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Can Urban Innovation Projects Survive Political Shifts?

They have become a staple in several cities. Whether they stay around is up to new mayors in charge.

by / October 2, 2015
Nigel Jacob helped transition Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics into a new mayoral administration. (Flickr/Forum Pa)

Civic innovation has in recent years become a driving force for public policy in city halls across the country. Some efforts, like mass hackathons, are ad hoc. Others seem to attach more permanently to public agencies, including naming chief innovation officers, creating innovation teams, and carving out physical spaces or labs for collaborative experimentation.

Now the movement faces a critical test: How can the innovation efforts that have grown up in the past five years survive a change in political leadership?

Take the New Urban Mechanics model. It emerged early in the civic innovation movement, bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to public problems and providing structure to the messy business of experimenting with new ways of doing things. Boston launched the original urban mechanics shop in 2010; Philadelphia started its own version two years later. A third office -- a university-based collaborative in the Utah Valley -- came online two years after that.

Boston’s office was created by the late Mayor Thomas Menino. (He had been derided at the start of his political career as an “urban mechanic” focused too intently on small problems.) But when Mayor Martin Walsh took office in January 2014, no one was sure what the new mayor would do with the innovation office -- or whether he’d keep it at all. In town meetings, online conversations and mainstream media, supporters urged the incoming mayor to expand the city’s innovation team. Writing in The Boston Globe in advance of the transition, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser encouraged Walsh to build on the mechanics’ work in positioning Boston to do what cities do best -- that is, to “magnify humanity’s strengths.”

The urban mechanics team itself wasn’t sure how to move forward with the new mayor. “We had no idea how best to go about it,” says founder and co-chair Nigel Jacob. “Right in the midst of when things were switching over, our instinct was that the way we had been working would still be resonant with the new mayor.” 

Jacob’s hunch proved to be right. “He saw that there was a team here that was getting a lot of stuff done, and why would you stop them from doing that?”

Walsh embraced Menino’s creation and even injected it with a new energy, says Jacob. “He’s been a huge proponent, and he talks about us all the time as a new model, a new approach for how he wants his administration to work. It worked out incredibly well.”

In Philadelphia, next month’s mayoral election means the city’s entire civic innovation framework is currently in play, including its urban mechanics office and other philanthropically funded innovation teams. Maia Jachimowicz, the city’s director of policy, says the work continues apace with an eye to both finishing well and preparing the next administration for success. As outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter prepares to hand off his innovation infrastructure to his successor, Jachimowicz says it comes with a simple message. “We’re saying, essentially, let’s think about other ways we can improve the business of serving our citizens.”

Civic innovators themselves say the key to institutionalizing programs like these is to focus on results, and how the work made a meaningful difference in the lives of city residents and business. It’s also important to be able to adapt to the priorities of a new administration. In Boston, Walsh has grown the urban mechanics office mandate to include strategic involvement in housing, economic development and even social justice.

The fact is, urban innovation efforts may already be so linked with good local governance that they’re likely to survive a change in leadership. It’s “the kind of innovation that any mayor with any sense would keep,” says Peter Levine, a political science professor at Tufts University, speaking about Boston’s model.

Transitions can’t be taken for granted, but innovation shops have momentum and optics on their side, says David Thornburgh, who heads the Committee of Seventy, an advocate for better government. “I don’t know too many mayors who would want to be perceived as the anti-innovation mayor.”

This article was originally published on Governing.

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.