Boston, the “City on a Hill”, prides itself as a thought leader on topics of philosophy (transcendentalism), political theory (John Adams, Declaration of Independence) and public policy (Boston’s implementation of the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act) for over 300 years. Clearly the City of Boston hasn’t always got it right. But the City gets big credit for stepping up and trying to point the way for the rest of the country. “Lean in”, as they say. Now Boston is coming off a two decade period of relative stability with highly regarded Mayor Menino and the activist new Mayor Marty Walsh is stepping into place. One of Menino’s “thought leader” moments was to build a nest in the City Hall for a group called “New Urban Mechanics“, or “MONUM”, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to generate ideas and opportunities to continue the tradition of facilitating civic innovations. New Mayor Marty Walsh and Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) co-chairs, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, are working in the best traditions of Boston’s thought leader” history.
Civic Tech, the convergence of technology, government data, social media and citizen journalists, boosts our cities and towns into an exciting new problem solving, quality of life enhancing and maybe even public sector cost reducing era. Boston, with the New Urban Mechanics team, is on top of this game. At a recent public forum sponsored in Boston by the Rappaport Institute, Nigel Jacobs reviewed some of the challenges and opportunities ahead for the City of Boston, MONUM and civic tech. (Thanks Nigel for sharing your presentation with AssetStewardship.com). The brand of “civic tech” practiced in Boston focuses first on being relevant, working on what matters to people. One of the first outcomes is an “app” for parents of Boston Public School students: “Where’s My School Bus“. One parent tweeted, Thx @BostonSchools for the “Where’s My School Bus?” feature. Bus is late, but I’m slightly less annoyed b/c I can track it live. Great idea.”
Building trust is also key to effective civic tech. Technology applications where citizens can report problems, track them online and see results from the reporting efforts build trust. Since “Citizens Connect” started serving Boston in 2009, it has grown and improved with a version for city employees and a roll out to dozens of other municipalities in Massachusetts under “Commonwealth Connect”.
Gathering data on problems and fixing those problems is a huge step forward for the City. Using the data to learn how to improve the City and avoid future problems is the next big step. Jacob, Osgood and their colleagues in MONUM are exploring how to share and expand the learning with citizens and department heads, through reports, interactive meetings, civic engagement games, etc.
Combining in-person and online communications among the City staff and citizens turns out to be a key factor in how effectively the city can learn and evolve. “City Hall To Go” vans visit neighborhoods. City departments sponsor special events on issues like bike safety.
MONUM has codified their “civic tech” activities into four civic tech principles:
1. BE RELEVANT, work on what matters to people
2. BUILD TRUST, roll up your sleeves and collaborate
3. COMMIT TO LEARNING, stop guessing and hoping
4. BE PRESENT, combine in-person with online communications
As the MONUM office grows with practice and success, look for the team to expand into more challenging issues that matter to people – like the quality of public education and race, ethnic and gender bias.
City planning is going through a new “renaissance”. Leaving behind the trail of zoning maps and urban renewal land clearings, forward thinking cities are returning to the people-oriented vision of Jane Jacobs. Anthony Townsend, author of one of the defining books of this new era, SMART CITIES, stresses that technology and big data aren’t enough for civic tech and smart cities in the 21st century. We need to find effective ways to engage all citizens and listen to what they say. Boston’s New Urban Mechanics appears to be on the right track.
Follow Barbara Thornton @assetstewards