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What is "New Urban Mechanics" and Why Does Philadelphia Want Some?

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, October 3 2012

When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced on Monday that Philadelphia will get a new arm of city government called the Office of New Urban Mechanics, he was signing on to a sizable experiment in how government is supposed to work.

Nutter's administration is emulating a program Boston City Hall put in place two years ago to find innovative — you might also say "untested" — ideas and see if they can make government work better. The Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics is just a handful of people led by Nigel Jacob, a former programmer, and Chris Osgood, a city official who came to Boston after a stint at New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation. Their job is to help those new solutions to old problems navigate the often tricky hallways of city bureaucracy.

For instance, Boston launched an application last year that lets iPhone users turn their phones into pothole detectors. If the app is on while someone's commuting, it uses the phone's accelerometer to detect the jarring sensation of running over a pothole, and sends the pothole's coordinates back to the city. Another series of projects, in partnership with Emerson College, use video games to get people more involved in public planning. The city is now working with the service design firm IDEO to build a pilot program that would rethink how Boston's sanitation department handles trash and recycling.

These projects make use of new technologies to create a different approach to age-old city problems. But they also reflect what Boston bills as "peer-produced governance." The pothole app, Street Bump, asks people to create a network of iPhones that collectively pushes useful intelligence about street conditions back to the city. The projects conducted with Emerson's Engagement Game Lab use City Hall's connection with Emerson to make it easier for City Hall to connect with constituents who have useful input for the public planning process. An earlier experiment called Participatory Chinatown, for example, drew up composite characters representative of Chinatown residents, then asked participants to imagine they were one of those characters. They were asked to tool around inside a virtual Chinatown created in the game Second Life and take note of aspects of the environment that were helpful and ones that weren't so helpful. Teenage volunteers were on-hand to help participants who might not be comfortable with the technology. By working this way, the city was able to drum up input from people who wouldn't otherwise show up to a public meeting — including the local teens who were on hand as volunteers.

Technology isn't so much the solution as it is a way to get more people involved in figuring out what the solution should be. That's where the "peer-produced" bit comes in. The idea of peer networks also plays a role in the way New Urban Mechanics gets things done. Jacob and Osgood are the interface for new and experimental technology projects that need City Hall's participation to succeed. They do that using a mix of personal connections, the fact that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino supports what they do, and relatively small cash infusions. Several projects I looked into last year were supported to the tune of between $10,000 and $25,000.

"The value that we add is we aggregate risk," Jacob explained to me in 2011. "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."

In other words, newfangled ideas are okay if they go through New Urban Mechanics and rely more on external partnerships and low-cost engagements rather than risky, high-dollar requests for proposals and expensive consultants. If things that fail do so without causing colossal embarrassment and significant financial loss, failure once in a while is okay. But the office also acts as an incubator for external ideas, helping to make connections inside the city for innovative new companies.

A Boston-based startup called SoChange offers local businesses the chance to pledge to take certain social actions, like promising to hire someone who's been to prison or to make their business more green, when enough people indicate their support for the idea by buying gift certificates. When the business reaches its funding goal, it's supposed to then follow through on the pledge. SoChange's founder told me last year that he was able to get his project off the ground in part thanks to introductions to people inside government that Jacob and Osgood made for him. Building City Hall's peer network, so to speak, seems to also be part of their job.

The Office of New Urban Mechanics is so named because Menino won the moniker "urban mechanic" for his focus on service delivery, but exporting their model has always been part of the plan.

It is in the context of this model that we quoted Nutter saying this:

“We’ve engaged the city’s entrepreneurial and startup communities for their energy and passion and intellect ... 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.”

It's also the context in which Story Bellows, the Philadelphia New Urban Mechanics co-chair, told Sarah Lai Stirland that Philadelphia's City Hall plans to use its "convening power" to solve problems. Rather than trying to hire a swarm of developers to implement an internal plan or pay a McKinsey or a KPMG hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a report, the New Urban Mechanics model would be to work within a city's own network to find solutions, try them out, and evaluate whether or not they were successful.

In Nutter's remarks Monday, he was essentially saying that he's starting up an office that will use technology and the concept of peer networks to let citizens help his administration get better at doing the things it was already supposed to be doing. That is one way to read this quote:

“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 ... 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."

Boston's projects are heavily focused on service delivery and, to a certain extent, collecting additional input into the city planning process — in no way do they propose to alter City Hall's status as a power center or the mayor's role as the final authority on what his city agencies do.

Allowing people to keep better track of what the administration is doing — like more easily following how it sets and keeps to its budget, or reviewing the internal emails that informed a critical decision — would be the subject of an entirely separate conversation.

Lawmaking is also a separate issue. It was announced Tuesday that the Participatory Politics Foundation will deploy a new website to take legislative data about the City Council and make it more accessible to the casual observer.