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Q&A: Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics co-director Story BellowsEmbracing lean startup principals in city government

Story Bellows

Philly is great at acknowledging the individuals and organizations that contribute to tech and entrepreneurial growth, but it’s time to give some cred to our mayor. In his second term, Mayor Nutter has appointed a chief data officer, launched Startup PHL and partnered with Code for America. In April 2012, he hired Story Bellows—along with Jeff Friedman—to direct the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics [MONUM]. Philadelphia is among the first cities in the country to add an office dedicated a word that's usually taboo in government: "Experimentation."

Bellows spent the past decade working for urban affairs organizations in the areas of architecture, planning and economics. In recent years, she directed the Mayor’s Institute for City Design in Washington, D.C., where she gained intimate knowledge of over 100 American cities. 

If you’ve got a great idea for Philly, Bellows and Friedman would like to hear from you ([email protected], [email protected]). Bellows branded her new post as the "Office of Yes." Sounds great, but what does that mean? Flying Kite spoke with MONUM's co-director to find out what we can expect from Bellows and her team.             

Flying Kite (FK): What role will this new office play in Philadelphia?
Story Bellows (SB): We’re an internal R&D [Research and Development] shop and civic innovations incubator. We’re looking to pilot prototypes for small-scale innovative solutions to challenges in the civic space. We’re really embracing the lean startup principals. So, instead of the large scale changes and projects that much of the city government is working on, we’re really looking to start small, test things out and create a safe space. We serve to aggregate the risk associated with experimentation in the public space.
FK: That’s a mouthful. What kinds of innovations are you talking about?
SB: They’re a couple of things that we did in conjunction with Code for America. One of them is called Textizen, which is an SMS based tool that we tested out with the planning commission. It enables them to gain a broader perspective from the public around a couple of key issues. It’s something we’re looking to use in a variety of other departments and it’s also something that’s being used in over a hundred cities across the country and globally.
It’s a text, so it addresses the digital divide and digital inclinations issues. We prompted use by having signs in different places like Sister Cities Park asking, "What would make Center City more child friendly?" We also had some questions about the Broad Street line extension which we placed in buses and in key transit nodes. There are going to be people who show up to public meetings, but most people aren’t and this is an easy way to connect with citizens across Philadelphia, especially with youth.

FK: Is urban planning the focus for using Textizen?
SB: That was our first use. It’s a communication and civic engagement tool that could be used for a variety of other purposes.
FK: Boston’s MONUM has targeted urban planning, building design and education. Will Philly be the same or are there other areas that will benefit from MONUM?
SB: Yes. Our focus, like Boston’s, is opportunistic and broad, but, based on conversations with the mayor and looking at the feedback and the ideas we got through the Bloomburg Mayor’s Challenge, we found verticals in public space, education, health and public safety. Those are areas where a lot of people have different ideas. The cross-cutting themes we’re looking to support are customer service, civic engagement and entrepreneurialism. These are areas that I don’t think are silos.
FK: As with any city, there’s tension between the people and local government. How do you expect to overcome skepticism?
SB: One way of responding is to say that we are really looking to work with the "coalition of the willing." [Our office] needs to demonstrate value. It’s not just about solving government’s problems. More often, it’s really looking at how do we address civic problems and that means working across departments, with different institutions and with citizens.
FK: Just how effective is technologically enabled communication between the people and the government at helping the city get things done?
SB: Textizen is a great example. We got over a thousand responses to questions about transit. It’s not often the city can get a focus group of a thousand people by using traditional outreach. New technology that we have access to enables us to really go beyond communication and really focus on engagement.
In Boston, individual citizens can serve as censors using the Street Bump Project. People really do want to engage with the city and it’s our responsibility to leverage the technology we have access to, to make that happen.
FK: Who are you excited to work with?
SB: We’re really excited to bring a lot of the expertise and ideas and enthusiasm in the entrepreneurial and tech communities and the design communities to urban challenges. We’re really focused on small, hyper-focused or localized problem solving. People are more than happy to lend time and expertise to working with the city if we ask.
FK: How does your experience as director of the Mayor’s Institute for City Design inform your new role?
SB: There are few jobs that offer the opportunity to travel to a hundred cities and walk the streets with the mayors, planning directors and individuals who are responsible for envisioning and implementing the future of American cities. It really gives me a lot to draw from in terms of places where we might look for new solutions.
FK: You’re new to Philly. How’s the adjustment going? Any first impressions?
SB: I’m settling in very well. I wanted to move to a city where I really wanted to live. You can’t have a job like I do if you’re not really passionate about the place you live and I really do love Philadelphia. While I didn’t grow up here, I do have deep family roots in this city. I feel really lucky to be here at a time when Philadelphia is increasingly in the national and international spotlight for commitments to sustainability and innovation.
There’re so many awesome, really engaged people across this city in different disciplines. And the food’s awesome. It’s a great place to bike and I love being able to walk to work.
FK: What are some of your upcoming plans?
SB: Some of the big initiatives we’re working on include pushing through some of the other projects we developed with Code for America, including NeighborHow and CityHow, which are wiki-based best practice guides for civic action and civic projects. We are integrally involved in the city’s application for the Bloomburg Mayor’s Challenge, so we’ve focused a lot on exploring social entrepreneurship. We’re also really working to connect and build relationships with partners both inside and outside city government. We want to hit the ground running with a list of vetted projects to work on from day one.

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation and Job News Editor.
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