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Aurora embarks on new social innovation initiative

The second largest city in Illinois has launched Thrive Collaborative Center to promote local nonprofit growth, networking and success to support a stronger city.

Economic DevelopmentBusiness EngagementCommunity Services

Aurora, IL

United States

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While Aurora’s official launch of its innovation department was a mere three years ago, the city, just outside of Chicago, has a long history in innovation. Nicknamed the “City of Lights”, Aurora was the first city in the United States to implement an all-electric street lighting system in the 1800s.

More recently, Aurora is known for its expansion of their 605 Innovation District in a move that will transform the entire city into an innovation district and enable deployment of ‘smart city’ technology city-wide. While we commend Aurora’s bold move to promote connectivity and cutting-edge technology to hopefully better serve all citizens, other models such as Smart Dublin’s smart districts question the efficacy of a city-wide approach, in favor of more hyper-focused areas to pilot innovation.

In Aurora’s innovation department, some lesser publicized projects in the works with tangible impact for the community involve their Financial Empowerment Center, which provides financial counseling to families with low and moderate incomes, or their River Edge Smart Park project to equip a popular public space with wifi, sensors and smart lighting to help drive economic development in the surrounding areas. Aurora’s Innovation Department and Innovation District alike are rooted in their focus on four pillars and initiatives that help promote a ‘safer, more connected, better run and a more prosperous city’.

Introducing the Thrive Collaborative Center

Led by Aurora’s Chief Innovation Officer, Adrienne Holloway, Ph.D., the Innovation Department in Aurora is now looking to help support local nonprofit and social organizations through an incubator program and co-working space in their downtown. The goal of this initiative? A sense of community and collaboration to promote development of local nonprofits to ultimately strengthen the City. Launched in early 2020, Thrive Collaborative Center is the first coworking space in the Fox Valley area that supports the social sector.

Member benefits include low cost membership for use of private and shared spaces (essentially below market rent for office space near the downtown) and opportunities for organizations and entrepreneurs to enhance their operation through various curated workshops and training. Strategic partnerships with universities provide training and resources in business law for nonprofit and social organizations. Holloway says:

“By providing them a workspace that was conducive to the work they were doing and the services they were offering at a below market rate...the intention [was] that they would reinvest any savings they incurred back into the growth and strength of their organization.”

Thrive’s current space is now at capacity, but Holloway and team have decided to get creative to serve more of the nonprofit community. They now offer digital memberships for those who want access to Thrive’s robust suite of resources. Holloway says:
“We've been approached by organizations and businesses who may not necessarily want a physical space to operate from, but they surely wanted to access the resources and the packages that we're putting together. So we've decided to figure out how to build out this digital membership, where a member would be able to have access to a certain slew of resources on a monthly basis, all designed to help them grow without them having to incur the cost of a physical space.”

Accountability in social innovation

The nature of this program is to foster growth and success among local nonprofits. To ensure the members are progressing as intended, Thrive checks in on the progress of their participating organizations to make sure they are taking advantage of the resources, training and connections available to them. Holloway understands the importance of accountability and checks and balances as at the end of the day, the Thrive Collaborative Center is a business. Holloway shares some metrics they look to when evaluating their participating members:

“We developed a matrix of the variables that are important to us. So what is the starting budget? What are the current relationships or partnerships that an organization or an entrepreneur may already have in place? [...] We capture all of that in our conversations with them and have regular ongoing meetings with them to determine what progress has been made through investments and access to the resources we're providing.”

These checks and balances are important in any project to measure its success, but also to help with stakeholder and community buy-in. Holloway hopes she can continue to show the success of the program - not only in getting new member subscriptions, either on premise or digital, but boasting their first graduates from the program.

Plans for program expansion… a ‘Thrive 2.0’ and beyond

After reaching capacity and seeing the overwhelming support for the program, Holloway and her team are looking to expand the scope of the program to leverage the success of their early nonprofits to give back to the organization in the way of mentorship and training. The vision is a Thrive 2.0 of sorts, which will house those who have successfully completed the Thrive program and have generated success in their organization thanks to the resources and partnerships available through Thrive. Holloway says:
“What we hope to achieve in that type of relationship is this community of organizations and businesses continually supporting one another. That goes beyond just being in a building we call the Thrive Collaborative Center.”
This follow on program will move nonprofits to buildings at market rent, freeing up the below-market space for those social enterprises in need.

Need stakeholder buy-in? Do your homework

Aurora’s innovation team has been known to toss around some bold ideas. From creating an Education Commission to hosting a first ever Winter on the Fox small business expo, outdoors in December. But like in many local governments - even the most “innovative” - stakeholder buy-in isn't always a sure thing. Holloway recommends you do your homework. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve and the scope of the problem
  • Do your research and whenever possible, incorporate community feedback
  • Develop a prototype - make sure to differentiate between “must haves” and “nice to haves”
  • Talk with other departments and stakeholders to make sure you don’t have any blind spots
  • Find some champions within your council to help shepherd the project
  • Embrace the concept of starting small and expanding once you have tangible success

Innovation doesn’t always mean ‘cutting edge’

When pushing for any new technology or program in local government, Holloway is quick to remind us of the challenges for the public sector. While resource constraints may be top of mind, we must also consider the audience - an initiative needs buy-in that goes much further than convincing your team or department that your idea is a good one. There are cross departmental dialogues that need to be had, approval from council, approval from the constituents you serve, and from partners or funders in some cases. The number of moving parts and the complexity in communication across these various silos can bring any idea to a halt. Holloway acknowledges these hurdles and wants to encourage her peers to persevere: “Don't let that be a discouragement of why you choose not to pursue something [...] you know, that given time you can actually accomplish it.”

Technology is moving fast - too fast for most local governments to keep pace. Holloway believes innovation is more of the iterative piloting of new ideas and new technology, which can simply mean new to your city. “[It] might not be the most cutting edge technology or program that exists today, but it's new to your city” - that these ideas and technologies should still be pursued for progress in an effort to improve operational efficiency and citizen services in your organization.

And the courage to take that step is innovative in and of itself.

Adrienne M. Holloway, Ph.D. is an accomplished professional with over 15 years of experience in the housing and community development industries and 10 years of experience in academia teaching undergraduate and graduate students, received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. She is currently the Chief Innovation Officer at the City of Aurora where she is responsible for leading the development and execution of new initiatives for the city. Areas of focus include improving citizen engagement, building efficiency and effectiveness within government and, stimulating the success capacity of the city’s nonprofit, social entrepreneur and resident populations. She also oversees the City of Aurora’s Community Services and Information Technology divisions. Dr. Holloway was formerly an assistant professor at the DePaul University Graduate School of Public Service where she taught government, community development and research methods courses.


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