The Annenberg Innovation Lab: ‘Think and Do Tank’ at the University of Southern California (USC)

Headed up by Colin Maclay, they combine nimbleness and network to be innovative both in their local community and on a national scale.

Maclay has been at the Lab for two years, having previously worked at Harvard Business School. The former head of the lab made the decision to wind down any projects they had running prior to Maclay’s start in the role. This meant he had a fresh slate and a chance to assess their practices:

“I think we needed a reflection period. As with any organisation, but especially with a so-called innovation lab, we need to be reflecting on our practice and what we focus on with regularity,” Maclay says. “The world is changing rapidly and we don’t want to build an engine that worked for the environment five years ago. We want to continue to challenge ourselves, to adapt, pivot and ensure that we’re being responsive to the current moment.”

Maclay felt he needed to understand a bit more about what was going on around Los Angeles and USC, having come from the East Coast and Boston:

“I really needed to figure out what was happening, to get a sense of what was on offer already, where the gaps were. It was really about getting a sense of what the resources were that we could activate. Or the role that we could play as a small organisation.”

It doesn’t just end there however. Maclay suggests there needed to be a greater understanding of what other people were doing, what the industry were already creating themselves:

“You don’t want to duplicate what other folks are already doing or can do better. We want to leverage our nimbleness. It started with that and then I reached out to colleagues and the funding world to see what issues they were working on, interested in, investing in and look for places where I felt that overlapped with our skillset as a lab.” Maclay added.

Building your muscles

After understanding what the media landscape looked like, the natural progression was to decide where the lab wants to focus its time. The lab has a core team of four dedicated staff as well as a mixed group of faculty and students who do work on various projects. Outside of that there is a wide collaborative network that they are engaged with, but it’s important for the team to be constantly interacting without outside collaborators as they are a small group.

“The new ideas and insights come from the edges. They don’t come from the people who have been working on that thing forever. So creating fluid, dynamic and networked communities to work on different challenges and opportunities is key.”

At this point the lab had no active projects, no income or revenue. This played a part in the choosing of projects at this stage in the life of the lab. They need to be self sustaining, Maclay suggests:

“The university doesn’t want to pay for us, they want us to be self sustaining and they want us to contribute to the intellectual community and life of the university, to look good for them. Our incentives are aligned.”

So how do they become self sustaining and generate revenue whilst also contributing to the intellectual community?

“There were projects that I felt were gas in the tank in terms of money, challenges, things to chew on to get us moving. If you think about a boat: if you’re not moving you can’t steer, you’ve got to be moving to steer.”

“I identified a few projects that were interesting and meaningful. Projects that would help us to rebuild or build our practices, a community, our processes and our ties within the community. Those initial projects were things that we could get money for and that would help us to build our muscles, so that as we got a better sense of the place where we really wanted to go, we could invest and engage in those areas.”

Through this approach and careful development, in the past two years Maclay has built a maturing portfolio that will allow his lab to grow, both in terms of reputation and learning. Something that will allow it to ‘build their muscles’ as an organisation and plan for where they want to go in the coming years.

Some of the current projects include monitoring air pollution in cities and mapping a cleanest route to work for cyclists. This involves the use of pollution monitors on the corner of several “blocks” across the city to make provide highly accurate readings for people.

21st Century Census

Perhaps the most groundbreaking project the Annenberg Innovation Lab are working on is the digitisation of the American census. The census aims to count every person in the US broken down by state, county and city, with the next decennial census due in 2020. Since the last US census in 2010, there has been significant advancements in the technology industry, making something like a digital version possible. Maclay says that California state is not only the hardest to count state, but Los Angeles county is the hardest to count county for the census as well.

“It has both a local and a national element. It connects to our interest in city and community, and it is also at the intersection of media tech and culture, which is important to us. The census directs the order of 7 or 800 billion dollars of US federal spending manually as well as determining congressional apportionments and representation for the state in congress.”

“It’s interesting from a research perspective. We’ve got students involved and it’s a place where other organisations, for profit or not, also have a stake. The scale is just insane! Some 200,000 organisations work on the census, ranging from companies to philanthropy to the bureau to state level government.”

Maclay believes success for this project is about finding the right skills balance. Some people involved in the production of the census are skilled in certain things, so it’s important to utilise specialists in their own areas to develop the best result.

This project will really come into its own before the 2020 census and is another example of how Maclay has curated his portfolio of projects to encompass the local community and have impact on potentially a national scale.


Colin Maclay, Executive Director, Annenberg Lab
Twitter: @cmac



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