Cities’ inability to innovate often comes not from a lack of knowledge about better solutions to pressing problems, but in limited capacity to put knowledge into practice effectively and efficiently. There are three causes for this gap: 1) city staff and leadership lack access to the latest examples of best practice; 2) administrative silos prevent creative approaches to fixing pressing social issues that span departments; and 3) cultures of risk aversion internally and externally prevent creative problem solving and implementation.
Universities generally have the exact opposite qualities: 1) faculty have access to and are often the creators of the latest evidence from their field of expertise; 2) through applied coursework, students can translate and apply that knowledge to city-identified quality of life issues; and 3) students are both capable of and encouraged to be riskier and more innovative in their thinking than city staff or local consultants typically can be.
Most sustainability and quality of life issues play out for people at the community or city level, so overcoming the gap between knowledge and practice is key for effective and innovative city operation that meets community quality of life goals. Issues of sustainability, resiliency, affordable housing, access to social services, building supportive social networks, integrating historically disenfranchised voices into public decision making, sustaining a viable local economy, providing clean air and water, maintaining public safety, and pursuing a series of other livability variables are all within the domain of local government. The trick has been in finding a way to systematically match city needs with university capacity in ways that benefit all parties, work within administrative structures, and at a scale that can have lasting and sustainable impacts for all involved.
In 2009, the University of Oregon pioneered a radically simple framework to solve this match-making problem called the Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP), a framework based around a year-long partnership between a university and a city in which existing courses are directed towards that city’s self-identified ‘real-world’ quality of life projects and plans. Projects often combine multiple disciplines to address problems from diverse perspectives; a large-scale approach provides a wide range of benefits for all stakeholders. The scale of engagement – typically 400+ students across 10+ disciplines and 20+ courses giving 50,000+ hours of effort to 15-25 city-identified vexing issues – expedites the introduction and adoption of innovative thinking into local government, increases a city’s capacity to move priority projects forward, accelerates adoption of new policy and practice, re-charges city staff toward their public sector work, and trains the next generation workforce in effective, applied, multi-disciplinary approaches toward solving local quality of life issues.
In 2010, The New York Times called SCYP “perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach,” and in 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education called the model “one of higher education’s most successful and comprehensive service-learning programs.” This program has received many national awards, including from Ashoka, for its unique approach to social entrepreneurship and innovation.
In 2011, the Oregon creators began training other universities and communities how to adopt and adapt the framework through a national conference and through site visits and individual technical assistance. As of 2016, there are over twenty-five universities now implementing or organizing to implement what was originally known as “the Oregon Model”, but is now collectively referred to as the EPIC Framework, demonstrating its scalability and replicability across city and university types.