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Philadelphia Mayor Launches a New Office for Innovation, Taking a Cue from Boston

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, October 2 2012

Inspired by Boston, the city of Philadelphia is establishing its own Office of New Urban Mechanics, said the city's Mayor Michael Nutter late Monday at the Code for America Summit.

"New Urban Mechanics Philadelphia is a nimble and entrepreneurial government outfit," Nutter said during a Monday afternoon speech in San Francisco. "It is piloting and prototyping small innovative projects in the civic space, which along with efforts of individuals across multiple city departments, will better enable our city to sustain a culture of innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to problem-solving."

Its co-directors are Jeff Friedman and Story Bellows, who had previously worked on civic innovation projects in the mayor's office. In his remarks, Nutter said the city will model its project closely after the Boston outfit created by Mayor Thomas Menino and led by former tech entrepreneur Nigel Jacob and city official Chris Osgood.

“We’ve engaged the city’s entrepreneurial and startup communities for their energy and passion and intellect," he said. "We’ve established solid working relationships with business incubators in Philadelphia, and expanding the network of those both in and outside government working to analyze and solve civic challenges.”

Code for America sent fellows to Philadelphia for two consecutive years, and the establishment of the office is an outgrowth of that experience, Friedman said an in interview.

The idea is to create a space where civic hackers, entrepreneurs and those in government can work together on experimental projects to address specific urban issues. Bellows and Friedman have spent the past six months talking to a couple of hundred department heads, city employees and civic-minded citizens for input on projects.

Friedman said that the intent is to create a "risk aggregation platform," where "we are trying to provide a safe place for people to try things out," and sometimes possibly fail. The projects are meant to be small, low-dollar experiments of limited duration. They've yet to figure out the metrics or cut-off points, but will consult with their peers in Boston and the local academic community to develop them, Bellows said. They plan on developing specific metrics for each project as they embark on them.

"Government doesn't always have the solutions, but we have a lot of convening power," Bellows said.

The mayor didn't announce any specific projects on Monday, but Bellows and Friedman said that they have plenty of ideas. The projects aren't necessarily going to be technology focused, they said. For example, they're mulling over the idea of tweaking the city's gun buy-back program. Bellows and Friedman said that they'd recently talked to a "human factors" expert, who suggested that they might want to tweak the program to create incentives for neighborhoods and local communities instead of for individuals.

Mayor Nutter said that the city's technology initiatives are part of a larger governing philosophy centered around the notion of an inclusive, participatory culture.

“To me, open government is about more than just sharing information or transparency. Those are critical components of it. But I think an open government is a conversation. It’s a process. It’s a new relationship,” he said. "Our agencies are constantly reminded that this is not about building better technology. It’s about rethinking how services are delivered and integrated across our city government. Our vision is to take every service that does not require a face to face interaction and making it available online so that our citizens can interact with the government any time, anywhere on any device and on their schedule."

In June, Philadelphia launched a pilot project called Textizen, which was created by Code for America fellows Alexander Yule and Michelle Lee. The project publicizes city officials' desire for more feedback on planning issues from citizens in public spaces, and asks them to text in their feedback.

That initiative is just one out of several that the city has launched in the past couple of years. More recently, the city launched a new 311 app mid September that enables citizens to report in problems through their mobile phones.

The technology initiatives are just part of a wider strategy of having to work smarter, because local governments are performing a "high wire act" looking for solutions with ever-shrinking budgets, he said.

"Our goal is to do it with smarter government solutions like cross-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships, technology, new ideas, citizen input and an open government," he said.

This post has been updated

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