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Philadelphia Launches Innovation Office with a Nod to Boston

The Office of New Urban Mechanics will explore innovative, low-cost projects in an environment where failure is accepted.

In order to succeed, you must give yourself permission to fail. That's the idea behind Philadelphia's newly established Office of New Urban Mechanics (ONUM), modeled after the Boston program created by Mayor Thomas Menino and led by former tech entrepreneur Nigel Jacob and city official Chris Osgood. The program was announced by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Oct. 1 at the Code for America Summit, the organization that catalyzed ONUM's creation, TechPresident reported.

"New Urban Mechanics Philadelphia is a nimble and entrepreneurial government outfit," Nutter said Oct. 1 in San Francisco. "It is piloting and prototyping small innovative projects in the civic space, which along with efforts of individuals across multiple city departments, will better enable our city to sustain a culture of innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to problem-solving."

Co-directed by Jeff Friedman and Story Bellows, two organizers with experience in civic innovation working from the mayor's office, the project will establish a space where civic hackers, entrepreneurs and government employees can work together on experimental projects to address specific urban issues. The center is intended to be a place where new ideas can be attempted at low cost and without anyone worrying about the stigma of failure. Specific figures have not yet been established, but the city intends to consult Boston to help develop realistic metrics, according to TechPresident.

The new organization is part of Philadelphia's larger philosophy of fostering an inclusive, participatory culture that connects government with the public and private enterprise, Nutter said. “To me, open government is about more than just sharing information or transparency. Those are critical components of it. But I think an open government is a conversation. It’s a process. It’s a new relationship,” he said. "Our agencies are constantly reminded that this is not about building better technology. It’s about rethinking how services are delivered and integrated across our city government. Our vision is to take every service that does not require a face to face interaction and making it available online so that our citizens can interact with the government anytime, anywhere on any device and on their schedule."

Other recent developments in Philadelphia include a pilot project developed by Code for America fellows Alexander Yule and Michelle Lee called Textizen, which allows citizens to directly text the city and provide their opinions on various issues. The city also launched a new 311 application last year that also increases the amount of direct contact between government and citizenry.

"Our goal is to do it with smarter government solutions like cross-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships, technology, new ideas, citizen input and an open government," Nutter said.