‘Office of New Urban Mechanics’ Nudges City Gov to Take Risks

April 28, 2019

The Office of New Urban Mechanics sits within a nexus of decision-makers on the sixth floor of Boston’s City Hall. At any given time, Mayor Marty Walsh, his chief of operations, or his head of policy might stroll across the hall into the office, its walls plastered with fluorescent Post-it notes, to discuss the team’s latest civic experiment.

New Urban Mechanics co-founder Nigel Jacob

As the city’s innovation powerhouse, New Urban Mechanics often finds itself “right in the line of fire when they want to talk about something or explore something,” be it a new app, regulations for electric-powered rental scooters, or more affordable and easy-to-assemble housing units, co-founder Nigel Jacob says.

The City of Boston website describes MONUM (the acronym stands for Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics) as a civic innovation incubator and a research-and-development lab. But beyond that, it’s also the city’s “risk team, the failure team,” Jacob says.

“[Departments] can give [a] project to us, and we will work with them to explore how this new idea could work, and then they are the experts, so they stay intimately involved,” Jacob says. “But if it fails for some reason, the idea is to bear the brunt of that work, because it becomes a New Urban Mechanics project.”

Jacob founded MONUM in 2010 with Chris Osgood, now Boston’s Chief of Streets, Transportation, and Sanitation, under the regime of the late Thomas Menino, the previous mayor. Menino was often referred to as an “urban mechanic.”

In starting MONUM, Jacob says he and Osgood sought to answer the question: “How can we take that urban mechanic ethos and combine it with the innovation economy?”

“A big part of that is also introducing a model into the local government of managing the risks of innovation, because you don’t get innovation [without accepting the possibility of] risk and failure, potentially,” Jacob says.

Innovating in Government Versus Corporations

A lot of innovation activity within companies tends to be focused on new products and services, Jacob says. But if a new product doesn’t get traction, the company might decide to discontinue it and move on. It’s not always that easy in government, Jacob says.

“Even if two people are using [the city’s product], we have to consider the impact of those two people,” Jacob says. “In a lot of ways, we have to think beyond products; we have to think about long-term relationships with communities.”

As a result, Jacobs says his work always entails a level of “political sensitivity.”

When it comes to potential partners and collaborators, Jacob says, Boston has “an embarrassment of riches. …There are so many players in the innovation ecosystem here, so it means that we do have to be constantly connecting…talking to universities and talking to social entrepreneurs and philanthropies and other government agencies.”

In partnering with companies, however, MONUM prefers to partner with smaller firms early in their development cycle as opposed to behemoths, Jacob says. Big companies, though they bring extensive resources, are often just as bureaucratic as governmental bodies, he says.

Startups and smaller ventures are “often very interested in testing their product for the very first time, so we can say, ‘Let’s try it out on some street in Dorchester [a neighborhood in Boston],’ and they can generate interesting data that they can then use to secure funding or whatever it is or resources down the stream,” Jacob says.

Measuring Impact 

Jacob says MONUM has recently been centering on technologies related to transportation, housing, and families. The “Where’s My School Bus” app —which MONUM hatched in 2011 with Boston Public Schools, Code for America, the software company Vermonster, and the GPS provider Zonar — lets parents track their child’s bus on its journey to or from a school. The app is used about 300 to 400 times on a regular school day, and tends to be especially popular early in the school year and during bad weather.

The team has also been exploring the dynamics of an eventual roll-out of electric scooters in the city of Boston, as well as “how we support self-driving cars in the city,” Jacob says.”That effort is requiring collaboration between the private sector, higher ed, local government, state government. … Any time that we can create multi-sector partnerships, that’s a big win for everybody.” As part of the effort, Boston officials, in collaboration with the transportation-analytics company Inrix, set out to digitize the traffic rules that apply to human drivers. Automakers and other technology developers could then more easily incorporate the digitized rules in their systems and software.

Some of MONUM’s biggest projects are initiated at the request of the mayor, such as creating a Housing Innovation Lab, or iLab, in 2017 within the Department of Neighborhood Development.

A prototype of the Plugin House outside Boston’s City Hall. The house is a dwelling structure that can be easily assembled in a backyard or vacant lot to create new living space.

A prototype of the Plugin House outside Boston’s City Hall. The house is a dwelling structure that can be easily assembled in a backyard or vacant lot to create new living space.

