Arriving in Boston last week, I had the chance to attend a conference held at Northeastern University focusing on the ways that new technologies have the potential to get people more involved in urban governance.
The panel discussion was composed of
- Nigel Jacob (Founder and Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics*¹, City of Boston)
- Lauren Lockwood (Chief Digital Officer, City of Boston)
- Dan O’Brien (Assistant Professor, Northeastern University and Research Director, The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI)*²)
- Dietmar Offenhuber (Assistant Professor of Art and Design and Public Policy, Northeastern University)
1 – Be open to experimentation
Lauren Lockwood mentioned the redesign of the city of Boston’s website for which her department recently launched a pilot version online to allow citizens to experience it and give their feedback so the final website would be adapted to their use.
In this case, the City of Boston adopted a flexible approach, normally associated to startups.
2 – Consider Design to connect with residents
Also regarding the development of the city of Boston’s website, the Digital Department was guided by the Design and Innovation Consulting Firm IDEO. They build the website as interactive as possible to change the perception of the city government.
Nigel Jacob also mentioned the way design can change the perception about who is « behind » the public services. He took the 311 as his main example.
The 311 is a system available through different platforms (mobile, online, etc.) that enables residents of Boston to report non-emergency issues to the City, such as graffiti and broken traffic signals.
Once the city has taken care of the issue signaled, the resident will get a picture of the team who took care of it, which really humanizes the interaction public services have with their residents and illustrates how tech and design can build a trust-based relationship.
Moreover, the feedback of some residents was that by taking a picture through the 311 platform, they feel like they are helping rather than simply complaining.
3- Multiply the channels to access people
The 311 mobile app and the city of Boston’s website can be useful for citizens who don’t have the time to travel downtown to City Hall to get direct services. However, many people need personal interaction.
Inspired by the success of the food truck model, City Hall created its own mobile « City Hall to Go » truck.
Residents can follow the truck on Boston’s website and access city services in their own neighborhood.
4 – Better understand the motivations of the residents
Dan O’Brien brought up that in order to improve the management the urban commons*³ through resident participation, knowing why they are taking the time to participate is an asset.
The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI)*² was interested to know if the people were using the 311 app as an extension of their general desire to be part of the political process or simply because they care about their street.
Thus, thanks to a great university-city partnership, the BARI cross-referenced data from residents’ addresses and the location of the issue for which they were using the 311 app.
The analysis revealed that 86% of people are only reporting in a region that is contiguous to their house (300m or less). This work, enriched by a survey on territorial motivation, showed that it was more about taking care of what people consider their own space than about a civic behaviour.
This result is now used in the design of some clean neighborhood campaigns for which the message is hyper-locally oriented.
*¹ New Urban Mechanics is the civic innovation office in Boston that gives government officials the space to experiment and – even – the cover to fail. I will dedicate a coming article to the way this office operates and its relationships with internal agencies and outside universities, startups and non-profit organizations to address the needs of residents.
*² The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) seeks to spur original urban research on the cutting edge of social science and public policy. In conducting and interpreting this research, BARI seeks to forge mutually beneficial relationships among the region’s scholars, policymakers, practitioners and civic leaders.
*³ Urban Commons were defined as issues that are everyone’s problem but no one responsibility