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Philadelphia Innovates Public Procurement

Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, discusses the city's FastFWD purchasing program.

In October, Philadelphia announced a 12-week accelerator program called FastFWD, which will work with entrepreneurs to develop innovative projects to address public safety challenges. Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, spoke with Government Technology about how the program will help the city embrace innovation and rethink public-sector purchasing.

What’s wrong with traditional RFPs?

One of the reasons we don’t necessarily think RFPs are the best way to engage the creative insights of entrepreneurs and some of the most effective problem solvers in our society today is that we prescribe a solution in an RFP. There’s no opportunity for an entrepreneur or innovator to really work with a city through our traditional RFP process. To work on that, we are defining the problem correctly and ensuring that we also have access and exposure to the range of potential solutions.

How will FastFWD help foster innovation?

We’re trying to go beyond the traditional city-vendor relationship or vendor-purchaser relationship, and look at how we can support entrepreneurs by opening up insight into the challenges we’re dealing with every day and leverage the ingenuity of the entrepreneur to help us create solutions.

How will the program help reshape government procurement?

It’s really front-loading the procurement process by bringing that engagement earlier on — during the problem-definition phase instead of saying, “Here we go; we need this specific solution.”

Is it important for state and local governments to rethink their strategy on procurement, particularly with testing products before committing to purchase them?

Our take on this is looking at how we manage risk in cities. We have supported the notion of trying to pilot things as often as we can. So instead of saying we’re going to deploy a solution, whether it’s technology or nontechnology across a city, we believe in testing that out somewhere.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.