The iLab aims to test new housing models in the city. Among the projects it has supported are the Intergenerational Homeshare Pilot, which connects older homeowners who have extra rooms with those seeking to rent a room, as well as the Plugin House, an easily-assembled house that existing homeowners can build in their backyards, increasing the city’s housing stock. The Plugin House, which was put on exhibit outside City Hall and in Cambridge’s Harvard Yard in 2018, was created by Harvard Graduate School of Design fellow James Shen.Jacobs explains the driver: “The thought was, ‘Can we start exploring new territory … in the housing context that’s sufficiently valuable that the Department of Neighborhood Development would (A) want to continue that experimentation, and (B) want to fund that work.”

One indicator of success for MONUM, Jacob says, is the extent to which it shapes Boston residents’ perception of City Hall as an agent of positive change.

“Basically it’s a question of, ‘How many good news stories do we bring forward to [Mayor Walsh]?'” Jacob says. “How many opportunities do we have for the mayor to take a leading position in some topic? Or are we able to get out ahead of an issue in the public and mitigate the negative outcome?”

MONUM’s ability to solve complex urban problems eventually ties back into an underlying political element: the mayor’s electability.

“At the end of the day, it’s about electability,” Jacob says. “If we can make him an electable mayor, then we win.”

Dealing with Failure

For Jacob, who reports directly to the mayor, the most challenging part of innovating in government is “improving the way the system works”; it can sometimes feel, he says, like a “many-headed monster.”

Jacob says one of his favorite projects is Street Bump, a pothole detector app prototyped in 2011 that uses a smartphone’s built-in sensors to collect road-condition data as a driver navigates the city. But in the end, the city had to drop it, Jacob says. The Boston 311 app was already collecting some of the same kind of data that Street Bump was supposed to gather.

“By the time we did testing with Street Bump, we had been running Citizens Connect — now it’s called Boston 311 — for five years,” Jacob says. “What we were finding is that Street Bump, when we did the testing, didn’t give us any new data, because people were using the [Citizens Connect] app to report things [like serious potholes], and so in that sense it was both a success and a failure.”

In dealing with discontinued projects like Street Bump, there are always opportunities to better capture learnings, adds Kris Carter, MONUM’s co-chair.

“If you’re not learning through the process, and you’re not able to transpose that learning onto other people inside this building, you’re potentially going to repeat that failure, once institutional memory moves on,” Carter says.

Advice for Cities: Flexibility, Familiarity, and Autonomy

Representatives of other cities, from San Francisco and Toronto to Mexico City and Singapore, have been flocking to New Urban Mechanics to seek advice on innovation strategies, Jacob says.

The officials usually show up at MONUM’s office with some uncertainty about where to start, Jacob says.

“A lot of the discussions we have with them are about how to create an innovation team,” Jacob says. “There’s a lot of fear on how to do that. We spend a lot of time talking around the intangibles… [such as] the cultural things.”

So how does a city build an innovation team from ground zero?

Hire two people, Jacob says. Make sure at least one of them comes from within the city government, to ensure some connections and familiarity with the terrain, he adds.

Next, give them autonomy.

“I don’t think you want to direct them to do certain things,” Jacob says. “Flexibility is really key to this work. … Encourage them to spend as much time out in the city — exploring, talking to as many people as possible, looking for potential collaborators and partners.”

As the team expands, don’t be too narrow in defining roles, Jacob continues. Of MONUM’s nine members, four are program directors with wide-ranging roles.

“I would say [to] frame it so they can be entrepreneurial,” he says. “You want to hire people so you can stand back and watch what they do”

But too often, Jacob says he’s seen local governments treat talent selection as a low priority — “no respect for talent,” he says.

“I think the people who do well at this job and don’t become bureaucrats [are those who] can constantly be change agents. They are a breed apart,” Jacob says. “In local governments, my sense is there’s no culture of management. People become supervisors. Supervisors are different than managers. Management is a science. You get degrees in management. That culture is absent in local government for the most part.”

But Jacob says that he does see some encouraging signs: There are plenty of motivated people who are eager to bring new kinds of innovation to cities.

When asked what his most high-impact project has been thus far at MONUM, Jacob goes back to the beginning: “The biggest thing we did was to create New Urban Mechanics, frankly.”