On the power of serendipity and shared values. The connection between Cluj-Napoca and Boston innovation initiatives
Anamaria Vrabie (Director, Urban Innovation Unit- UIU) and Jaclyn Youngblood (Chief of Staff, Boston Office for New Urban Mechanics – MONUM) shared a couple of ideas about the two programs connecting the cities of Cluj-Napoca and Boston. The two innovation initiatives grow more complex each year and collaborate through a continuous flow of ideas, know-how exchange and active participation at the events, such as the Urban Dialogues organised in Cluj-Napoca, since 2017.
How the two innovation initiatives connected
For a bit of context, MONUM is the research, development and innovation department of the city of Boston (USA), and one of the first and most successful municipal innovation units (iTeam) in the world. Started in 2010, MONUM was able to develop a model for rapid prototypes for projects that would improve the experience of residents in the city, and generated a series of public-private collaborations with universities and companies. UIU is a research and development program supporting city-wide collective actions on key urban challenges. The initiative started in 2017, designed by Cluj Cultural Center, in partnership with the Center for Innovation and Civic Imagination of the Municipality of Cluj-Napoca.
Both UIU and MONUM take a relational approach to their innovation practices. This is evident in the way that the two groups met. How is it that groups from Cluj, Romania and Boston, USA managed to find each other, and in fact, find deep similarities and a shared spirit and ethos?
For MONUM, connecting with cities around the world has been core to the work from the beginning. As Boston is a “hub” of international activity — due in large part to the prominence of its academic institutions and the innovation of its business and civic sectors — many cities over the years have reached out to Boston to learn what they are doing. Similarly, MONUM co-founder Nigel Jacob, recognized that cities around the world (including in MONUM’s earlier days, Copenhagen, Mexico City, and Barcelona) were up to some very interesting projects that could benefit Boston.
When Anamaria Vrabie (of UIU before it was founded as such) attended an international open innovation conference in Torino (Italy) in spring 2017, it was by chance and serendipity that she met a delegate from Boston who was also in attendance. As Anamaria was researching innovation teams around the world, she knew that Boston had an example that was of interest to her: MONUM. Being relationally oriented, and being willing to open herself up to new experiences, Anamaria asked if the city representative from Boston could make a connection to anyone in MONUM. As it would happen, that city representative in fact sat 15 feet away from the full MONUM team and was more than happy to make a connection for Anamaria.
When Anamaria’s request came into MONUM’s listserv, the team responded with enthusiasm (and via its practice of Open Office Hours) to meeting up with her during her upcoming trip to Boston. Seated in large plastic chairs on the the faux-grass lawn of City Hall Plaza — itself a MONUM-supported prototype — Anamaria met with three MONUM representatives, including Jaclyn, and the beginning of a fruitful and generative collaboration was born.
What the two innovation initiatives have in common
Jaclyn also thinks it is important to have a commitment to interdisciplinarity and skill-sharing, and a willingness to admit when you don’t necessarily have the answer yourself or you don’t have the capacity or the capability yourself and being willing to seek out who does have that capacity.
Anamaria mirrors Jaclyn’s reflections, acknowledging that creating the space for interdisciplinary and surprising partnerships, while also enabling a culture of learning and risk-taking have been essential in the development of work carried out by UIU.
Watch here Jaclyn’s interview, including some of the breeze of Charles river in Boston.