A New Kind of Collaboration: Breaking Through Traditional Roles to Create Co-Ownership Among Community, City, and Tech Partners

This blog is the first in a three-part series highlighting lessons learned from the ongoing TOPCities pilot project. The series aims to provide open insight into real-time lessons from interventions in the field.

June 3, 2021–By Anna Gorman

After COVID-19, “everything changed—the way we eat, the way we sleep, the way we spend,” a San Jose resident recounted to a virtual group of community organizations, city government workers, and technology partners. They were all members of San José’s TOPcities sprint team, and had come together to co-create a useful tool that would empower residents and solve challenges related to the pandemic, namely the worsening housing inequality. 

Launched in March 2021 in San José, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the Centre for Public Impact, the TOPCities project leverages open data and civic technology to help residents stay healthy and housed. A core part of the TOPCities model is helping community organizations, city governments, and technology partners sit at the same table to co-create tools that will actually meet residents’ needs. This requires setting aside traditional consultancy-style methods of collaboration and creating a new understanding of whose voices matter in the product-development process. Co-creation is not only collaboration between members of a sprint team in different sectors, but also among the residents whose experiences the project is aiming to improve. “Many projects say they value lived experience, but don’t actually include people with lived experience as decision makers,” a resident told TOPcities sprint team members during an interview. 

In a traditional civic technology project, collaboration between a city government, tech partners, and the community would function similarly to a client-consultant relationship, with the city being the client. That structure—with the city as decision makers, tech team as builders, and community as advisors—impedes co-creation. An important goal of the TOPcities project is to move beyond this consultancy-style method of collaboration to share decision-making power and foster true co-creation, with the user’s lived experiences at the center. 

For city governments participating in the sprint, overcoming consultancy mindsets meant re-evaluating their role. Typically, the city hires tech and community partners to implement “innovation” projects and has significant say over final outputs, but is less involved throughout the development process. The tech partners’ conventional roles as hired teams would be to implement solutions, not necessarily to help create them. Because of their skill sets, tech partners have to take on a larger role in technical aspects of product development, and can sometimes exclude city and community partners in the technical aspects of the process if, for example, they use technical jargon or unfamiliar workflows. Community partners, whether they are organizational community service providers or individual residents with lived experience, would normally occupy a consultative role in a traditional product development process, especially when they are just in the room to provide “feedback.” 

Early months of the TOPCities project have shown that team-building and norm-setting can be tools to shift away from the traditional consultancy-style collaboration. So far in our effort to foster co-creation, we are learning to:

1. Allow space for iteration and flexibility. Many product-development processes are structured around deadlines to ensure the project stays on track to meet its scheduled release. The original plan for the TOPcities development process was similar, but attempted to guide sprint teams through co-creation and inclusive development processes. Once we learned about different working culture dynamics and expectations across the sprint teams, we found that future tech sprints would need to be flexible enough for community partners to have a real say in shifting the direction of the project. Waterfall development processes, in which a project is planned linearly and each phase is completed before the next begins, can be more comfortable than Agile development processes, in which a project is planned iteratively with the intention of adapting the end product based on collaborative learning throughout the project’s life cycle. In a project where teams would need to adapt the product’s entire goal based on insights learned on the fly, having an agile mentality in designing workflows has proven essential. Building tech solutions that are responsive to residents who have lived through the challenges the solutions attempt to address means the methods used for creating a product need to be responsive as well.

2. Make decisions together and open up the product-development process. In a traditional product-development process, engineers tend to make technical decisions based on client specifications. While this may be efficient, a goal of the TOPcities programs is to collaborate and co-create. We learned it was essential to involve the city and community partners in early design sessions with engineers in the room, and to make the content of those sessions understandable to people without technical expertise. Technology tools like Miro and shared file drives helped promote collaboration among the geographically dispersed teams, and helped the city, tech partners, and community take up equal space to provide input and feedback. Opening up design processes for tech development projects can be difficult when cities have to collaborate with technologists through the procurement process, but open contracting practices can help cities to create space for collaboration early in tech procurement and development.

3. Create team-building exercises early on in the sprint that flatten responsibility and open access to decision-making. In the TOPcities sprint, tech partners are not just building a product, they are creating it. Community partners are not just providing feedback on a product, they are also creating it. In the beginning of the process, we learned that setting time aside specifically for setting team norms helped encourage a more comfortable and collaborative environment. Icebreakers, Zoom breakout rooms with members from different professional backgrounds, and working sessions specifically to set team norms and expectations helped the TOPcities sprint teams to familiarize themselves with their team members and discover the best ways to work together, positioning the sprint teams to develop a product that is truly co-created.

When done well, the process of co-creation results in products and tools that meet people’s true needs, instead of the needs that designers may believe the product should meet. This requires breaking out of traditional mindsets and embracing the creative nature of a collaborative product-development process. With each decision made in the sprint, it is important to ask: Who has the power to shift the direction of this project? Who should have the power? Decisions should be made collaboratively, with people’s needs at the center, in order not to design for residents, but with them.

Anna Gorman is a student analyst at the Beeck Center and is studying Science, Technology and International Affairs and Computer Science at Georgetown University.