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How to Innovate Without Fear: Lessons from Boston

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics says public trust is a key ingredient to becoming an innovative city.

by / December 7, 2016
One delightful project in Boston's City Hall was to line the front stairs with rainbow skate tape, which MONUM co chair Kris Carter said adds "400 percent more Fabulousness." Boston MONUM

Nobody wants to be the face of a publicly funded failure, but it is critical for the public sector to experiment and create what Boston Mayor Marty Walsh calls “a thriving, healthy and innovative city for all.” The question is, how can cities create an environment that fosters innovation?

In a mobility-focused webinar held Dec. 5, in partnership with the Barr Foundation and the Meeting of the Minds organization, Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) co-chair Kris Carter discussed strategies cities can pursue when it comes to ambitious projects considered outside of government’s wheelhouse. 

“Sometimes the hardest thing for a mayor or another city department to do is to go out on a limb,” said Carter. “What an innovation office is able to do is to take some of that risk." 

One way cities can ensure success through innovation is to gain the trust of residents. If other lofty projects have been pursued, residents are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the city. Additionally, if cities communicate the potential benefit to citizens, they are much more likely to forgive a project that provides sub-par returns. Carter gave examples of successful yet nontraditional government projects that involve innovation.

Boston’s Safest Driver

One effort sought to lower the rate of driving and transit accidents in the city. Boston’s Safest Driver competition involved an app that drivers, cyclists, passengers and transit riders could use to log how well they performed in transit and traffic, based on certain actions, such as speed, acceleration, braking, cornering and phone distraction. The city offered cash prizes as an incentive to get people to participate.

While the competition promoted safe driving practices, it also provided some valuable data about road conditions for the city. By locating where brake slamming was common, for example, the city identified areas for potential improvement. The competition attracted 5,000 users who acted as individual sensors located throughout the metropolitan area. 

Laying out the competition’s privacy policy was key for public buy-in, said Carter, adding that there were a number of controls in place to block the city from personally identifying and ticketing drivers.

"We can’t remotely think about doing that," he said. "Nor would we even want to.”

Soofa Bench

Perseverance is vital to long-term successful projects. Second to that is learning from mistakes. Carter told the story of the Pulse of the City project, which involved a series of heart-shaped monitors located around the city that would display heart rate information and play a song that correlated with the speed of an individual’s heartbeat.

The following day after they were installed, one monitor was stolen. Boston used the experience from this incident to tweak its solar-powered seat project. Originally the city had envisioned buying standalone, solar-powered seats that can charge phones. Wary that a theft could happen, the city opted for unmovable benches.

“For us, it's not about apps or data dashboards or IoT. It's really about that human-centered innovation,” said Carter. 

Both of these projects demonstrate that digital tools are not the only way to innovate and improve the quality of life. What Carter labeled "Delightful Projects" are just as important.

Not only do these sorts of projects enhance citizen experience, but they attract international attention, according to Carter. The World Economic Forum (WEF) chose Boston earlier this year to begin testing autonomous vehicles.

“We see this as a way to unlock mobility for a large number of people in Boston, people that aren’t best served by our legacy transit system,” he said. The city has signed with nuTonomy, a self-driving car company that will begin testing their cars in the city by the end of this year.

This designation by the WEF is just one benefit from Boston’s willingness to experiment and take on the challenges of transit’s future.

“If you are not failing,” said Carter, “you're not trying hard enough.”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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