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Philadelphia FastFWD’s Urban Problem Solving

The idea behind the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program was simple, bring in some of the most creative and innovative entrepreneurs to work for a year on some of the government’s most intractable problems. It was a winning idea. So winning, in fact, that the city of Philadelphia is launched a similar program. It’s called FastFWD. This program bridges the gap between entrepreneurs, the City and the University — and aims to source and cultivate solutions to the world’s most pressing urban challenges.

Story Bellows is the Co-Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Philadelphia and the woman behind the FastFW program. Bellows told me on GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight Interview that the program was developed to bring innovative solutions to government problems.

Bellows noted FastFW has three primary objectives:

  1. “To direct the energy of entrepreneurs and people we see as the most innovative problem solvers in society towards the urban problem set. We want to ensure we are getting the most innovative ideas to deal with the most critical challenges facing cities across the country.”
  2. “Make sure that cities are responsive to those entrepreneurs. We are looking at our procurement, particularly the procurement of professional services protocols and processes so that we are easily and responsively take advantage of the new solutions that are being created by small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs.”
  3. “We want to support the development of Philadelphia as a true hub of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurs.”

“FastFWD was developed as a response to Mayor Nutter’s idea for the city of Philadelphia’s entry into the Bloomberg Philanthropy Mayor’s Challenge. We started working on FastFWD in June of 2012. Over the course of the next 8-9 months we really refined the ideas. We brought in additional partners. We were one of the five winners of the Bloomberg philanthropy challenge. We found that out in March. Once that happened we really started getting to work and lining up how we would go forward,” said Bellows.

Who is involved with FastFWD?

“FastFWD is a collaboration project that is being run out of the Mayor’s office. The Wharton Social Impact Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and Good Company group which is a social enterprise accelerator based in Philadelphia are our partners,” said Bellows.

Tell me about the FastFWD Accelerator Program

“We engage entrepreneurs in urban challenges through the FastFWD accelerator program. The first piece was to isolate where the key opportunities are for innovative solutions in our city. The Wharton team led a pretty extensive research process where we interviewed Mayors, Deputy Mayors and other key civic leaders to identify areas that really seemed right for this type of problem solving. We looked primarily at education, healthcare and public safety. Public safety rose to the top because that is one of the areas where we spend a lot of the city’s budget. More than a third of the city’s budget is spent of public service related service delivery. We repackaged the public safety problem set and we looked at the market size for different components of what makes up public safety and put that out as a call for entrepreneurs,” said Bellows.

Different approach to problem solving?

“The way we typically approach problem solving in the city is we will issue an RFP, and in doing so we assume we completely understand the problem. Then we prescribe a solution. The way FastFWD works is we are trying to open up our insights, our data, so that other people have access to both defining what the problems are and also creating their own solutions. That way we are more open to a broader set of potential programs, processes or tools that we can use and employ to better solve the challenges of the city,” said Bellows.

How do you sign up for FastFWD?

“The first call for entrepreneurs that will participate in a 12 week accelerator program, the applications are due on January 22nd. The first cohort of entrepreneurs will be on the ground in Philadelphia in mid to late February. They will then spend three months working with us and Good Company who has demonstrated a really successful approach to this type of program.We will connect the entrepreneurs with experts in public safety in Philadelphia and also working with other cities,” said Bellows.

New way of solving problems. Why this way?

“We were really inspired by the work that Good Company Group had already done in Philadelphia with some of the other businesses that they had incubated. As we were talking to them, my colleague Jeff Friedman and I got really excited thinking about what it would look like if we were able to get the folks that they were working with on a daily basis and the types of people we were talking to through Warton’s Social Impact Initiative. What if we were able to get those people to work for us? Through those initial conversations and through our department of economic and planning we really started to pull all of these ideas together and I think because Philadelphia has a really strong commitment to entrepreneurs and the startup community, it seemed like all the pieces were in the right place to try something totally initiative,” said Bellows.

Transparency matters?

“I don’t think this approach to problem solving would work if Mayor Nutter and the city and the administration hadn’t already demonstrated a commitment to openness and transparency. I don’t think many political leaders would jump out and say here are all of our problems. And then ask outsiders to come help us solve them,” said Bellows.

Biggest Challenge?

“The biggest challenge going forward will be once we get some great ideas that our city and the procurement is able to have the tools and processes in place to enable us to engage and to be very attractive partners for startups and the entrepreneurial community. There are a lot of legal hurdles and other things that make it more challenging for startups to work with cities.

We will be checking in with Bellows in the months and weeks ahead to follow the progress of FastFWD. This program is changing the way the government solves problems and procures solutions. If you have heard of a similar program or what to learn more about Philly’s FastFWD email me at [email protected]

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