Overview: A serendipitous meeting between a city official’s hobby and a freelancer’s brainstorm led to the city of Arlington, TX, creating a stop-motion LEGO movie to explain the city’s budget. The video has been a huge viral hit, helping the city better communicate how its budget works and its priorities.
The city of Arlington, TX, has over 400,000 residents, making it the seventh-largest city in Texas and one of the top fifty largest cities in the US. It also has more land area to cover, 95 square miles, than many other municipalities.
In addition, over the last year and a half, the city has faced the COVID-19 pandemic, a winter storm that disabled utilities, on top of the typical issues that face any municipality. This made clarity around the budget particularly important.
The city had tackled this problem before. Jay Warren, once a television news reporter and now the city’s director of communications and legislative affairs, explained the 2020 budget by heading to the supermarket, for example:
But this year, the city both needed a different approach to draw the attention of citizens distracted by national events. Warren, it turned out, had spent a decade building the perfect solution.
A Model City
Warren is a fan of Lego. Going back to his childhood and to relax after work, he used decades worth of the bricks he’d collected to construct a model of Arlington in brick form. The elaborate model features local businesses and notable features of the city and took him about a decade to put together. In fact, it’s still growing, just as the city does.
It was during a company Christmas party that someone noticed the model. They remembered that the city was looking for a new way to present the budget this year and asked if Warren and his team had considered making a “brickfilm.”
“Brickfilm” is internet slang for stop-motion animation created with Lego sets. Many of the Lego movies popular in theaters are just elaborate examples of the form, yet brickfilm can be made cost-effectively, for the most part. The real work in many cases is assembling the backgrounds and larger props, such as vehicles, as opposed to the animation.
Warren looked into it and found that brickfilms could be produced with software that cost as little as $150 and didn’t require any professional equipment. It was interesting, it was quirky, and it was fun. So, in a few days, the team shot, edited, and narrated a brickfilm communicating their budget:
They themed the video around the key features of both Lego and the city: Building, uniting, and creating. It debuted on August 3rd, 2021, and the team assumed that the city would enjoy it and that would be the end of it.
A Viral Sensation
The video quickly caught on beyond just the city. As of this writing, it has over a million views for a channel with only 7,000 subscribers. It got coverage across the state and in outlets like the Today Show and the New York Post, raising the visibility of Arlington nationwide.
More importantly for the team, though, it was widely discussed in the city itself. While the city regularly updates its YouTube channel, it generally only sees a handful of views, with some videos occasionally trending into the low tens of thousands. By far, its most popular videos, aside from this one, feature rollercoasters from the local Six Flags amusement park.
Getting the message out has always been a struggle in local communications, so this, in particular, stood out for city hall. It helped to remind citizens there’s a place for information about elections, public health, and other information, in a format they could more easily consume on the go and in multiple languages. So, how can municipalities repeat this kind of local success?
Lessons From Arlington’s Success
There are few lessons about both communications innovation and broader innovation we can take away.
Use resources you already have.Part of the reason this happened in the first place was the coincidence of a Lego model of Arlington being available to shoot. The key lesson, especially for government innovation, is there’s more at your fingertips than you might realize. Ask staff about their hobbies, ideas, and approaches to issues and see what you already have.
Don’t assume creativity is expensive.Another reason this came together so effectively was that a bit of research found computer programs that used phones and other standard tools could be easily deployed. Yet until someone asked, nobody considered the possibility. Before writing anything off, give it some thought and see what’s available.
Messaging matters.Take the time to watch the Lego video, and you’ll find that it’s quite informative, with detailed numbers, a clear structure, and a good overview of everything. It’s a clear, concise way to get the point across, with some attention-getting packaging.
There’s more than one way to do the job.Part of the reason that this video came together was that, by and large, very little changes year to year aside from the numbers in budget videos. In some cases, a simple, straightforward video might make sense, but after a certain point, all but the most dedicated will tune out. By acknowledging this, they delivered a stronger message.
Feedback from stakeholders is a key metric.While the press coverage was a nice bonus, the Arlington team has made it clear repeatedly that the main value for them has been local. People understand the budget and how it works better, making it easier to discuss these issues year-round.
How Can You Start Developing Creativity In Your Organization?
Set up a feedback platform to crowdsource ideas internally and externally.
Create a transparent process to evaluate ideas and collect thoughts on them, such as having people vote on them.
Have both anonymous and personal methods to submit ideas, so everyone feels free to speak up.
Use multiple channels to collect ideas and thoughts and regularly update them with information.
Reiterate as the process develops.
To learn more about how IdeaScale can help municipalities scale up their innovation and messaging processes. Let the ideas flow with our complimentary training.
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