Sam Jacoby, a master’s student in the High-Low Tech research group at the MIT Media Lab, contributed to this report.

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“Our job is to get government used to the idea of failing.”

Nigel Jacobs’ New Urban Mechanics team at Boston’s City Hall has piloted several successful projects since its launch in 2010, from video game-inspired citizen engagement platforms to mobile apps to report potholes. But according to Jacob, one of the most important contributions the team is making to civic innovation is not building great apps and services, but in giving government officials the space to get things wrong.

The ultimate goal for City Hall innovation teams like the New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia, San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation, Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology and New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications is to foster innovation across government departments. Jacob, who co-founded his team with Chris Osgood, says that’s not easy because city governments have a culture of risk aversion — naturally so, given the nature of their services — and that despite a general enthusiasm for new solutions, it’s tough to get new initiatives moving.

New Urban Mechanics tries to address that problem by acting as a “risk aggregator.” he says, encouraging innovators from outside their office to try out projects and use them as a host organization. Those innovators can be from within government or the wider community: “We regard innovators inside government or outside it no differently,” Jacob says. For city officials, professional considerations can be a limiting factor, so his team focuses on providing a pathway for internal innovators to express and act on their ideas without exposing their own jobs and reputations if things didn’t work out so well.

reducing the fear of innovation

The caution around innovation doesn’t generally stem from senior managers in government, who have — in Jacob’s experience — been among the most eager to find new solutions, even if they had no idea how. Those who need the most risk support he says, are the middle-to-upper management who are responsible for the day-to-day functioning of services and had real problem-solving expertise, but are wary of the consequences of screwing something up. One way to reduce the fear of innovation is to deploy projects very quickly — the Flu Shot web app to inform Bostonians about their nearest flu shot clinic, for instance, was deployed in under an hour, working from code written by civic technologists in Chicago.

On the flip side, the consequences of failure can be minimized by identifying unsuccessful projects early, and exiting them relatively quickly: Jacob cites the example of Citizens Connect TXT, an SMS version of an existing platform that allows residents to report neighborhood problems by text that was trialed in summer 2012, but ended in the fall after participation rates were lower than expected.

The practice of rapid prototyping and evaluation is not typical in government, says Jacob, although it borrows heavily from the lean startup methodology developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. Ries proposes that “entrepreneurs are everywhere” and companies should “build, measure and learn.” Those ideas complement the “government as a platform” model popularized by Tim O’Reilly’s 2010 book “Open Government,” which suggests that one of the biggest tasks for government 2.0 is to “lower barriers to experimentation.”

A pipeline of promising innovation projects doesn’t deliver openness and efficiency on its own, though, since all those projects need highly engaged citizens to work and develop. That doesn’t just mean an active user group to test features and usability: Citizens need to be part of the process of generating new innovation projects. Here Jacob says that apps can act as “a gateway drug” for civic engagement: Citizens who become interested in one issue through a useful and entertaining app are likely to broaden their interest and expand the range of issues they follow — even the geography they identify with. In other words, people begin by engaging with issues immediate to them and their street, and when they see the possibility for positive change, they begin to think about other issues and the larger community they belong to.

There are some areas of policy that demand a greater investment than an app in order to make them meaningful to citizens. The planning process is notoriously complex and difficult to engage with, so the New Urban Mechanics are working with Eric Gordon’s Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College to pilot Citizen PlanIt, a platform that presents planning decisions in the style of a video game and has been tested in Detroit, Philadelphia and Salem, Mass. The platform seeks to rid the process of its negative associations with lengthy town hall meetings by embracing what Gordon, Schirra and Hollander call “immersive planning” that draws on the techniques used by popular video games. Citizens of any age can participate — Gordon says players as young as eight have been influencing planning outcomes — and games take place over a series of three weeks, concluding with a face-to-face meeting.

Like Jacob, Gordon says it’s critical that government doesn’t simply create innovative projects, but that it also creates an ecosystem of experimentation and learning that is a safe space for innovation among officials and citizens alike. “Civic learning is motivated by social connections and not merely by clear channels between citizens and government,” Gordon says.

This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

Rodrigo Davies is a Research Assistant at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and an MS student in the Comparative Media Studies program. His research interests include the impact of social media on political discourse, crowdsourcing and political participation, ICT4D and user-led service design. Rodrigo works with the crisis mapping initiative Standby Task Force and is a policy advisor to the UK-based civic crowdfunding platform Spacehive. Before joining the Center Rodrigo was based Mumbai where he was a co-founding editor of Conde Nast India’s digital editorial business. Previously he was a journalist at the BBC and Bloomberg News. He holds a B.A. in History and Politics from Oxford University.