Minneapolis Skyline

Peer-to-Peer Urbanism & New Urban Mechanics

New Urban MechanicsLast night, I attended a Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association meeting featuring Nigel Jacob, of the Office of New Urban Mechanics in the City of Boston. He spoke about the means by which the office streamlines innovation to create crowdsourced and peer-to-peer solutions to make cities more livable and enjoyable for residents.

Urbanization is increasing worldwide, with more than 50% of the population living in urban locations worldwide as far back as 2008. Because of this, the problems of cities are the problems of humanity, and are the most effective places to address many problems. (Cities also are the cause of many problems as well, but that’s inevitable when so many people live in them.) Governments are also tight on budget and high on red tape, creating barriers to innovation — and, frankly, elected officials tend to take very conservative approaches to risk and reputation, mostly responding to studies and inputs, instead of trying to get in front of problems before they occur.

For the Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, they try to overcome this issue by using people as the focus of innovation. Using a three-step process, they iteratively manage risk and enable innovation:

  1. They identify entrepreneurs inside and outside the government and provide a means to make pitches to the government  proactively.
  2. They pilot high-value projects with maximum public impact and minimal public risk and cost. Many projects are grant funded; quick projects with short timeframes are prioritized.
  3. Successful projects are scaled, and the findings shared with other cities as appropriate.

Many of their projects have used technology as a core tool. Several smartphone apps have assisted with service delivery and reporting — Citizens Connect allows citizens to report potholes, garbage issues, and other neighborhood nuisances and track their progress, using smartphones. StreetBump is another app. Users can start the app, drop it in their car’s cup holder, and it monitors the bumpiness of the ride. The data is aggregated and analyzed via algorithm to determine what streets are in poor shape.

Boston has also invested in game-based education modules to encourage participatory urbanism. Nigel commented that public meetings haven’t really changed in 400 years — people show up, they yell a bit, and sometimes the yelling is based entirely outside of research and fact. Via a Community Plan-It app and game, they help neighbors educate themselves about public projects using a social game. Boston has found that use of this game has increased civility at neighborhood meetings about public projects, and reduced the level of screeching at such events.

City Hall to GoOther programs have been less tech-based, such as using old food trucks to support the City Hall to Go program — mobile kiosks that bring city services into neighborhoods, on a schedule. At these trucks, residents can apply for marriage licenses, pay taxes and fines, and access other city services without a trip to a central office.

Obviously, there are some challenges in some of the approaches of New Urban Mechanics: Many of the quickest, cheapest approaches assume smartphone access. As of April 2013, 91% of US adults have cell phones. 58% these individuals have smartphones. Among families accessing government food aid, 90% of mothers using WIC food support have a cell phone, but only 26% of these have smartphones. As such, some programs relying on electronic outreach may skew to a more affluent constituency. Others, such as the City Hall to Go, may more effectively reach neighborhoods and the tech-averse.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, one of the most notable forms of “electronic outreach” are text messages for snow emergencies. Minneapolis allows many service requests to be submitted online, via their web site. The web site is reasonably functional on mobile devices. St. Paul allows some of the same web-based services, but their site is dire on most mobile devices.

Some of the ideas of Boston would work well in the Cities — the Citizens Connect app is extensible into other territories, and is in use in multiple locations throughout the US. A program like City Hall to Go might extend reach (and provide some good PR) in multiple locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul — I know Payne/Phalen would faint with joy to get such attention, and the perennially-neglected North Side of Minneapolis would find a similar program nice.

But I’m not sure there’s anything that will improve public meetings. Minnesota Not Nice, for serious.

What kinds of urban innovation or new urban mechanics do you think would work in Minneapolis or St. Paul?

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!