Why Startups and Politics need to pull together for a better tomorrow – Julia Post on Innovation in Politics

Innovation Diaries: Dealing with an Uncertain Future

In the midst of these crazy times, most industries still haven’t gotten their shit together. However, a few bright minds managed to understand the paradigm shift, act accordingly and reap the rewards. So, Bente Zerrahn and I talked to some of them! Join us on our learning journey over the next few weeks to see how completely unrelated industries deal very differently with the same challenges we all share – and let’s become better together!

For the past two and a half years, Julia Post has been city councilor in Munich for the parliamentary group Die Grünen, which has the vision and mission to make politics greener and therefore facilitate ecological, economic, and social sustainability. In addition to that, she’s a board member of the Social Entrepreneurship Network Germany (SEND) to connect civic actors, politics, charities, and the private sector, tackling societal challenges together.

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Innovation’s a big (buzz)word. Which aspects of it are most interesting to you?

Naturally, my viewpoint is the one of a social entrepreneur – I find it most fascinating when established processes change in a way that create social impact and achieve a positive effect for our society along the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs). And of course, technical innovations can and should have exactly the same effect. Germany historically has a reputation to meet great challenges through innovation, especially through technical innovation. We should be the ones pioneering technologies to fight climate change.

To stop climate change, do we have to renounce our standard of living, and fundamentally change our lifestyle as well as the way we do business? Or is it possible to develop sufficiently clever technologies and maintain our quality of life in a way that doesn’t harm our planet?

Technology brings us so many possibilities in fighting climate change – that’s nothing new. But being involved in local politics makes you quickly realize that many times, we’re stumbling over the simplest basics in Germany. Digitalization is one of the biggest buzzwords, yet we have a substantial infrastructure problem that shouldn’t be underestimated. Our current focus needs to be on building a solid foundation. So, currently, we’re looking at the introduction of the e-file or the digitization of citizen services. Ultimately, our goal is to make life more seamless and uncomplicated for our citizens.

You’re right; we definitely have to do the groundwork and build a solid foundation. But we can’t lose sight of the grand vision, the long-term strategy. What can companies contribute to the Green Economy?

The constitution of the Free State of Bavaria contains a constitutional requirement that says: “all economic activity must serve the common good”. This mandate needs to be taken seriously by companies. Additionally, the 17 SDGs provide a good guideline to do so. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, ask how your business model can contribute to the common good. Ultimately, the focus needs to be considering profit for society, as opposed to financial profit. Given we only have one planet Earth, it’s everyone’s obligation as human beings to fight climate change. Everything we do should, no, must have that aim.

What’s the role of politics in all this?

It is the state’s role to ask where we want to go and how this can be translated into funding criteria. So, instead of simply measuring whether companies write black figures, it’s possible to additionally assess what a company contributes to the benefit of society. On one hand, it’s important to give direction to public government funding and say, “whoever joins us on this path is in.” On the other hand, we also need to provide good infrastructure, that’s very important. This also requires better communication, which makes it clear that we are all unitedly working on a great mission for society and therefore turn people from those being affected into those actually involved.

Speaking of involvement, how can we support all this?

At the moment, the usual way. In addition to voting in every election, people can get involved in civil society, for example through citizens’ assemblies. Often, citizens are asked directly when it comes to specific decisions. In Munich, we also have an online participation platform unser München, based on the open-source system “Consul”, which makes it possible for everyone to get involved. The concept is promising because nowadays, citizens still need to invest a lot of time to partake in established and legitimized structures, e.g. associations. Digital platforms provide easier access for all to political decision-making.

You’re setting out to make Munich a green city – how?

Our coalition agreement includes a car-free city center. As early as next year, das Tal, a street in downtown Munich, is to become fully car-free, expanding the existing pedestrian zone. We campaigned firmly on this issue last year and emerged as the strongest force in the local elections. However, it is precisely such administrative structures that greatly need innovation, as they take an incredibly long time to implement, with a lot of hoops to jump through. Redesigning a street, for example, starts with the fact that the planning and implementation stages need personnel. After hiring someone from our administration, finding the budget, and not only requesting proposals but also selecting one, a lot of time passes. Too much time, given the speed of climate change. Additionally, projects such as this are being carried out by the private sector outside of political influence. They’re also struggling due to a shortage of skilled workers and, as of late, materials.

