The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 07, 2013

Civic incubator looks to speed rate of innovation

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

From better designed trash cans to apps that help parents track their kids’ school buses, community-centered technologies are being developed in cities across the country.

In Boston, a civic innovation incubator is working to better design and deploy these types of technologies to more effectively address community needs.  

Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood co-founded the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2010, after years working in both the public and private sectors.  Just one year later in 2011, the two were named “Public Officials of the Year” by Governing Magazine.  

One of the office’s major assets is its ability to act quickly and collaborate across sectors in creating, implementing and deploying technology. Knight, which is interested in how governments can use technology to engage residents, recently talked with Jacob to find out how the department works in practice and to learn more about some of the projects its helping to develop.

How are you leveraging technology to build more partnerships between residents, city staff, entrepreneurs and non-profits?

N.J.: By supporting civic innovators (inside or outside of government) in the development and testing of new technology tools. New Urban Mechanics works with innovators to build a proof-of-concept of their proposed product and on rolling it out to the public. The support and development of the concept is done by bringing in one or more partners into a small network to help the civic innovator with building the technology as well as its design.

So how does that works in practice?

N.J.: Testing is usually done in collaboration with a city department, like our collaboration with Technology for Autism Now. Two years ago we were approached by Marie Duggan, the parent of an autistic 19 year old, who had developed several well-thought out concepts for new products to enable autistic youth to learn new tasks (brushing teeth, waiting for the school bus, etc). We assembled a network of resources to enable her to create the organization, to develop the apps with support from Boston companies, FableVision and GetFused, and to test it in Boston Public Schools. We're working on a date, but with some luck the beta test will roll out in the spring.

What are some of the projects or areas you're working on now?

N.J.: One set of projects is around participatory urbanism and civic deliberation. For example, Community PlanIT is an online game enabling community members to engage in social learning prior to in-person community meetings for its new approach to rethinking community discourse. Another is around tech-enabled learning. In partnership with the Boston Public School system, we’re developing technologies that enable students to have a more personalized learning experience and to engage parents in their child's education. We’ve worked with Code For America to deploy tools like Where'sMySchoolBus, an app enabling parents to see the location of their child's school bus. Another is the Community Innovation Lab, a design workshop where local non-profits partner with public policy and design students from Harvard to tackle problems.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in leveraging new technologies?

N.J.: Definitely maintaining partnerships across sectors. Also securing funding and finding the human and financial capital to roll out community/civic technologies. Most local foundations are issue-oriented and often don't have a good sense as to how projects fit into their portfolios. Sustainability is also a big question. What happens after an initial experimental or proof-of-concept phase, who pays for it and who will continue its development?

Are you looking to any other cities to see how they are innovating?

N.J.: Philadelphia and Buenos Aires are creating partnerships with local civic innovators and New York City and Chicago are using big data in sophisticated ways. San Francisco, London and Barcelona are making the physical infrastructure of their cities a platform for innovation. Newark, N.J. and Bloomington Ind. are rethinking and developing open source enterprise technologies to help revolutionize the ways that the business of government happens.

How are you able to merge the talents of designers and technologists with the city's public works and transportation departments?

N.J.: The public works department and department of transportation are on the front lines of delivering services to the public, so many of the best ideas for improving service delivery come from them. We partner extensively with both, doing everything from helping develop new mobile apps to enabling city workers to work in a more resident-centered manner.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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