#23 Office of New Urban Mechanics: Generating Innovation Within City Government

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Karen Sabog’s photos, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Code for America’s photostream

In 2010 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino created an experiment in Boston city government. He pulled together a few civic-minded entrepreneurs and Boston residents and paired them with innovators within his office to create a new program of the mayor’s office called the Office of New Urban Mechanics. The purpose of this new program was to advance the speed of innovation within city government by working directly with constituents to find new ways to address the issues that matter to them through the use of new technologies. In 2012, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter reached out to Mayor Menino and asked to bring the Office of New Urban Mechanics to Philly via a franchise model where the two cities worked closely together to share ideas and data and pioneer new problem-solving technologies. I have been in touch with Mayor Menino’s office about the possibility of bringing the Office to Pittsburgh. As Mayor, I will create a Pittsburgh Office of New Urban Mechanics to engage our tech sector innovators to work directly with city government and residents to address the issues our neighborhoods care about.

1. A Vehicle for Innovation in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh Office of New Urban Mechanics is a vehicle to funnel some of the amazing innovation that is already happening at our universities, our tech companies, and our community nonprofits into city government. The ideas and the passion are already out there; we just need to begin to harness them to make city government work better.

One of Boston’s major projects through their Office of New Urban Mechanics was to modernize their version of 311 and provide a more interactive, satisfying experience in communicating neighborhood issues to city departments. We all know that our 311 system could use the same dose of modernization and I would direct my Office of New Urban Mechanics to work directly with residents to decide how to make changes to the system to make it work better.

For example, we could create a smart phone app designed for city employees in Public Works, Environmental Services, and the Bureau of Building Inspection that sends them real-time 311 requests while they are out in the field. The app could pin these requests on a web-based map and show the employees exactly where the requests are so they can address them one by one, neighborhood by neighborhood. Once a request has been fulfilled the employee could simply click a box on their smart phone and immediately let the constituent who reported the issue know that it has been taken care of or they could request additional information from that person in order to better address the request. This kind of real-time responsiveness would restore trust in city government and foster closer partnerships between city employees and neighborhood residents.