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User led innovation in public policy

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Lana Abdelhameed

Deputy Director, Global Affairs

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The United Arab Emirates’ national brainstorm initiative launched by the nation’s Prime Minister that took place December 2013 displayed the application of user led innovation in the public sector. Revisiting the definition of innovation will better illustrate the significance of this initiative.
Innovation is the process of revising a current product or service to meet a current or emerging need, by connecting ideas to create one not previously conceived.  These could lead to minor ‘tweaks’ or major disruptive change. 

However an idea is only as good as its implementation, and thereafter its benefit either to society, or its ability to address the unmet need. In short, innovation is the successful implementation of a useful idea. From a commercial standpoint, innovation is essential because manufacturers, service providers and larger firms must adapt to change to stay relevant and achieve results; in other words to survive the market place and continue to make profit. Hence the expenditure on R&D and market research helps to align both product offerings and services with new and emerging consumer needs. 
An interesting shift that has been identified is movement towards user-led innovation 1. User-led innovation is innovation in which the end consumer finds that they possess a need or expectation that is not currently met with the product or service at hand.  Thus the user ‘changes’ it, or ‘invents’ something new entirely, to better meet those needs. An interesting example of the extent to which user led innovation can drive the development of technology and industry is in the medical field. Research by Eric Von Hippel 2 shows that approximately 70% of innovation in the medical equipment industry comes from physicians and patients themselves (i.e. the users of the equipment and not the developing firms).  
 There are several more examples of user-led innovation out there, some of which you may have contributed to without fully realizing.  Ask yourself this, “What have I ‘tweaked’ recently to make it ‘better’ for me?”

The UAE has recently seen an interesting application of the user-led innovation process, the concept usually reserved for commercial settings now in public governance referred to as: “project UAE brainstorm”. On December 3rd 2013, HH Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai, took to twitter inviting the UAE’s public to share their ideas and suggestions on two core government services: education and health.  The public was given a two day window to tweet using the  hashtag #UAEbrainstorm with ideas and recommendations to His Highness on how to improve services, or what they would like to see change.  The floor was also open to submissions via His Highness’s official website.
The process following that was for The UAE Cabinet to review and study the submissions in a two-day workshop retreat, which is now being referred to as Government Creativity Labs 3.
The results were staggering, with over 82,000 ideas coming through, according to HH Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid’s official twitter account 4.

  The public’s participation was also made part of the Cabinet retreat with experts and citizens representing different groups concerned with the country’s healthcare and education, such as nurses and the disabled. At the conclusion of the retreat, several initiatives were launched by the UAE Cabinet based on the discussion and filtration of the submitted ideas, to be implemented by both the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education.
Project UAE brainstorm was not a simple ‘online’ suggestion box, but rather a direct engagement of the service end-user in the process of diagnosing areas for improvement and solutions (i.e., areas that need innovation), which in itself is a complex process. The UAE’s initiative correctly identified the end-users of the health and education sectors by choosing to invite UAE expatriate residents as well as nationals. 

No entity can exist within a market place if it has no will or ability to adapt to change, whether that change is in customer tastes or other areas such as technology advancement. From a government’s perspective, innovation in its services is just as crucial. Unlike the business of profit in commerce, governments are in the business of public good. Shifts in the public’s felt needs challenge governments to respond by innovating in public services. For governments, this translates into the necessity of ensuring a quality standard of living for citizens (and residents) and providing a safe environment that allows people to thrive on a personal and community level, hence conducive for their effective contribution towards a healthy society and economy.
The UAE’s harnessing of user innovation presented in #UAEbrainstorm paves the way for future public involvement in the public sector innovation process, and perhaps the implementation process.
Whether the ideas generated as a result of the workshops and brainstorming are successful remains to be seen in the implementation. The process of involvement on its own, regardless of the result,  is of immense added value to both the public sector and the UAE’s public.
Apart from the generation of new ideas, public engagement in the innovation process achieved a higher purpose, for it demonstrated a direct method of engagement in the decision making process.



Lana Abdelhameed is a Senior Researcher at b'huth. She holds an Msc in Management, with a pathway in innovation, from Imperial College London.


[1] Read more about user led innovation, have a look at the research by Von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management): http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/democ1.htm   &  http://www.innovationmanagement.se/2011/02/21/eric-von-hippel-on-innovation/
[2] Look at the section titled Innovation and innovation motivations by users and lead users for further insight:  https://evhippel.mit.edu/papers/
[3] Emirates New Agency (2013, December 14). 2nd Government Summit from Feb 10-12. Emirates 24/7. Retrieved from: http://ow.ly/4nulMi 
[4] You can review the national initiative and other forms of social media engagement at: https://twitter.com/HHShkMohd


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