Collaboration and Co-Creation in Seattle, USA

Corporations, governments and individuals are joining forces to implement social innovations all over the world. Gaurav Bhalla takes a closer look at one American city that's paving the way.

In my February 12 blog, I had discussed NESTA, and the power of collaboration and co-creation to usher social change one citizen at a time.  Philosophically I am opposed to making predictions, but I do believe that social innovations will continue to provide us with some of the more compelling and enlightening collaborative innovation stories in the years to come.

If you would like more evidence, read the April 30th – May 6th issue of the Economist – the one with the Statue of Liberty on the cover asking a tired, but still provocative, question – “What’s wrong with America’s economy?”  The last story in the box on the top right features the story – “Behold, the $300 home.” It is a dialogue that was started by two people I know well; Vijay Govindrajan, who was my Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and Christian Michael Sarkar, a young marketing consultant who has collaborated with me on several projects.  I contributed to the discussion with my blog as well highlighting the co-creation challenges.

The article billed as “Applying the world’s business brains to housing the poor” discusses a number of social problems like housing, credit, and rural electrification. It also lists several noteworthy individuals (Muhammad Yunus, Girish Bhardwaj) and organizations (Philips, Habitat for Humanity) that are contributing mightily with ideas and solutions.  However, the sentence that caught my eye says – solving these problems will in turn demand a high degree of co-operation (please read as collaboration; the journalist contributing the story is still young and will learn over time) between people who do not always get on; companies and NGO’s, designers and emerging world governments.

Maybe they didn’t in the past.  But we live in a different world today – one in which value chains are giving way to value constellations and where blatant pursuit of competition is being replaced by mindsets that favor collaboration and co-opetition.  In this new environment, ideas alone can’t be the dominant currency. For no idea can fulfill it’s intrinsic potential if not adopted and implemented.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of energy consumption; reducing the carbon footprint of individuals, communities, and cities.  And the forward-thinking city of Seattle is leading the way, at least in the USA.  The city has started a Community Power Works (CPW) program. CPW is a neighborhood program in central and southeast Seattle that will make energy efficiency improvements to buildings in six sectors: single-family, multi-family, small commercial, large commercial, hospital and municipal sectors.


To drive demand for these retrofits, Seattle is implementing and testing a variety of innovative strategies including:

  • Carbon Reduction Incentive Fund that pays homeowners, large commercial building owners, and hospitals for every ton of carbon reduced through a retrofit.
  • 3rd Party Incentives to non-profits and community organizations that get people to sign bids with contractors
  • IT Platform that walks homeowners through the retrofit process, from initial application to post-retrofit audit.
  • Flexible Service Model that gives homeowners an option to receive the level of energy advice that they want or need, thereby conserving resource intensive consultations while still maintaining customer satisfaction.
  • Full Service Model that provides homeowners with energy advice and assistance throughout the entire process of receiving a retrofit.

But it is not traveling this journey on its own.  Join Adam Buick, Program Coordinator of Seattle Community Power Works (CPW) and the rest of the management team are smart enough to realize that they can’t achieve their goals by merely appealing to universal sentiments, such as save the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s too abstract and impersonal.  They realize that achieving their key macro goals of creating deep energy savings and creating green jobs will require developing an eco-system of collaborators that will motivate and incentivize the end customers to participate in the program.

To this end, CPW has developed a farsighted and laudable ecosystem of collaborators. The ecosystem has three tiers of collaborators.

  • Tier 1 – companies in this tier – Seattle City Light, MacDonald-Miller, McKinstry, to name a few – have the technologies, solutions, knowledge and experience to design, develop, and implement comprehensive upgrade and/or retrofit plans.
  • Tier 2 – three companies in this tier, called Home Delivery Partners, deliver energy efficiency assessments and upgrade services to participating homes, businesses, and buildings. These companies guide owners/renters through every step of the upgrade process.
  • Tier 3 – in addition, CPW has an approved list of 13 Flexible Service Contractors who collaborate with the program to deliver upgrade services to participating homes, buildings, and businesses.

The program is still in its infancy.  In 2008, the US Congress created the $3.2 billion dollar energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program to provide funding to local jurisdictions for energy efficiency projects. Seattle received its $20 million award through the EECBG’s BetterBuildings program in April 2010. It will be interesting to revisit CPW an year from now, on its second birthday, to learn how it is progressing towards its twin goals of deep energy savings and creating green jobs.

If you have other similar examples of cities developing ecosystems for collaboration to implement innovative ideas in other parts of the world, please do share.

About the author:

Gaurav Bhalla is a strategy, innovation, and marketing professional with global experience, having worked on three continents and with companies in over 20 countries. He is also owner and CEO of Knowledge Kinetics. The company focuses on the practice of customer-driven innovation and value co-creation.Gaurav previously was the Global Innovation Director, at Kantar-TNS, one of the world’s largest market information and insight companies. Additionally, he held positions in corporate strategy, brand management, sales management, and market research at companies such as Nestle, Richardson Vicks, and Burke.

Dr. Bhalla holds a BA (Hons.) degree in Economics and Mathematics from Delhi University, an MBA with a concentration in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a PhD in Business from the University of Kansas. He has published research papers in leading technical journals dedicated to marketing, marketing research and statistics, and has presented before professional and academic societies in the USA and abroad. Dr. Bhalla has also served as an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He is currently associated with the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business as a member of the Department of Marketing’s Corporate Advisory Board.