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Case study: City of San Jose Innovation Learning Lab

Providing organization-wide tools for creative problem solving at the City of San José

CivicMakers facilitated our signature Learning Lab program, an eight week, hands-on learning and engagement experience for cross-departmental teams in public institutions, with the City of San José in 2020. This was our first Learning Lab conducted entirely virtually.


We started the listening process in late 2019, starting with Human Resources and IT. We participated in After Action Reviews to understand where previous innovation efforts fell short, and what worked well so we could meaningfully tackle City priorities across departments.

While the pandemic made our in-person design impossible, we kept in regular contact with champions of the Learning Lab to determine when would be an opportune time to revisit the program. In October 2020, the IT department put forth an initiative to reimagine the city’s intranet, and needed some support validating assumptions of the project’s usefulness across the city.


Human Resources and IT were willing to experiment with fostering human connection in a virtual environment, and felt confident in our ability to deliver a program that would surface needs across departments in a time of uncertainty. Since IT had already gone through the process of creating objectives for its OneCity Workplace idea, we turned those objectives into “How Might We” statements and trained a cohort of cross-departmental teams in user research to test how the objectives could meet the needs of diverse teams across the City.

The insights gained from the user research conducted over eight weeks surfaced insights that challenges had to do with cultural or human elements as opposed to purely technology needs. These insights have been integrated into subsequent Learning Lab cohorts to get at the root cause of design challenges across the City.

This groundwork continues to enhance the City’s Powered by People initiative, which seeks to leverage the creative capacity of individuals, teams and departments to co-create solutions. By conducting pre- and post-session debriefs, participants have the opportunity to share where they are in the program, request support or content, and suggest improvements to the process.


The first virtual cohort of the City’s Powered by People Learning Lab resulted in recommendations made for how a new intranet could meet the needs of IT, HR, Public Works, Environmental Services and other departments across the City. The outcome of this first cohort resulted in a Request for Proposal (RFP) development process that leveraged non-technical expertise. This allowed for the functional requirements written in the RFP to be rooted in human insights.

The Learning Lab continues to tackle challenges such as the process for electronic contracts, employee benefits and promoting employees to ensure that solutions developed are responsive, timely and, perhaps most importantly, solve the right problems.

This initiative is now integrated with the City’s roadmap, strategic priorities, and business process automation process to ensure Powered by People lives up to its promise. An additional workshop entitled “Storytelling for Change” has been added to ensure public-facing employees, managers and executives alike can effectively communicate changes that need to happen to move the City forward.

“I came out [of Learning Lab] with skills to be a better manager, adding a more human approach to each day, adding emotion and not just the business.”

Learning Lab Participant Cohort 1, City of San Jose Cohort

The pilot was a unique collaboration between HR and IT, blending staff capacity-building (Human Resources) and San José’s OneCity Workplace intranet initiative (IT). The inaugural cohort was brought together into three cross-departmental teams to learn about and apply human-centered design tools and techniques to a key City challenge. Teams were each assigned a unique challenge, including: How Might We (1) create an engaged and informed workforce, (2) optimize virtual productivity, (3) improve collaboration in a distributed workspace?

As of December 2023, we have run seven cohorts with cross-departmental teams tackling citywide challenges.