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Civic Innovation, One iPhone App at a Time

Tags: Forum for Civic Advancement

Jeff Hopfenbeck

Technology is reshaping our world. From smartphones to Facebook, cloud-computing to Kickstarter, the way we do business and interact with one another is constantly changing. But what is the potential for technology to transform the way we experience and understand government? Recently, I had the opportunity to meet someone who is working to harness the power of technology for civic and social good.

A native of Ontario, Canada, Nigel Jacob has lived in Boston for years, first as a software engineer and later as a PhD student at Tufts University. Today, he serves as a co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). Created by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to reinvent service delivery in the city, the initiative assists civic entrepreneurs and works to explore the power of technology to reshape civic life. Jacob made the trip to Colorado Springs to speak at the Forum for Civic Advancement seminar and to share with us the exciting potential for technology to make government better.

What does civic innovation look like? Think smartphone apps that automatically detect potholes, online games that lay the groundwork for in-person planning meetings, and interactive applications that allow citizens to report infrastructure problems directly to the right service department. Think reshaping the way we engage with government in a collaborative and interactive fashion.

How does MONUM help with this process? First, it serves as a space for new ideas within City Hall. And, note, I didn’t say “virtual” space.  If you are a city employee or Average Joe with a great idea, you can come down to City Hall (very old-fashioned) and give your pitch. If Jacob and his co-director see potential in your project, their team will work with you to find partnerships, small grants, and opportunities for collaboration to make your project a reality with as little risk to taxpayers and possible.

The result is collaboration, innovation, and the potential to change our understanding of both what and who government is. Your city is no longer a distant entity to which you pay your taxes and receive little in return. Rather, it is something that you can engage with directly through technology that is already in your pocket, purse, or briefcase. Government becomes something you engage with collaboratively to positively impact your community.

Riding on the heels of Boston’s successes, cities across the country are starting to create offices of innovation tasked with improving city services, increasing efficiency, and building citizen involvement. Right here in Colorado Springs, Mayor Steve Bach recently named city employee Nick Kittle Colorado Springs’ Innovation and Sustainability Manager. At a dinner with Jacob and some of the city’s top technology professionals, I had the opportunity to hear from Kittle's teammate, Jacob Anderson, about how Colorado Springs is starting to adopt a similar strategy to promote civic innovation.

Though no one project is likely to revolutionize city government, the combined impact of many small projects across the country does have the potential to make our lives and communities a little bit better. By encouraging civic and social innovation, Nigel Jacob and city employees like him across the country can help us create a better world – one iPhone app at a time.