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In Boston, City Hall Pursues Innovation In-House

Last year, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decided to put two of his most technologically savvy staffers full-time on the task of trying new ways to solve old city problems. A year later, they have had a hand in a fleet of small but successful projects both developed in-house and with external partners. Here’s a look at the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a one-of-a-kind city unit that combines policy smarts with technology know-how to achieve results. This story originally appeared on techPresident.com.

Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Photo: Nick Judd / techPresident

To be in Boston is to be in two cities at once — the brick-and-mortar metropolis and its digital doppelganger.

Drivers can set their mobile phones to automatically detect potholes and transmit location information to the city. Conscientious consumers can hunt digital Boston for local businesses that will take their dollars and put them towards a social good. Faced with what to do with what is now a parking lot in Boston’s Chinatown, neighborhood residents will soon be involved in a weeks-long online game that will prepare them for the in-person planning process. Cities across the country seek to lay the groundwork for innovative third parties to build on, based on the premise that city government is too inflexible or narrow-minded to be the best host for ground-breaking work. But Boston has developed a slew of new tools and ideas by taking exactly the opposite stance: A unit of the Boston mayor’s office, called the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, has been tasked with reinventing the experience of city services for the digital age. And this new approach is showing results.

Last year, Mayor Thomas Menino took two of his most technology-minded staffers — both of whom had years of experience in his five-term administration to match their understanding of new tools and practices — and gave them a mandate to reinvent service delivery in his city. With limited financial resources, the help of a few graduate students, and unfettered access to the rest of the mayor’s cabinet, city advisors Nigel Jacob, a former software developer, and Chris Osgood, a longtime city official, have been given broad ability to pluck innovative ideas from the primordial soup of Boston’s tech, government and entrepreneur communities. Part of their agenda is to open government data, especially if someone needs help extracting a specific dataset from City Hall, but it’s just a small part. When they see an idea they like, they can throw a small amount of city resources behind it and use their positions inside City Hall to get answers and make introductions. And they can form partnerships with outside groups to make ideas into reality.

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics — really just a couple of cubicles tucked into a back corner of Menino’s fifth-floor domain in City Hall — is an incubator for any idea that helps them pursue a list of broad city goals. After about a year in operation, the mobile app for speedbumps, appropriately called “Street Bump,” launched in February; with a team from Boston’s own Emerson College, Jacob and Osgood have been working on using games to create engagement around public planning — the latest one built by the Emerson team, Community PlanIt, will go live soon as part of the decision-making process about what to do with what is now a parking lot in Boston’s Chinatown.

Many of these projects are risky ventures, things that have never been done before. That’s okay, Jacob says; the Office of New Urban Mechanics exists in part to create space for the city to try new things in the digital world.

‘Department of experiment’

“The value that we add is we aggregate risk,” Jacob explained recently. “Our approach has been, if you, Public Works, have something you want to try, but you don’t want it to show up as a crazy Public Works project, you can present it as a New Urban Mechanics project.”

This is as much about communications as it is about results. If a city agency works the way they usually do, issuing a request for proposals that results in a contract with a major firm for a product that has a mammoth price tag, failure is not an option; it’s a potentially career-ending misuse of public money.

The New Urban Mechanics model, on the other hand, is to pick projects with potential, reduce risk by working through partnerships and limited grants, and do as much with connections and savvy as with money. While nobody is expecting any individual product to revolutionize the way the city works, many lightweight projects focused on the same problems just might get more people engaged with city government, and move Boston towards a future where more residents are directly involved in the way the city is run.

Perhaps Boston’s flashiest online innovation, Citizens Connect, is a mobile application launched in 2009. Initially built by a small Boston-based firm at the city’s relatively modest expense — the price tag was $25,000 — it allows users to submit service requests for problems like graffiti or potholes directly into the work queue of the Department of Public Works. City funding coming through the Office of New Urban Mechanics doesn’t seem to venture any higher than that, although the city is participating in Code for America this year, which costs cities $225,000 for a year’s worth of access to development talent. But other folks who have worked with Jacob and Osgood are as thankful for introductions they’ve made — and the fact that their support means they can arrive at a business meeting with some of the imprimatur of City Hall — as for the small amounts of money they are able to provide.

Meeting of the Minds To shake the public planning process free of the entrenched interests of developers and community groups, Emerson College researcher Eric Gordon is leading a team that tries to get communities involved by turning planning into a collaborative game. Like any experiment, the results aren’t perfect — but it seems to be working.

“Developers have landscape architects, and designers, and so on, to help them conduct community meetings, to get the public’s buy in and explain the project and so on,” Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and a pivotal supporter of the Emerson College project, told me. Jacob and his office co-chair, Chris Osgood, supported Gordon’s early research by bringing City Hall’s influence to bear.

“The challenge is that those meetings often go really badly. They don’t always, but usually they do,” Jacob added.

In 2010, Gordon and his team partnered with Boston’s Asian Community Development Corporation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to host community meetings where participants roamed a digital replica of Boston’s Chinatown as one of a number of virtual avatars based on interviews with real neighborhood residents. Called Participatory Chinatown and funded through a MacArthur Foundation grant, the game brought in many people who don’t often show up for community meetings, like young professionals and parents with teenage children. Gordon says that 80 percent of Participatory Chinatown participants had not been involved in any of the previous public meetings about the 2010 Chinatown master plan.

Gordon’s team has taken a new approach for their next experiment: a web-based game called Community PlanIt designed to help people get educated about the planning process in about six weeks leading up to a public meeting. That game will be rolled out soon for use in deciding what to do with a key Chinatown property that is now a parking lot, as well as in planning processes in Lowell, Mass., and in a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pa. (Virtual worlds are too difficult to build.)

