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Nigel Jacob is Co-founder of the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston. MONUM is a civic innovation incubator and R&D lab within Boston’s City Hall; its work covers a range of topics, including city infrastructure, civic engagement, and education. Nigel’s focus is on making urban life better through innovative, people-oriented applications of technology and design.
Innovation needs to start with people, not technology
Nigel’s background is in tech start-ups and he has also worked as an urban technologist. So we began by asking about the role technology plays in his view of successful innovation.
“We’re committed to finding new ways to collaborate with our community beyond the traditional model. It may be about technology, but it may also not. But really it’s about understanding people in new ways.”
“When you think about the urban issues that need addressing, many are not tech issues at all: housing, driving, behaviour, climate … I don’t think innovation should be limited to technology – it’s too narrow. We treat innovation as meaning ‘social innovation’, so we ask, ‘How does this make people’s lives better or have some positive social impact within the city?’ It’s often more about a change in design, a new approach rather than a new technology. Civic engagement, for example, is central to our ethos, and to drive this you have to bring your authentic self to your work and be very open about that. It’s a big change from traditional government approaches or typical tech-based working.
Driving behaviour change through civic engagement
When we asked to hear more about driving civic engagement and why it is such a key goal, Nigel explained one of MONUM’s theories of change.
“Cities are social organizations – collections of people organized in certain ways – and when we drive change we are talking about behaviour changes. For example, meeting a huge challenge like climate change adaptation will, in the end, be dependent on behaviour change. We hope that by getting people to think about the broader impact of their actions for the community, we can encourage civic behaviour and help the city as a whole to embrace positive change.
And how does this work play out on the ground? Nigel told us about a recent project using the augmented reality mobile phone game Pokémon GO.
“This was, in fact, a tech-driven project, the aim of which was to engage an underrepresented group, in this case, young people. The idea came out of a collaboration with Emerson, a local liberal arts college. Their Engagement Lab had a relationship with Niantic and so we were able to run experiments using Pokémon GO to drive civic engagement in young people. It was a way of using a fun platform for a civic intention.”
Vulnerability is a good starting point – there will be failures
The word “experiment” came up frequently in our conversation. We were curious about how MONUM balances the risks of an experimental approach with the expectations of city hall.
Nigel explained that the starting point was one of vulnerability: “We want to approach complex issues from a position of vulnerability – when we start to talk about a problem we don’t know the answer (and this is not the traditional approach of a city department).
“It’s an experimental approach, and that means there will be failures. Every failure is something we can learn from and share. For example, we can write a report or make a video about why this approach didn’t work out as we’d hoped.”
How comfortable is city hall with failure, we wondered. “Risk is almost part of our job description”’ says Nigel. “MONUM shields other departments in a way, because, where there is a project that could impact on a department’s reputation (and studies have shown that fear of failure is all about reputation), we negotiate with them to make it a MONUM project. If it fails, we take the hit.
“The mayor is very candid that our job is to try new things. There are six of us in the team and if things go wrong the schools will still open and public transportation will still run. We are risk aggregators. Other departments don’t want to take risks, so we are able to do it for them.”
Explore – Experiment – Evaluate
MONUM may embrace risk but it also works in a structured and methodical way, following a three-step process, which Nigel outlined for us.
“First, Explore. We reach out to anyone with something to contribute to the topic under discussion: researchers, community groups, non-profits …
“Then, Experiment. We pick experiments that test our ideas and we keep them brief whenever we can. We run an experiment and if it doesn’t work we shut it down as quickly as possible.
The final stage is when we Evaluate. Experiments are driven by learning and this is the stage at which we talk about whether or not the project went as we’d hoped, and what we learned as a result. If it failed because a gadget didn’t work properly, for example, we will typically produce a report or make a video story about the results and what they taught us.
Sometimes the experiment is a success but the department involved can’t commit to changing their way of working. Where there’s a chance we can get the change made, we roll up our sleeves and help figure out HR or finance details to get the change embedded and to scale, rather than expecting people within the host department to take on extra work. It’s our business to see things through wherever we can.”
The Future of U.S. Cities
This case interview is part of our Future of Cities Leaders series. We are launching a handbook, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, to explore how city problem-solvers are using innovation to achieve greater public impact. Our handbook surfaces trends in city innovation and extracts lessons from conversations with city leaders all over the US on how cities can innovate with intention to address the biggest challenges and create more livable, equitable, and resilient cities. Learn more about the U.S. cities leading the charge.
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