Nigel Jacob is the Co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic innovation incubator and R&D Lab within Boston’s City Hall. He is a former Urban Technologist-in-Residence at Living Cities, currently a board member of Code For America and coUrbanize, and is an Executive-in-Residence at Boston University. We spoke with Nigel twice, and the interviews have been combined and condensed for brevity.
How does New Urban Mechanics approach problem-solving in and with Boston?
We focus on the nuts-and-bolts issues of city living, on the impact that these issues have on people’s lives and then put their needs first, instead of the needs of government or systems. We look for projects that we can prototype and scale, but we don’t have a standard approach.
What issues do you see in the space of problem-solving within government?
The obsession with building products. On one hand, yes, we’re building things that people need. But if I was truly selling a product, someone can either use it or not use it. They have options. Frequently, for the kinds of things we build in local government, the people we’re serving don’t have options. So it can’t only be a product. There’s a longer term investment in that community that we have to have.
How do you get away from a product-centered mindset? Do you specifically hire certain people to avoid this?
The last several years there’s been a rush to hire data scientists or designers. As a technologist, it’s strange that I should say this, but I think that makes it too technology-oriented. It cuts out a lot of people who are doing really interesting work and limits you to only certain verticals. What I suggest is to hire what I call “hustlers.” People who know how to take even a vaguely defined problem—because mayors are very good at giving you vague problems to solve—and then pulling that apart and figuring out what do you in response to that. What do you do if the mayor says, “We need to house all veterans by the end of the year?” How do you respond to that? You need someone who can think in a very open-ended way and who is able to figure out the right kind of resources that you need, because there’s never money for these things. These people come from all walks of life. We’ve got former teachers, economists, game designers, and computer scientists. I think that’s been one of our secrets to success.
How do you find people like that?
First we used university fellowships—summer or year-long options for graduate students to spend time with us. For the past ten years, that’s been a really effective way to get young creative people interested in working here, at least for short time. We can’t promise them all jobs after, but at the very least, we get some work done.
While they’re here, they’re fully-fledged members of NUM. We give them a project, help them scope it, and then turn them loose—these aren’t research projects, they’re prototype projects. They are building a thing. That thing could be policy, it could be a physical prototype, it really depends on the context.
The fellows are encouraged to explore, to find things they’re passionate about. There has to be a way for them to stretch their wings. Over time, we are able to hire some of these people, or at least form relationships with them. Maybe they founded a nonprofit or a startup, or they’ve become a researcher somewhere, and that grows a network of interested people.
What kind of support do you offer the fellows besides encouraging them to spread their wings and find their passions?
Mentorship is an important part of the fellowship. Myself and some of the other members of NUM, we’ve done this awhile. We know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes fellows show up kind of brainwashed by universities. There was a year where everyone wanted to work on procurement. And then another year, it was data. A lot of that comes from professors who have their own theories about what the real issues are. Part of mentoring them is encouraging them to be more open-minded.
What do you look for in potential fellows and other hires? What do you recommend others in this space think about as they hire and grow their teams?
We think a lot about emotional intelligence. We see if they can read a room. If you’re giving a presentation to the mayor, showing a lot of numbers, and he’s not paying attention, you need to pivot right away. You’ll lose him, and lose your chance. We also do a lot of community meetings, and if you have bad bedside manner talking to the community, you can break things. So I would choose high EQ over regular intelligence any day. I need people who are wise, who understand how humans think and feel.
In the end, the people we attract are interested in making positive impact. That’s how we write the job descriptions. Our assumption is that we can’t keep them all forever. Maybe they spend a couple years with us and then they move on. But that’s okay. Because we keep the culture fresh and we’re always attracting new people.
One of the challenges people cite in doing the work is the structure of civil service. Do you agree?
One thing I’ll say about government, there is very little management. Lots of people have the title “supervisor,” or “manager,” but they don’t really manage people. So a lot of the people who end up doing the creative work in these different departments, they are often able to take advantage of fact that they are not really being managed. So they can try different kinds of partnerships, different approaches to different things. That actually does seem to work.
Now that you’ve been able to hire the right people, what do you think is the biggest impact that New Urban Mechanics has had on the city?
More than any one project, the biggest impact we’ve had in Boston is creating a culture that is open to collaboration and willing to take risks. When you boil it down, people have a fear of failure. In Boston, when you fail, you get a nasty phone call from the mayor, or from the press, or from your peers. So now, we transfer the ownership of innovative projects to NUM. All that means is that it gets rebranded so that it won’t be a Department of Transportation or Boston City Schools project. They still are doing all the work and we help out, but if it fails, you, as a member of the Department of Transportation, don’t get that phone call any more. We get that phone call.
We spend a lot of time expressing the idea that “you don’t get innovation for free.” You need to invest in it. You need to be comfortable with risk. And that is exactly the NUM job—to take on those risks so that if you do an experiment with us, the trash will still get picked up next morning. We provide protection for the innovators.