(Written on January 25, 2022)
In June 2021, I received a call that changed my life.
It was from Bill Luz, Chairman of the Liveable Cities Challenge. When he called, I was actually enjoying a workcation in Siargao after running a 3-day innovation program with the local government unit (LGU) of Del Carmen, Siargao.
He told me a Boston-based firm is looking for a local design coach to train an LGU on innovation and design thinking. The details of the project were still vague, but I've known Bill ever since we've worked on a government innovation project before so I immediately said yes.
Little did I know that the project was actually the Bloomberg Philanthropies 2021 Mayors Challenge. And the job was to coach one of the 50 Champion Cities of the competition.
After completing my requirements and going through onboarding calls and virtual training, I learned that I was the only Filipino amongst the 50 design coaches for the global competition. Possibly, I was also one of the youngest.
I also learned that out of 631 cities from 99 countries that submitted entries to the 2021 Mayors Challenge, only two cities were selected from Southeast Asia. And those two cities came from the Philippines - Manila and Butuan City.
I was assigned to Butuan City.
It was my biggest international personal consulting gig, so far. Despite feeling intimidated by the credentials and experience of my fellow coaches from other countries, I knew I had an important job to do - to raise the Philippine flag on the global stage by helping my city win.
From July to October last year, I worked closely with the core team of Butuan City for the competition's acceleration phase. Given the virtual nature of the entire program, I expected there will be some challenges, including language barriers (Bisaya is the main local language in Butuan; I don't know how to speak Bisaya.). Deep inside, I was also afraid and insecure that my team might underestimate me, given my age.
But I was wrong, Butuan City welcomed me with open arms. The team was highly engaged in all our sessions. Not only was the team receptive to feedback, but they also made sure to go above and beyond throughout the process.
From day one, we applied the "law of assumption" - we assumed that we will win, hence we adopted a winner's mindset that was reflected in all the outputs of the team.
When we finally received news this January 2022 that Butuan City made it to the 15 Grand Prize Winners of the Global Mayors Challenge, I felt extremely happy and proud of my team. After all their hard work during the acceleration phase, I know in my heart that they deserve to be given this world-class award.
More than the pride of coaching Butuan City into becoming a Mayors Challenge Grand Prize Winner, being a part of the City's journey also thought me invaluable lessons that I know will be useful as I continue my work and advocacy on public sector innovation:
Butuan City's winning innovative project is called AgriBOOST - an agri-ecosystem innovation that essentially addresses the current imbalances in our agricultural sector by empowering farmers with new skills and technologies and by forging win-win relationships with traders and small businesses. The project includes a mobile app for predictive pricing and contract farming for farmers and an Agrihub facility that will serve as the intermediary between farmers and businesses.
This idea was born when Butuan City realized that its current vegetable sufficiency is only at 18.72%. The city imports the majority of its vegetable supply from neighboring cities, hence the prices of produce in the market can be high and volatile.
The City team worked hard to identify the "why" behind this problem by empathizing with citizens.
The answer was not simple. There were many factors behind the problem - from lack of skills and tech adoption of vegetable farmers, the diminishing number of farmers who want to plant crops due to bad experiences from lowballing traders, and many more.
Despite several initiatives by various government agencies to capacitate our farmers, it appears our agricultural industry is still one of our most left behind sectors.
In fact, according to IBON Foundation, for the past years, the country's total national budget only allocated less than 4% to agriculture and agrarian reform, leading to increasing poverty and hunger for our farmers.
Butuan City's executive decision to innovate and invest significantly in their agriculture is a step that all our other local governments should take if we really want to create a food-secure future for every Filipino.
I had the privilege of working with Butuan City's diverse innovation team.
The team is composed of professionals and public servants with different backgrounds and skills but united by a common purpose which is to level up the city’s agricultural sector. Namely, the Butuan City’s team members are Vic Eduave (City Consultant and Project Adviser), Pierre Joven (City Agriculturist). Jeune Ace Munoz (Investment Promotion Assistant), Eric Ancheta ( Agricultural Extension Worker), Fr. John Christian Young (External Partner from the Academe), and Paolo Gogo (Development Officer).
As I have expected, there were a few learning curves and breaking-in moments as I guided the team in trying out innovation methodologies such as design thinking and agile.
If you've worked in the bureaucracy for a long time, it can be hard to take a risk and try new things. I should know, I worked for the government for some time.
