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FastFWD Puts the Civic Accelerator Inside City Hall

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, October 30 2013

Philly's FastFwd puts civic entrepreneurs in direct contact with city hall

City governments and tech entrepreneurs both want to make government more efficient and effective (who doesn't?), but that doesn’t make the task easy for either side. City requests for procurement define problems with such precision that they can block out creative solutions, and established bureaucratic folkways can make process shake-ups a challenge to implement. On the tech side, there isn’t always an understanding of where government might actually be helped, or that some problems will require more than an weekend of app making.

“We’re trying to solve both ends,” says Garrett Melby, founder of GoodCompany Ventures, which supports early stage companies with a positive social impact.

Melby is looking to bridge the gap between tech entrepreneurs and city government. Along with the City of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business he's promoting a new civic start up accelerator called FastFWD. The program will bring the leaders of ten early stage civic tech projects to Philadelphia in January. The fellows will receive a $10,000 fellowship from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and three months of intensive business mentorship, and access to people working directly in government. When the accelerator or “urban innovation refinery” as it styles itself concludes, the best ideas will get a try out within the city of Philadelphia.

“The biggest challenge is trying to figure out a business model that works, in an area that’s typically been relegated to public service or charitable support,” says Melby.

The three institutions have been working for nearly a year and a half to get the project underway. The accelerator’s focus, public safety, is the product of a research initiative by Wharton that included more than 75 expert interviews.

“There are great and obvious reasons for public safety being the focus,” says Jacob Gray, senior director for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. For starters, public safety is costly. A city's fire department, police department, and jails, can take up up about 1/3 of its budget. After dissecting Philadelphia’s budget, and separating out the money that couldn’t be diverted from federal and state programs, or that was locked in long-term contracts, Gray and his team identified between $100 million and $200 million in flexible spending, some of which could go towards innovative approaches to new projects.

“There’s an awful lot of opportunity for profit,” he says.

“We found particular pain points,” says Gray, “where people were saying there could be an awful lot of impact from innovative practice.” Gray identified a number of areas to focus on including recidivism, youth and gang violence, and changing public spaces and the built environment to reduce crime.

The research yielded interesting potential niches for new ventures. For instance, recent work in criminology shows that non major offenders are less likely to offend if they aren’t subject to the strict supervision of a parole officer.

“So if you to find another way to check in with a low-level offender you actually will get a lower level of re-offense,” says Gray. His research also found that crime could be reduced by some decidedly non-technical means, like finding new uses for empty lots, like tree farms, since those are the places where weapons are often stored, and violence starts.

FastFWD is part of a trend, represented elsewhere with the Code for America Accelerator, and the NYC BigApps competition, of civic accelerators and challenges becoming more refined in addressing city and urban problems. According to Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, FastFWD is providing something new.

“I’ve never heard of another city participating and leading an initiative like this that brings business acceleration to the folks inside city government.”