Gordon says he hopes this platform will help communities make better planning decisions.

“You can use this platform and make a case, you can present information in such a way that biases the information presented,” Gordon admitted. “The hope is that because this platform has every capacity for feedback … that it won’t be that easy to simply frame a rhetorical argument and get away with it.”

In 2009, Mike Norman, then a graduate student at MIT with a background in community organizing, had an idea for a startup. The company, which became SoChange, evolved over time and, Norman admits, a false start or two, into a kind of Groupon or CarrotMob for would-be social activists. In SoChange, local businesses sign up for a “challenge” supported by community groups, like installing a flap door to trap cold air and save electricity, or to feed kids who are part of a Head Start program and give nutrition training to the program staff. If enough customers indicate their support by buying gift certificates through SoChange for that business, the business follows through on their challenge.

The Office of New Urban Mechanics gave Norman a small cash infusion — less than $10,000, he said — and connected him to people in government who were working on the types of social issues he wanted to address through SoChange.

“They’re in the mayor’s office, they have connections across all of city government and are able to understand all the players,” Norman said.

Like many Internet startups, the initial business plan for Norman’s project was vastly different than the one SoChange has now. Jacob says that SoChange would not have been able to work with the city if it wasn’t for New Urban Mechanics’ tolerance for the way Internet startups work — which is to say, they often don’t work, for months or years, until maybe they do.

“He’s gone through, I think this is the third or fourth iteration in terms of building his business model,” Jacob said of SoChange’s founder. “That’s something that couldn’t have happened in a traditional relationship with government.”

Now, Norman says that companies have made good on three of the five promises made since he flipped the switch on the platform’s latest iteration in February. The other two are largely a matter of time; one, for instance, requires an entry-level kitchen job to open up, at which time it will be held aside for an ex-offender.

The Office of New Urban Mechanics brings some fault tolerance to city government, which is itself a new and interesting thing. During my first conversation with Jacob, I suggested that the Office of New Urban Mechanics might be accurately called the “Department of Failure,” in part just to see how he and Osgood would react.

There was a long pause.

“We would probably frame it,” Jacob said, diplomatically, “as the Department of Experiment.”

But trying new things just for newness’ sake is not the objective; Jacob and Osgood have been given a concrete set of tasks to work on with their combination of technical and policy knowledge.

New people, new platforms

Perched atop the wall of Jacob’s cluttered cubicle in the Boston mayor’s office is a red toolbox with “NEW URBAN MECHANICS” stenciled in gray. Neatly cut paper notes cover the wall behind it. On each piece is a project the New Urban Mechanics office is working on: Street Bump, Citizens Connect, Participatory Chinatown.

This is the workshop of someone who is building things, not liberating data for others to work with in pursuit of “government as a platform,” the vision of Gov 2.0 as described most vocally by the open-source technology leader Tim O’Reilly. But Jacob is cognizant of that approach, and views it as compatible.

Jacob is a software developer turned municipal policy advisor who makes new tools for the city with the help of a small squadron of graduate students who are in city hall as part of fellowship programs. It was that kind of program that brought Jacob to City Hall, in 2006, where he met Osgood for the first time. Osgood also first arrived in the fortresslike, modernist warren of City Hall on a fellowship — a City Year while attending Harvard Business School. Unlike Jacob, he had municipal experience from a stint in New York City’s parks department. Their first work together was a project around how to improve service delivery in the city, but they were also both involved in Hub2, a precursor project to Participatory Chinatown. Now, they are focused on projects built in close partnership with outside parties.

“I think they’re supportive of the work we do,” Jacob said of the open government, open data communities. But Jacob’s work doesn’t fit neatly within that ”give us the data, we’ll do the rest” framework, in his view. City Hall does not give over design and development entirely. Jacob’s office focuses on end products that advance city infrastructure and service delivery, youth and education, and what’s known in Boston City Hall as “participatory urbanism,” which Jacob describes as “the implementation of, and practice of, democracy in an urban environment — in a city.” All of these, he says, are priorities laid out by Mayor Menino.

In Jacob’s vision, everything that New Urban Mechanics does is focused on providing services — rather than providing the data that services would be built on and getting out of the way, which would sacrifice control but opens up possibilities beyond what city officials can imagine. Participatory Chinatown enhances and reinvents the public meeting, which is a ritual overseen by the city. Citizens Connect bypasses the clogged arteries of City Hall, but it connects citizens to the hands and eyes of municipal government. Jacob wants a mechanism to efficiently solicit more ideas from outside government, but says he has yet to find the right one.

Still, other cities are interested in duplicating this method. Cambridge, separated from Boston by the Charles River, has included its own office of new urban mechanics in its next budget proposal.

It’s still unclear if New Urban Mechanics is mechanics as in the study and construction of a useful digital city, or mechanics as in the actual mechanics, Jacob and Osgood, a single team with unique expertise and experience. They have shaped an office around themselves in a way that focuses on collaborations and external partnerships in part to put an emphasis on governmental structure over personality, and are devoting time and energy on helping other cities create models similar to their own. Time will tell if the ability to create partnerships that lead to successful projects is indeed more about process than it is about individuals.

“It’s unusual to have that kind of visionary in the mayor’s office, someone whose efforts are leading towards innovation and not just management,” Eric Gordon, the Emerson professor who worked on Participatory Chinatown, told me, describing Jacob.

But every city has talent, Gordon says. The trick will be in creating a nimble organization inside government that can serve as a “mechanism of flexibility” — something he says Jacob and Osgood are still working to perfect.

“You have this kind of, it’s this in-between space that’s able to connect university, nonprofits, businesses and government, and try to tap the resources of all these entities for the benefit of government. That’s what the Office of New Urban Mechanics can do, and what Nigel is working tirelessly to make it do better.”

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