Thankfully, Butuan City's core team trusted the process and persevered despite roadblocks and challenges.
After our 4-month acceleration journey as part of the Mayors Challenge, I was amazed at how much our core team members have evolved and transformed.
In less than a month, the innovation team was able to set up a prototype AgriHub facility, deploy a working mobile app, and organize a grand testing day attended by hundreds of farmers, cooperatives, local businesses, and traders.
Typically, the work that they were able to accomplish in a short amount of time would have taken 6 months to 2 years in a government setting.
Even if we did not win, I am confident that my team would have pursued the project nonetheless and would have continued to advocate citizen-centered governance with their peers and colleagues.
In my more than 4 years of training public servants on design thinking and innovation, I have seen how the spirit of innovation can really be viral.
When other offices in Butuan City saw the hard work and creativity of the AgriBOOST team during the prototyping stage, they were inspired to help out and to know more about the project.
Butuan City's win became a win not only for its AgriBOOST team but also for the entire local government and its citizens.
My company is currently in talks with the city to discuss how we can potentially develop the innovation capabilities of its other departments and units.
In the beginning, there was some hesitation from Butuan City's innovation team on the capacity of farmers to co-design knowledge and ideas for the project.
And this is totally understandable. Traditionally, our agricultural extension workers use a top-down approach for "cascading" its programs and projects for farmers. Most of us may also have our personal bias that our farmers might not be capable of designing processes or app wireframes, for example.
With a little bit more encouragement, the team took a risk and gathered their vegetable farmers for a co-design session, wherein they became not just interviewees but also concept designers.
The result was extremely powerful - farmers had increased ownership of the project and were excited to see it up and running. Not to mention that the team came up with a more user-centric prototype.
Another factor that made Butuan City a winner, in my personal opinion, was its decision to collaborate with a local agritech startup called e-Agrikultura.
As a startup founder myself, I am quite aware of how some government agencies are usually skeptical when it comes to engaging startups.
When Butuan City decided to partner with the local startup, it paved the way for the merging of two things - the wisdom and experience of the public servants in the innovation team with the youthful energy and tech-savviness of e-Agrikultura.
As a matter of fact, Butuan City's original entry to the Mayors Challenge in March 2021 was the result of a city hackathon they conducted for the competition, wherein e-Agrikultura won.
Cities like Butuan City should give local talent and startups an opportunity to work with them in solving its community's challenges.
Butuan City's innovation team endured sleepless nights and hectic schedules to accomplish the work that we were able to achieve in 4 months on top of their usual work at the city hall.
However, their various support systems in the city were also crucial for their win.
From the support of their farmers and traders, the local coffee shop who let them stay until the wee hours, the city librarian who gave them a temporary headquarters, to the local masseur who helped them de-stress during the final stages of the competition, this enabling environment all contributed to the city's win.
In the startup scene, we have a saying that "It takes a village to raise a startup."
The same principle applies to public sector innovation, especially in a local government setting.
Upon announcement of Butuan City as a Grand Prize Winner, everyone in the city who contributed to their innovation journey also felt an immense sense of joy, pride, and honor.
Lastly, without political will, public sector innovation especially at the city level is not possible.
Butuan City is very fortunate that its local chief executive, Mayor Ronnie Vicente Lagnada, is committed to supporting their local agricultural system, being an agripreneur himself.
Butuan City also made sure to design AgriBOOST to be easily replicable by other LGUs who are interested in the initiative.
During the grand testing day conducted by Butuan City last October, Mayor Lagnada publicly committed to implementing the project whether they win the competition or not.
Because of his executive sponsorship, AgriBOOST has become a reality and garnered support not only from local and national partners but also from the esteemed panel of judges of the Global Mayors Challenge.
Only seven months after I received that call from Bill, the world and the country already changed so much.
The resort where I was staying at that time in Siargao was completely wrecked by Typhoon Odette. The omicron variant is quickly sweeping the country. The 2022 national elections are fast approaching.
In these highly uncertain and complex times, now more than ever, we need public servants and local leaders who are hungry for innovation and who have the grit to make things happen.
Butuan City just showed us a solid case study on what’s possible on local government innovation, while also bringing honor to the Philippines in the global stage.
If Butuan City can do it, other local governments also can.
In the next 3 years, the City will be receiving a total of $1million USD and technical support to implement and scale AgriBOOST.
Now, our innovation journey continues.