Seven Things You Missed at the What Works: Boston Event

It was the fourth and final talk on urban innovation, in a series hosted by Politico.

Photo by Madeline Bilis

Photo by Madeline Bilis

In association with Politico’s What Works yearlong reporting series, What Works: Boston wrapped up Friday morning after a lot of tech talk.

What Works: Boston is the fourth and final event in a series of national conversations about urban innovation projects, following discussions in Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. “Boston promised this would be the best of the four,” joked Lois Romano, senior political writer and editorial director for Politico Events. And with two panels discussing civic hacking and innovation districts, maybe it was.

Four of Boston’s leading minds in technology initiatives lead the hacking discussion with Politco’s editor Susan Glasser: Edward Glaeser, of the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston; Nigel Jacob, of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics; Kent Larson, of MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places Group; and City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley.

Plus, Mayor Marty Walsh and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke sat with Politico’s new executive editor and former Boston Globe editorial page editor Peter Canellos to talk about innovation. Here’s what you missed:

1. The definition of a new urban mechanic

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is a relatively new city agency focused on establishing transformative city services. While former Mayor Menino declared “We are all urban mechanics,” in his 2010 Inaugural Address, MONUM’s co-chair Nigel Jacob clarified.

“Our job is to take an experimental view of government services to experiment, to play with the prototype with different means by which local governments can work with the community. So, that often means finding ways to connect innovators and entrepreneurs in the community with innovators and entrepreneurs inside local government,” says Jacob. “A big part of that is rolling our sleeves up and collaborating across sectors.”

2. Innovation doesn’t start with technology—it starts with people

Kent Larson, director of the MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group, put it best: “We don’t start with technology, we start with people. So thinking about that enables very liveable, high-performance, creative cities, and then we add technology when its useful.”

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, adds that technology, like the Street Bump app, empowers people to be problem solvers, making crowdsourcing valuable and possible through technology. But she distinguishes innovation in government from other types of innovation. “Government does not have the luxury of functioning as if it were a venture capitalist or a startup. We’re talking about people’s lives,” she says.

3. Data is important … and creepy?

When asked about his dream data about cities that he doesn’t have yet, Larson said it’s really about human behavior. Having a rich understanding of interactions like knowing where people live, work, stop for lunch, etc., would enable government to design interventions using real data. “We’d actually like the same thing, but we’d like to be able to do that in a way thats not creepy,” says Jacob.

“One of the projects we have at the Media Lab is about trust networks. Looking at how to collect the data, how to anonymize it, how to give people the tools so they can authorize the use of their data. They maybe can monetize it, because I think if the data goes to the government or some anonymous corporation without benefit to the individual, it is creepy,” says Larson.

While personal data may be a roadblock, Jacob offers a solution. “There’s a way of gathering data that is seen as a kind of volunteerism…Doing that in a way in which people can see the data being captured is actually effecting change in their communities is really critical.”

4. Chattanooga wants to follow in Boston’s footsteps

Why was Mayor Walsh chatting with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke? Berke wants to associate the South with technological innovation. He’s started with Gig City, a program which he describes as providing the “fastest, cheapest, most pervasive Internet in the Western Hemisphere” to every home and business in Chattanooga. Similarly, Walsh has launched Wicked Free Wifi hotspots in Boston. Among other wannabe similarities, Walsh mentioned Boston’s sizable student population. “We’d love to have 250,000 college students in Chattanooga. We’ll welcome them all,” said Berke. To which Walsh responded, “I might send them to you.”

5. Innovation won’t come without population, and a diverse one, too

Walsh explains keeping young talent in the city is tough because many can’t afford the cost of living. His proposed housing plan hopes to keep people in the city and grow Boston to 700,000 residents by 2030. But innovation requires a diverse population. “Nothing will kill your city faster than having one type of people in it,” says Berke. “So for us, we’re constantly trying to find ways to bring a more diverse group of people downtown.

Creating more housing to keep up with demand is only the beginning. A strong public transportation is also necessary according to Walsh. The pair agreed mayors can’t depend on the federal government on the issue of housing. “I think we have to continue to tell the federal government that we need to ensure we have the best possible policies, but we also cant wait around,” says Berke.

6. There’s always room to grow in the food economy

Walsh says he wants to see farmers markets as well as food trucks to grow in the city. After having lunch at an urban farm in Roxbury, he’s seen Boston food related jobs and amenities firsthand. “I think Boston is on the cusp of really taking it to the next level,” he says. “When I ran for mayor of Boston, there was a lot of discussion about open space and using it for urban farming. And I think that’s something that there’s a desire and a need for.” Berke echoed his sentiments. “Having great restaurants is part of a vibrant economy. Food culture is really important,” says Berke. “We have locally owned restaurants and farmer’s markets. That’s what really adds variety and spice to a city… It’s a critical part of our quality of life.

7. And… the best tweet of the day goes to Mayor Berke: