Innovation Office for Small Cities

ARTICLE | Jun 23, 2015

Incubating, Districting and Accelerating Innovation Across the World

In 2012, The Atlantic boldly proclaimed that America stood at the “Dawn of the Municipal Chief Innovation Officer.”

More than two years later the number of cities sporting a CIO has yet to exceed double digits. There are a number of possible explanations. For one, innovation is not seen as a core municipal function in the way of solid waste management, or even parks and recreation. For another, innovation may not be a priority of local government leaders.

We would argue that the primary reason job boards across the country have not been flooded by postings for municipal CIOs is far simpler: they’re too expensive.

Those cities that have created a Chief Innovation Officer (or even a dedicated innovation office) are almost exclusively large cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Austin, San Francisco, and Kansas City. Larger cities benefit from scale that permits a (relatively) small investment in innovation.

What about Scappoose, Oregon (pop: 6,680), or Ada, Minnesota (pop: 1,700)? How does a city with a budget of $1 Million, $10 Million, or even $100 Million justify investing in a dedicated innovation officer?

One answer is to go regional by partnering with higher education as we have done with the Office of New Urban Mechanics (ONUM) at Utah Valley University—a civic innovation office embedded in a university and serving over 20 small cities. ONUM is a unique twist on one of the leading big-city models of innovation, and its story may serve as a useful model for development of other regional innovation offices.

In 2009 the late, great Mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino, launched the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics as a two-person shop with the purpose and aim of developing novel solutions to intractable public problems by forming coalitions of city, nonprofit, and for-profit partners. In short order the office was churning out mobile apps, reinventing park benches, and producing dozens of other civic tools that caught the attention of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, among others.

Eventually Boston partnered with Philadelphia, forming a second office to collaborate around innovation. Together these offices were able to create everything from apps that help increase the speed at which potholes were fixed, to redesigning the municipal trash can to make it more eco-friendly.

Then in September 2013, Jeff Friedman the co-director of the Philadelphia office came to Utah Valley University to serve as a keynote at a conference on urban innovation. UVU, which had been working on civic innovation projects within its service region for two years at that point, was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Friedman proposed a possible partnership to spread the New Urban Mechanics model to Utah. As Mr. Friedman explained his vision, the thought of a partnership between Boston, Philadelphia, and a western regional university serving small communities began to make sense.

Ultimately, Mr. Friedman explained, New Urban Mechanics is about bringing together passionate people to fix big problems. It’s R&D with heart. While cities can often provide the heart, R&D is generally foreign to municipalities, no matter what their size. It is, however, the natural domain of universities.

Moreover, UVU is fairly unique in that central to its mission is the concept of “engaged learning.” This notion takes the approach that experiential learning in real-world settings is critical to a well-rounded higher education. Already our students had been conducting surveys, benchmarking studies, and other civic projects on behalf of local municipalities at discounted rates in order to provide advanced engaged learning opportunities to our students.

Over nine months UVU worked with Boston, Philadelphia, and local communities like Provo and Orem, Utah, in order to build a regional innovation office. The Office of New Urban Mechanics at UVU launched on July 1, 2014 and has already undertaken several major projects.

Prior to its founding, several of the future student “mechanics” of UVU-ONUM worked to address a near universal problem for Provo City—how to bring more economic and social life to downtown. Working with Downtown Provo, Inc., the local nonprofit partnership charged with promoting the locality, UVU conducted an empathy study (a design thinking approach) through interviews with downtown “users.”

The findings of the study suggested that the dearth of foot-traffic in Downtown Provo was attributable more to psychological factors than to any lack of amenities. Individuals felt uncomfortable in the Downtown environment. The idea of pedestrian shopping and socializing outside of a mall setting was foreign to them, and intimidating. This discomfort with downtown urban exploration lead many to erroneously believe that Downtown simply “did not have what they were looking for.” Users were routinely surprised to learn that the downtown space held exactly what they sought, often several versions of it.

To respond to this insight, UVU-ONUM worked with Downtown Provo, Inc. to launch Playstreet Provo – the first event of its kind in the state. The basic premise was that by shutting down a largely urban street to automobile traffic and opening it up to foot traffic people would feel more comfortable in Downtown, acquire positive, familial memories, and familiarize themselves with the commercial options in the area.

Pulling off a successful event in three months was no mean feat, and along the way it allowed UVU-ONUM to identify additional ways of working with Provo to improve user experience in the area of event-planning and execution. Despite the obstacles, the event was a rousing success, drawing nearly 8,000 people into Downtown Provo to explore and play within a pedestrian, urban environment. Further research was conducted with participants of the event, which will be used to improve on PlayStreet Provo 2015, as well as other interventions to improve the downtown user experience.

PlayStreet Provo is but one example of many projects that UVU-ONUM is pursuing on behalf of the nearly two dozen cities in its service region. The model allows for communities as small as Elk Ridge, Utah (pop: 2,850) to own a share in a regional innovation office. Further, it allows UVU students the opportunity to gain advanced experience that one cannot attain sitting in the nation’s most dynamic MPA classrooms.

New Urban Mechanics seeks new partners in communities small and large, and throughout the nation. That said, even if the precise details of New Urban Mechanics are not right for you, it is our hope that the basic model—the university as a regional hub for civic innovation—may serve to put an innovation office in the hands of small cities across the globe.

You may contact the authors at:, or 801.863.8899.

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