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Surprise! Creativity in the Public Sector

Why a psychedelic cover page to a dry environmental impact report mesmerized the urban planning community

It was September 2014 and the urban planning community was astir with wonder. The reason? Not a proposed skyscraper or legislative victory, but the c­over page of an environmental impact report. The cover, designed by a CalTrans employee, depicted a psychedelic menagerie of clip-art-upon-gradient teeming with desert flora, fauna, solar panels, and various modes of transportation. The bewildering forms evoked the work of Lisa Frank, Sufjan Stevens circa 2012, and a small child using Microsoft Paint. We were confused, we were incredulous, and we were delighted.

Occasionally, a work of art will viscerally move you. Rarely does this happen while reading a government document, but when I saw this image, I was truly, viscerally moved. It was not the artistic merit that affected me, but the unusual juxtaposition of the weird and the required. Public documents are generally a landscape of white space, technical copy, and Times New Roman, so this was a decided departure. Though society can’t get enough of provocative expression in most contexts, from the public sector we expect only the most conventional behavior. Why was this cover page, this eruption of creativity, so shocking when presented by a public agency?

One may argue that standard formatting conveys a sense of professionalism and authority. True. The problem is that standard formatting also renders the work invisible and forgettable. Environmental documents require years to complete and contain hundreds of pages of information that is actually quite important, but goes largely unread. These reports describe state or local projects and demonstrate that environmental concerns have (or have not) been considered in the project. The natural environment, city infrastructure, and even our neighborhoods are shaped by the quality of these public projects, and they need the input of a smart, educated audience. In a world saturated with eye-seducing imagery, how can public issues, dressed in serif fonts and legal jargon, attract the attention of those intelligent citizens?

As a watchword, “innovation” has been slow to infiltrate the public sector. We are a nation of private inventors and public regulators. However, while this bizarre gem of a cover page may not signify a major event, I see it as an indicator of where the public sector is headed. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a CalTrans supervisor said of the cover, “This was an innovative project… We wanted people to notice the document and open it up.” And it worked. This “innovative project” brought attention to the 1,300-page report, which was not mentioned in local media until people noticed the unconventional cover page.

Less than a month later, the mayor of Los Angeles perpetuated the theme of public sector ingenuity by announcing an “Innovation Fund.” The Fund will support creative solutions proposed not by professionals in the art or tech industries, but by city employees. Anyone from janitors to general managers will be able to submit original ideas to improve the status quo. This initiative acknowledges the innovative potential in city staff and, moreover, provides funding to effectively tap into that potential.

Lawn chairs in Times Square in 2009. Photo via Flickr user Scott Hadfield

The idea of creative change within the public sector aligns with the philosophy behind the Startup Cities Institute. Their model encourages unconventional ideas to be implemented by cities on a small scale to find solutions to problems in governance, infrastructure, and similar challenges. The key concept in this approach is that innovation comes not only from outside city hall, but from inside as well. Even though planners love guerrilla urbanism, it’s pretty spectacular when city government pulls off a good surprise. Some of my favorite “surprise-innovations” are New York’s Time Square beach chairs, Bogata’s traffic control mimes, and Hans Monderman’s naked streets, all conceived and executed by the public sector.

Innovative acts can be found everywhere. I have many friends in creative industries, but also some who are nurses, teachers, social workers, and full-time parents, and they are among the most creative people I know. I work for the City of Los Angeles in the Planning Department. I have seen the political and logistical challenges that the public sector is up against, but I am convinced that we can meet these challenges with novel ideas, fresh perspectives, and unconventional approaches. (And maybe some ‘90s clip art.) We can serve the public as well as delight them. That is the future of public service.

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