New Urban Mechanics: The Start-Up Within Boston’s City Government

We interview Nigel Jacob, the co-chair of an initiative that is injecting design thinking into Boston’s city government.

Courtesy The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

In 2010 Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s Chief of Staff approached a computer scientist, Nigel Jacob, and a recent Harvard Business School grad, Chris Osgood, with an idea for a new kind of government agency—an agency that would put people, not numbers, at the center of local government projects and processes. That concept soon became the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (NUM), a civic innovation group embedded within the local government and run by co-collaborators Nigel and Chris.

Now over five years in, Jacob and the NUM team are using technology, design thinking, and both temporary and long-term interventions to create new solutions for the city, from an app to help parents select schools for their children to mini, mobile City Halls. The New Urban Mechanics brand has also spread, being adapted and deployed in both Philadelphia and Utah Valley. I recently caught up with Jacob to learn how he goes about injecting human-centered design within governments and how we can start to create a template for civic innovation across the country.

Rebecca Greenwald: What is New Urban Mechanics?

Nigel Jacob: The idea was to create a team [to implement Mayor Menino’s] philosophy, mainly this very people-oriented approach to running a city, and then would jump start new approaches, new thinking, new partners, new roads, all those kinds of things. So that’s what New Urban Mechanics was intended to be. It started out as a start-up of two people inside of local government tasked very specifically with inventing the future of city services.

Our job is really to go at street level and test out new ideas. So we don’t spend all that much time sitting in City Hall as a result, and we’re always trying to connect with new potential partners and innovators in other departments. We’re kind of like the entrepreneurial explorers of the place.

RG: The idea of people-centered design and design thinking seems to be at the core of what you’re doing. Can you expand on how you use that framework to address civic challenges?

NJ: We took the position of saying we should be with the people, and have that determine the kinds of services that we build. This is very different from the way government has traditionally worked, where you build or deliver things, but the notion of whether or not people like them or want to use them is never considered. So as a result you see lots of government programs that no one wants to use and that no one does use. We’re trying to take the opposite position.

Nigel Jacob

Courtesy The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

RG: What is the scope of the kinds of projects and products New Urban Mechanics works on?

NJ: In principle our scope is the entire range of different services that local government delivers, which is a huge starting point. In practice what’s happened is we’re more able to be effective in certain domains than in others. Some of the areas we’ve had a lot of success in are the city’s education, housing, public works and IT departments. Within each of those we’re always looking for projects, products, services and programs that directly touch people’s lives.

Take, for example, the process parents go through when registering their kids for school. It used to be that you had to read a very dense, compact, foldout pamphlet with information about what you need to do to register your kids for school. We heard again and again from parents that that was a horrible experience. So we realized we could do better. The idea was to take how they register their kids for school from that paper-based format to an online or TripAdvisor kind of approach to exploring different school options and comparing them side by side. So we built a tool called DiscoverBPS that allowed parents to have that kind of digital, more pleasant experience than maybe they had otherwise.

There was another big arc of our work around requests for service. These kinds of systems are pretty common now—where if you see a pothole, you can use an app to report it. But back in 2009 when we first launched our system, these things just didn’t exist. The idea was to see whether or not you can use technology to build trust between residents and the government. This was a very different starting point than the way other cities thought about using technology to facilitate this interaction—for multiple cities it was about making things faster, better, cheaper. For us we knew the challenge is not necessarily being faster at what we do, but delivering a better customer experience.

As we went down this road of trying to focus on the personalization of government, we realized that for some things the app is not appropriate. There are some things that people just want to talk to an actual person about. So that’s when we created City Hall To Go as a way of saying: let’s take it radically in the opposite direction from an app. We’ll create a truck that will go to where you are, that will help you get things fixed and solved.

So rather than seeing this as a focus on the process of government, we focus a lot on the design of the experience. We saw an opportunity here to reinforce the human scale aspect of the work of government. Most people, myself included, think of government in terms of the bureaucracy and the facelessness and the impersonality of it, and we wanted to try to reverse that trend.

RG: Has there been any pushback against any of your initiatives, and has getting projects off the ground been easier or more difficult than you anticipated?

NJ: There hasn’t really been any negative feedback or backlash. In fact it’s been quite the opposite. We do a lot with trying to build a very particular brand for New Urban Mechanics, so the idea here is that if you want innovation to come out of local government… and not everybody does, innovation only happens if you take risks, and taking risks means occasionally things don’t work. Now if people feel uncomfortable with maybe the school department taking risks or maybe public works taking risks, what about a small two-person start-up inside of local government? Can they take risks? So that was the idea with New Urban Mechanics. We are the place where the risks can be undertaken and where failure is allowable because we’re not deploying these services daily or at scale. We’re doing these prototype experiments to see if these things will work. And so that change in perspective, everyone has responded really well to it; everyone gets the basic notion that you have to respond to and risk failure to engage and to be innovative.

Street name signs lit by LED lights. These were piloted by New Urban Mechanics at a few specific areas in one Boston neighborhood.

Courtesy The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

RG: Boston seems like a city that has innovation in its blood: it’s liberal, open-minded, and an epicenter of higher education. Do you think innovation programs like this come to fruition more easily in a city that has all of these qualities?

NJ: The kind of innovation we’ve been pursuing grows naturally from the people that are part of it, coming from the different institutions that are in the area. Both of us, Chris and myself came straight out of grad school to do this job, so that is probably a direct result.

I have found people who work this way in cities large and small. I tend to think that you can actually get a lot more done in a smaller city working this way than in New York, where the scale and bureaucracy is just enormous, making it much harder in a lot of ways to work horizontally across the different big departments. So I see cities like Cambridge, Jersey City, and Syracuse creating small innovation teams that are able work in a very New Urban Mechanics-like way because there isn’t the same kind of scale of edifice in terms of local government.

RG: The New Urban Mechanics brand or model is now in both Philadelphia and Utah. What aspects of the model are being replicated and how does each city tailor them to its unique needs?

NJ: I think the central notion of New Urban Mechanics, that scales to other places, is the partnership-driven aspect of what we do. In Philadelphia a large part of what their team was doing was about connecting with their local innovation ecosystem, start-ups and social entrepreneurs, designers and so on, which was very similar to the way in which we work—constantly trying to find people that we could work with to develop novel approaches to old and new problems.

RG: It seems like New Urban Mechanics has created a template for what urban innovation in government can look like. Is that part of what you hoped to create, and do you think this model will spread to more cities in the future?

NJ: I think some of the lessons we’ve learned and patterns in the way we work are scale-able, and we’ve always hoped that it would begin to scale and become a movement across different cities. We’ve certainly spent a huge amount of our time talking to different cities about what we’ve done and how they can adapt what we are doing to their particular context. The main idea and the elements that we mix together to do our work, this kind of entrepreneurial, people-oriented approach, it’s nimble, it’s iterative, it’s not something that a lot of cities think about. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the folks in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. We’re not saying that we’re the only ones to do this, but I think that we bring a particular dimension to the work, this flexible, human-centered kind of approach.

One of the New Urban Mechanics projects: The Pulse of the City, a heart rate monitor that plays music in rhythm with your heart beat. The installation, designed by artist George Zisiadis, wast meant to encourage Boston residents to improve their health.

Courtesy The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

Categories: Cities, Design