For many civic technologists, local government is where the action is. “We are the test beds of innovation across the country,” said Story Bellows, director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Through her work with Philadelphia’s FastFWD program, Bellows is becoming a well known voice on innovation in government.
In October 2013, the city announced its unique 12-week accelerator program aimed at applying fresh entrepreneurial talent to government problems, specifically public safety. FastFWD offers startups rare access to city staff and government data in order to develop solutions that can meet a real need in local government, and scale up for broader implementations in Philadelphia and other cities facing similar challenges. Bellows said Philadelphia now is running pilot projects with three initial companies: Jail Education Solutions, an inmate learning platform; Textizen, a text message-driven engagement tool; and Village Defense, a neighbor-to-neighbor crime alert system. The second group of FastFWD companies completed investor pitches in January 2015.
The program bridges the gap between young companies and government, connecting good ideas to program areas they can actually impact. Part of the disconnect now lies in government’s overly prescriptive purchasing process, Bellows explained, which short-circuits innovation.
Maybe one of the most exciting byproducts of FastFWD is a new RFP, honed from what the city has learned through working with program participants. She describes the new document as “a much more entrepreneur-friendly, startup-friendly RFP than we’ve ever issued in the past.”
As the momentum behind procurement reform continues to build, Bellows and the Philadelphia story are ones to watch. Their efforts are yielding lessons that can and should be replicated across the public sector.
“Due to the scale of cities, there are richer opportunities to experiment. Hopefully we can continue working with other cities to lead the way to develop better tools and better processes for multiple levels of government,” she said.