New Urban Mechanics
Our office was formed in 2010 as the Mayor's civic research and design team (one of the first in the nation). We explore and tackle experiments and prototypes that cover a range of topics. This includes everything from the future of mobility to City infrastructure to collective well-being.
Have a creative idea to improve the City? Let us know through email, or schedule an in-person brainstorm during an upcoming office hours. We host 30-minute blocks every Tuesday, from 2 - 5 p.m.
Where do ideas for New Urban Mechanics prototypes come from?
All over! We are constantly keeping an ear out for interesting ideas to tackle. They come from:
- the Mayor (we are, after all, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics!)
- Boston residents
- our colleagues in other departments
- other cities, and
- our own travels around the City as residents ourselves.
From those ideas, how does New Urban Mechanics decide which prototypes to actually work on?
We’re generally looking for three roughly outlined criteria:
- Feasibility (is it possible, even in principle, to try this idea in a near-term, small-scale way?)
- Potential for impact (does the idea seem like it could, in theory, improve someone’s experience of the city?)
- Potential for scale (do we think the idea has life beyond the experiment? “Scale” can mean a lot of different things, of course.)
Can I or my organization work with New Urban Mechanics?
We’d love to find a way to collaborate! Check out our civic research agenda to see if we’re asking questions about a topic you’re an expert on. You can also sign up for an upcoming office hours (by sending us an email) to come chat with us about your ideas for improving civic experiences in Boston.
What are your impact measurements? Do you have innovation Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?
Alas, we don’t have a standard set of metrics across projects. We use a mix of approaches — quantitative and qualitative — to determine if our prototype "worked." Generally, if we learn something that informs a future service or program the City can put in place, that’s a win. More broadly, we try to get a sense of whether people liked the prototype. If it brought delight or inspired wonder or built better trust with government. Or whether the prototype physically survived the experimental phase (sometimes they don’t!).
What is the governance model of the lab?
We sit in the Mayor’s office, literally and figuratively. We report to the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. We have no specific content-focused mandate, but rather a broad purview to work collaboratively across departments and topic areas. There are two co-chairs who guide and inspire the team, while also doing project work themselves.
Does New Urban Mechanics collaborate with startups? Universities?
Yes! See “Can I / my organization work with New Urban Mechanics?” above. Since 2010, we have been one of the “front doors” for startups and researchers who want to help Boston tackle some of its thorniest civic challenges. For example, we worked with Soofa while it was still a research lab out of MIT to field-test their solar-panel bench, which also charges devices via USB port. Additionally, our Autonomous Vehicle testing program, in partnership with the Transportation Department, is working with two local startups, nuTonomy and Optimus Ride.
How does New Urban Mechanics work with the departments in the City?
As you can probably guess, it depends project by project. If you asked some of our original partners, they’d probably tell you they think of us as an extra member of their team. With our newer collaborators, we can sometimes be their partners who ask hard (or basic) questions like, “Who isn’t at the table for this conversation, but should be?” We can also connect them into our network of partners outside of City Hall. Sometimes we’re project managers, sometimes conveners, sometimes standing-out-on-the-street-asking-people-if-they-can-read-the-parking-sign (-ers), and always a little playful.
What are the sources of funding for New Urban Mechanics?
The most up-to-date information is always available in the Budget Book. Historically, we have had a mix of City funding and philanthropic funding. Some of the philanthropies we’ve received funding from in the past include:
- Bloomberg Philanthropies
- Knight Foundation
- MacArthur Foundation
- National Safety Council
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
- Ash Center for Democratic Government and Innovation
- Eos Foundation
- The Boston Foundation
- T.D. Bank, and
- Arbella Insurance Foundation, among others.
What elements are key to ensure the sustainability of a civic innovation lab?
We think close collaboration with our partner departments who will ultimately own the experiment is key. Nurturing cultural change across the organization is also important for sustainability. After all, we are all Urban Mechanics. We are also relied upon as a talent pipeline for other departments through our various fellowships and university partnerships. And to get down to brass tacks — so to speak — we have to deliver. We have to learn, explore, fail, talk about the work, and share the work as much as we can, so it’s clear how the City benefits from keeping us around.
Why does government need to worry itself about innovation?
As Kris’s grandmother says, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We don’t need to look much further than Amazon Prime’s service rollout in Boston in 2016, or Haystack’s 2014 attempt to turn public street parking into a private amenity to see why governments, particularly those at the local level, need to pull up a chair and get into the mix. We see our role as:
- advocating for residents and real challenges being faced across our City
- asking “what is the civic value” of a given technology, and
- making sure we’re delivering the best services and experiences to our residents that we can.
Innovation isn’t always new and shiny, and it certainly isn’t always an app. It often occurs in the gray areas between two fields, departments, or existing ideas. Sometimes it’s as simple as combining a grape and a slice of cheese to create ... fireworks.
What advice would you give to an emerging lab or a place thinking about starting a civic innovation lab?
- Be extremely intentional in your hiring processes.
- Come in with an open mind about where your projects and prototypes could go.
- Be pleasant (dare we say, fun?) to work with.
- Let your portfolio develop a mix of projects, a few of which are very experimental and may likely fail, many of which are likely to succeed but may be of limited impact, and shoot for some high-visibility, high-impact projects, too. It is important to have a steady pace of “products” that provides validity for the work, delivers for residents, and allows government to learn in new ways.
- Get out in front of people, early and often.
- Find a healthy balance between skepticism and optimism.
What is human-centered design in a civic context, when city populations can be so diverse?
Simple: think about people first. Government is about helping people, not creating internal efficiencies, not cutting costs, not necessarily making things easier for internal staff (although those are always possible and good outcomes). Aim to design with, not for. When you can, co-create with the people closest to the challenge. Get out of your office and go to where people actually are experiencing the City. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
New interactive public art lets you be the DJ of District Hall’s outdoor plaza
Here are some pieces that have been written about New Urban Mechanics and our way of working.
- Gimlet Creative (Wireframe): Good Design is Good Civics
- Mathematica (On The Evidence): Boston Invites Community to Set a Civic Research Agenda
- Apolitical: Boston's innovation lab teaches government to take risks. Here's how
- Politico: Boston, There's an App for That
- Boston Globe: New Urban Mechanics, keep tinkering
- Fast Company: Boston Does Digital
- MIT Review: Cities Find Rewards in Cheap Technologies
- Governing: Will Urban Innovation Teams Outlast Political Change?
- GovTech: Boston Tackles Housing with Dedicated Innovation Lab
- Living Cities: Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government