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Philadelphia Opens Innovation Lab for City Employees

The learning space represents an ongoing strategy by Mayor Michael Nutter to institutionalize a new way of problem solving within city government.

Philadelphia may be one of the oldest cities in the country, but it's developing a new way of doing business. On Friday Aug. 1, Mayor Michael Nutter opened an Innovation Lab inside the Municipal Services Building, which overlooks Philadelphia’s iconic city hall. Decorated with an extensive mural that depicts innovation in Philadelphia – past and present – the lab will be a place for city employees to step out of their daily routine to spend time focusing on innovation, ideation and problem-solving.

“The mayor embodies the culture of continuous improvement, which he expects from all of us,” said General Manager Richard Negrin. “The lab meets that embodiment. It’s about doing things in new ways, being innovative.”

The lab is modeled after one developed by Philadelphia University and will provide space that will enable city workers to collaborate with members of the city’s technology community to perform hackathons and other forms of creative problem solving.

“The lab will bring the spirit of startups inside of city government,” said Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid. “The goal is to create a culture of innovation, to sustain it and grow it long term.”

The lab will be integrated with the city’s Innovation Academy, which was launched in January to teach city officials about innovation, problem solving and systems thinking. Graduates of the academy are expected to become innovation evangelists within their city agencies, but also to take part in work at the lab.

The lab will tackle different issues during 90-day increments, said Ebeid. Topics under consideration include geo-spatial analysis, public health, public safety, poverty and economic development. “The plan is rotate the topic every 90 days, so we can engage a different audience and solve different problems,” he said. Subject matter experts from the region's more than 80 colleges and universities are also expected to participate.

Other participants include children from the city schools. “We’re partnering with the Philadelphia school district to give kids exposure to technology that they may not be getting in their classroom,” said Negrin. The goal is to not just further the children’s education, but to also let a little bit of innovative government thinking rub off on them. “We want to get them excited about public service, show them that government is cool and is on the cutting edge of technology.” he said.

The idea for the lab was started when Negrin and Ebeid managed the city’s application for a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Challenge, which was awarded to the city in 2013. The effort exposed them to a lot of innovative ideas within city government, according to Negrin. “We thought, wouldn’t be great if we could do this on a regular basis, institutionalize problem solving and ideation within city government.”

Now, with the doors of the lab open, Ebeid says the goal is to get enough of the right people together in the lab, give them the freedom to think creatively, clarify the problem they are tackling, and then set the process in motion so that the problem gets solved. “We are looking for solutions that will improve service delivery, civic engagement, innovation and even government transparency,” he said. “These can be done in a variety of ways, most likely with mobile apps.”

One challenge will be to find the funding to sustain the lab, which cost $100,000 to build and equip. But Ebeid is excited about what the lab will be able to do and believes that once solutions start rolling out, the funding will follow. And he expects the lab to become a talent magnet.

“The lab is a way to show that government can solve problems, and it is also a way to attract new talent,” he said. “There are a lot of younger people who are choosing to help solve the problems of city government, rather than be on the outside. The lab and the academy show them that we are not your typical government.”

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.