SAN FRANCISCO — Federal technologists, change makers and academics joined the city in a ribbon cutting ceremony on July 14 for Superpublic, San Francisco’s new innovation lab. The venture is a first for the city as its work commands support and talent from regional, state and federal organizations in addition to academic and private-sector contributions.
The General Services Administration (GSA) — which manages 375 million square feet of federal property — has offered the lab a 5,000-square-foot operating space in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown and support from its digital consultancy 18F, housed in the same building, which works to guide government to build, buy and share modern technology. Other partners include UC Berkeley, the Center for Design Research at Stanford University, the MIT Media Lab, Microsoft and Deloitte. The lab’s supporting nonprofits include the City Innovate Foundation and the Local Government Commission, both with missions to drive urban innovation efforts.
“While it seems voluntary and innovative to do it now, we’re actually creating the conditions for the private sector, for the public sector, for academia, for those that are in government that want to innovate,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said. “We’re trying to create the conditions now so there is a lot more opportunity in the future to be successful.”
"As a community interested in being smarter about what we’re doing, we hope that with Superpublic we can show we’re even more committed to using taxpayer dollars wisely,” Lee said.
The lab will be mutually beneficial for the GSA. Denise Turner Roth, the GSA’s administrator, described Superpublic as a new testing ground to expand 18F’s footprint and impact in cities nationwide. Since it was founded in 2014, the group has grown to support a number of innovation projects in federal agencies. This has dispatched its team of engineers, designers and procurement specialists to develop and rework a bevy of digital tools and IT buying strategies that now can be applied more locally.
In February the GSA hired former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to lead the group’s first regional innovation program that could apply 18F’s expertise in the areas of agile development and IT contracting to federally funded state, county and city projects. 18F’s other work outside of federal government has entailed consulting on a massive contract to upgrade California’s child welfare system where it parsed procurement into a collection of smaller contracts — a strategy to make purchasing more affordable through competition.
“I expect to see us continue to partner with other communities," Roth said. "For me this is just a start and an example — a strong example — of how we can leverage the space that we are managing, the resources we’re managing and our people."
Superpublic’s projects have yet to be announced, but officials mentioned a number of possible issues for the lab to consider. Transportation was one, poverty and homelessness was another, support for small businesses was brought up more than a few times, as well as bridging the digital divide with tech accessibility and educational resources. 18F will try to take the projects and find avenues to scale them to other cities through open source code and by applying some of the innovation models.
“We’ll take these learnings and share them with other communities as well,” Roth said.
Despite the positive gains citizens may see with such a lab, the tech industry may be wary of it. At a hearing in June, IT lobbyists complained to House legislators that 18F was hindering potential profits as a competitor at the federal and state levels. Lobbyists said their members, which include enterprise companies like IBM, SAP, Xerox and Cisco Systems, were concerned about 18F's growing scope in the industry. The IT lobby stance has since been rebuffed by former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who called for unity from both the private and public sectors to focus on improving citizen services instead of protecting profits or traditional buying policies.
The current GSA administrator did not comment on these matters at Superpublic’s opening. However, GSA Press Secretary Ashley Nash-Hahn said Roth would respond to questions about 18F’s current struggles inside and out of the GSA in a follow-up interview with Government Technology.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.