it's not just you coming forward with an idea or plan it's something that has been collaborative from the beginning. So it says you need to get your champions. We had the fortunate pleasure of being part of a new administration who very much wanted to see innovation be that legacy that he leaves with the city.

Adrienne: (19:43)

So we have that part of our champions in place. We still needed to get more. There's a city council, there's constituents, there's funders that we needed to convince. So allowing yourself the time to do that is also important. I think the other piece innovation really is something that the private sector embraces and engages on a regular basis, but they operate from a very different timeframe and with different timelines. And we sometimes are threatened by the fact that technology in particular, innovation just moves so quickly. We feel like we're always catching up and we're never going to be at the point of, of being there when something's happening and we can just totally embrace it and integrate it into our work. So accepting the fact that our timelines are very different than the private sector and that's okay. So when there's a choice on an innovation that's one that one wants to champion for a city that it's going to be new to the city might not be the most cutting edge technology or program that exists today, but it's new to your city.

Adrienne: (20:53)

And that is important enough in and of it in and of itself. So taking pride in the fact that you're trying to do something different for your city should help you accept that the timeline and the timeframes you have to operate within. It's just the nature of the beast. You have approval processes, you have procurement processes, you have engagement processes that you have to go through that other entities and other sectors don't. That's just the operating environment that you're within. Don't let that be a discouragement of why you choose not to pursue something that's just different than what you feel that you've been able to do or that you can do. And you know, that given time you can actually accomplish it.

Lindsay: (21:37)

As you know, firsthand failure is a big part of innovation and being able to iterate quickly and move on to the next project. To help avoid the same mistake elsewhere, I think our listeners would be curious to know what's something you've tried that didn't work?

Adrienne: (21:51)

One of the projects we launched in our first year, it was something we actually conceived alongside one of our business partners, our business chamber partners. And it was an effort to try to first access or to make available an outdoor space that we have kind of a concert venue that is dormant during the winter because we're in the Midwest so a lot of things are dormant in the winters, but it was a very nice space and it is enjoyed by many in the summer. So we wanted to see what can we do with this space in the winter. And we wanted to see if we can use it to support small businesses. So we created this concept called Winter on the Fox because we have the Fox river that runs through our city and this venue is alongside the river and we wanted it to be kind of this outdoor fair, if you will, marketplace for our businesses, our small businesses to maybe sell their wares during the holiday season, it ended up being a much bigger project and much more costly endeavor because the grand idea somewhat been expanded by other individuals in the organization a little bit beyond what we had originally could see, but we had to move forward. So it turned out to be a very nice event, but not sustainable. 

So we didn't get the necessary support to move forward largely because it ended up being a more costly endeavor. So we lost the concept of what we were trying to do because it became too big a party, if you will, than what we had originally intended it to be. So we ended up not replicating it the following year and this point it was just that kind of one and done. But what we learned from it, I think we always have to try to learn, try to identify the learning in these failures and what we learned with a couple of things that best to try new things in manageable chunks, best to be very clear in the purpose of a new innovation and best to determine the cost sustainability at the onset before the launch to see whether or not it's something that if it works well and what's successful, we can't continue. So we took that to new innovations that came thereafter.

Lindsay: (24:24)

I'd like to ask a few more quick questions if you're game. Great. As the second largest city in Illinois, what innovation advice would you share with others and local government you feel would resonate with even the smallest city or town?

Adrienne: (24:37)

I think one of the things that we've really been working hard on is engaging a full, more full sector sector of our citizenry. So definitely capitalize on social media. Our communications department is really involved in that, but what we have been trying to do is to kind of activate a more digital engagement relationship with our residents. So we know that social media can be a bit more one sided or one dimensional, this engagement activity that we've been still kind of piloting is allowing us to secure the voices of many during the program planning of new initiatives as it's being planned so that our residents' voices can help shape what would eventually be the outcome that we want to launch. And I think what that does, it helps people recognize that despite what their time availability is or their experience is, there's opportunity for them to learn about projects and to be involved in the shaping of that.

We know typically those who attend listening sessions and town hall meetings usually are the same people who will attend city council meetings. There they're the ones who are already engaged and that's for a variety of reasons that enables them to do so. There's a lot of our residents who are just not engaged and involved and it's not because of lack of interest sometimes. It's just lack of ability and time. So we're trying to make it a little more easier for residents to be involved. And I think that's something that despite the size of your city, you can't find ways in which to expand the vehicles that you're using not to inform. The information sharing is one thing. It's to engage. How are you getting information from your residents? And to me it's always been more important to not only focus on how to gauge those voices, but letting them know how their voices have made an impact on what you decided to do. So letting them know what you've done with the participation that they've been involved in.

