By Brenda J. Bond

The City of Boston has an opportunity to brand itself as more than the hub of technology, health care and education; Mayor Marty Walsh could be the leader who transforms Boston into a hub of social innovation.

Education, public safety, public health, economic opportunity and sustainable community development are persistent challenges that can be addressed only through cross-sector collaboration. Sustained and shared leadership along with new strategies, concepts, ideas and different ways of operating will bring solutions that can improve the health and well-being of those who live and work in Boston.

Tap into Innovation District concept

The City’s New Urban Mechanics initiative is a good model for tackling challenging public policy issues, but what is most needed is a unified social innovation effort that mirrors the types of ideas and practices established by former Mayor Menino in the Innovation District. The principles and strategies that advanced the Innovation District are easily transferrable to the concept of a social innovation center that would provide space and programming to support and foster collaboration, experimentation and the sharing of experience, knowledge and ideas.

Boston public service organizations are nationally recognized for their innovative and creative approaches to community challenges. Yet there is a need for creative thinking and wider collaboration on issues that are critical to the city and its residents, such as youth violence prevention and intervention. Service providers touched by the Shannon Community Safety Initiative – which addresses this issue in Boston and other Massachusetts communities -- say that advances have been made in information sharing and coordination, but they see the need for even deeper levels of collaboration.

New forms of information sharing, coordination of services and the creation of a seamless system of service delivery are desperately needed among agencies that serve similar populations.

Antiviolence effort a beginning

Walsh’s recent appointment of Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Mulhern and former probation officer Leon Graves as facilitators of a coordination and improvement effort aimed at antiviolence efforts seems like a perfect start for a new model of creativity and innovation. Creating a comprehensive social innovation strategic plan that involves agencies, community groups and businesses – large and small – would go a long way toward implementing a seamless system and leveraging public and private foundation grants. What that strategic plan looks like could come out of the ideas developed in a new social innovation center. Indeed, service providers talk about the need and desire to spend time with other providers, public and non-profit, to really talk about, understand and tackle the social harms they observe every day. In some ways, these ideas are not innovative, but rather they are more sophisticated than merely referring service clients and participants to partner agencies, working with one other agency on a program or co-sponsoring events.

Rather than allowing these practices to occur through individual agency leadership or happenstance, why not systematically and deliberately bring together diverse citizens, policymakers, community agency representatives, partners in education and others to take on community problems. A center for social innovation would provide the time and space for new and interesting ideas to bubble up, for resources to be created or shared and for the generation and use of research evidence to inform policy and practice. By investing in social innovation, the City of Boston and all of its partners create a new paradigm of teamwork and entrepreneurship that moves beyond pockets of collaboration. The Innovation District is a great model, and my research colleagues are ready and willing to participate, but sustained leadership is needed, and now is the perfect time to get going.

Brenda J. Bond is an associate professor of Public Service at the Suffolk University's Sawyer Business School. Her teaching and research interests center on improving the operations and outcomes of public organizations, particularly police organizations. She writes a blog created for the sharing of insights, ideas and resources.