Can’t restrictions such as supply shortages also present innovation opportunities?

Definitely! Because it’s no longer possible to buy all necessary materials internationally, it raises the economic pressure to become more independent and look for sustainable alternatives. And when I say “sustainable” I am implying its two meanings: Green and long-lasting. We, the public sector, will need to ask ourselves how we can support companies and fill the gaps they can’t. This has the potential to create an exchange from which we develop innovations. Being able to translate in both directions is thrilling. A great example for this is Munich’s solution for reusable cups. Due to a lack of capacity, our city doesn’t have its own deposit return system and solely relies on several providers. We’re currently debating how to move this project forward and how and where to create public space for return vending machines. When it comes to waste, innovation can also be triggered by uniform federal and EU regulations, especially when it comes to waste. Frosch, for example, implements these constraints through their packaging design and minimum quotas for recyclables. So, legal requirements actually have the power to create new markets like that. This isn’t rocket science; these are processes that have been proven to work.

How do we enable and sustain such change on a larger scale?

We have to acknowledge that we’re living inside a bubble. We are curious and to us, change is something cool and exciting. However, we should never forget that not everyone sees it this way. After two years of the pandemic, war, and inflation, “change” can be downright scary to many – and who can blame them? However, that mindset is a big challenge if we want to improve the status quo. Good communication is key in conveying why certain changes need to happen for us to continue to have the same standard of living, security, and good life overall. Ultimately, we need change, so everything can remain as it is. From a political point of view, I also have the impression that, because of these crises, politicians are much more open to change because, during Covid, they simply had to act very quickly. The immense pressure of the crisis gave us the chance to prove that it’s perfectly possible to get administrative processes done quickly and well. Take, for example, the city-wide festival that was organized for the exhibitors of Oktoberfest, the so-called Schanigärten(using parking space for outdoor restaurants and cafes), or even the processes to facilitate the financial aid programs during the pandemic. The big question now is: How can we always work like this?

Rethinking and improving processes in your administration in order to be able to implement major innovations such as a car-free city center shows that process innovation is necessary to drive innovation as a whole. How do you create a culture that takes people along in a complex organization like a city administration?

We’re thinking a lot about how to modernize administration and dismantle bureaucracy. Cultural change affects everyone in the administration. To achieve this, we need much more “inner work”, which we can support through coaching offers or method training. We must accompany people’s inner lives and cannot assume that new instructions and administrative regulations will magically be implemented in their daily work. This requires a completely different kind of communication between politics and administration. Of course, we then also need this communication from the administration back to the outside, prioritizing service and customer orientation. It’s also important that administration employees gain more visibility e.g. through LinkedIn profiles, thus being able to network externally, just like in the corporate world. Entrepreneurship needs to be promoted more as well. It creates an understanding of our mission and enables people to understand why they’re so important in these processes, ideally incentivizing them to participate. The administration needs to be deeply involved and understand that they can’t wait for a solution – they themselves are the solution. They are as deeply involved as anyone and as such, must have amazing ideas. That’s why, for example, we’ve organized an innovation competition in the state capital of Munich for a few years now. There, the administration collects problems and challenges and puts them out to tender, whereupon startups can apply their solutions. Another example: there are many start-ups that offer solutions specifically for the public sector in the area of public procurement or health. With Clinic Munich, we have a municipal subsidiary where the public sector is a potential customer. With this organization, we’re discussing the potential of a demo day. There, Munich startups can pitch, and get feedback and potential customers from the public sector and the administration. The founders can also learn a lot about the workings of tenders and public processes. It’s uncharted waters for us, but super exciting for every party involved.

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Tl;dr for the lazy

  1. Digitalization needs to start with the basic infrastructures and processes – laying a solid foundation.
  2. A new kind of positive and empathetic communication within and from politics is required to show transparency and to make sure that people see the vision clearly and feel motivated during the process of reaching it.
  3. Cultural change is necessary to create mission orientation and a sense of purpose and importance.
  4. Employees of the state need to build an external network in order to gain more visibility and therefore connect further to innovators.
  5. Politics and startups should work together on driving innovation – especially in the context of climate change and sustainability.

 

Original article on LinkedIn