Lindsay: (26:51)

This digital engagement platform you referenced, did you build this in house or using a third party tool?

Adrienne: (26:56)

We're using a third party tool called engagement HQ. 


Yeah. Bang the table. 

Adrienne: (27:01)

Yeah. Bang the table. So, um, and what it's done, we've used it pilot for a couple of projects that we've been a bit dormant this year and hopefully we'll be able to engage them next year, but it was a way for us to bring forth two initiatives that we were in the process of developing one for seniors and one for businesses, a very different clientele. And what I liked about Bang the Table was that you had the digital function and you can create so many different ways in which you can either engage with the resident directly, uh, in a, in a more public way, or have a facilitate engagement among themselves. But it also allowed you to do the traditional types of engagement and use and really integrate and upload that data into the portal.

So when you're making presentations to the community or to leadership, you had the compilation of your traditional methods and your unique digital methods being part of that presentation. And to me, that was very important because we know that sometimes the traditional methods are going to be the right methods. We did a survey of seniors. We knew many of them weren't going to go online and complete the survey. So we went to them, completed the survey via interview, or they completed a paper based. And we uploaded that data to those two, the data delivered by the seniors that completed the online survey. So we had a complete picture and that was a way that we were bringing the old and the new and showing value in both.

Lindsay: (28:28)

Yeah, that's great. Aside from engagement HQ, is there a govtech product you'd highly recommend and why?

Adrienne: (28:35)

I think there's a gov tech product that I like, I would love to see us really utilize that and integrate it into offerings but that's just the use of sensors, particularly street sensors to measure traffic flow. I think what we can do with data of that sort, not only automobile data, but pedestrian data is identify the areas of town that there's a lot more traffic and maybe even pedestrian use and be able to contribute that to transit planning. So whether it's on demand transit, whether it's supporting our public transit, that's being offered by the County. I think that data that we're not necessarily collecting will help inform more appropriate decisions on how we invest in moving people around from point A to point B. So that's, to me is exciting. And we're just kind of on the cusp of just learning about that and how we might be able to integrate that in our city.

Lindsay: (29:39)

And my last question, what's something that excites you about the future of Aurora?

Adrienne: (29:44)

I think we're at such a position now where we've received the support necessary to try new things in so many different spaces. Initially, when we started the innovation department three years ago, we had to confront the what and why and no way to the, okay, let's, let's try that. Oh, that's a great idea. Or let's rethink that, but I like where you're going. So the support that we've received, that we've received and built over the short period of time, when you think about it three years, really isn't that long when you think about government moving in a different direction, but we've got such a nice strong foundation to which to launch new things that it's going to be amazing, what we'll be able to do next to support our residents.

Lindsay: (30:36)

Yeah, well, I couldn't agree more and I think more local governments could learn from the leadership in Aurora. You brought up earlier that sometimes city council and others in local government need some convincing to get on board with these initiatives, um, and innovative projects, which can be really difficult. What we found at Govlaunch actually is that there’s a lot of interest in doing more innovative work coming from all levels of local government. And it's unfortunate that so many groups out there are for technology leaders and CIOs alone. Um, we tried to make it open to any level of local government as we feel innovation and this ground up approach to innovation coupled with strong leaders like you, who come on to share some tips for how to convince some people to come to the dark side, if you will. I think it's going to be really great and impactful for folks at all levels within local government. So thanks again for joining me today and keep up the exciting work in Aurora!

Adrienne: (31:29)

Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share with your listeners. Appreciate it, Lindsay.

Lindsay: (31:39)

It's exciting to hear of the progress in the way of innovation Adrienne and her team has made in just three years. It's also comforting to know that even an innovation leader like Aurora still struggles with internal communication and buy-in, so don't let that discourage you from proceeding with your innovative project proposal. Do your research, document your plan and try wherever you can to get community support, to help your case. 

Innovation projects, big and small are happening across local governments of all sizes. If you need some inspiration, come check out Govlaunch. We now have over 3000 innovation projects shared globally to help you get started on your innovation journey. 

I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano and this podcast was produced by govlaunch - the wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to your more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. 

If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the govlaunch podcast.