Digital Cities: The City Upon a Hill

Brian Rollison
Jun 24, 2017 · 5 min read

This is the seventh post in a series of excerpts from my graduate research at Cornell University; each has been adapted for the purposes of this format. To read the full report, in all its technical glory, please visit my website.

Previous Topic: Your ‘Digital Awareness’ Is Worthless


Boston, Massachusetts

First stated by John Winthrop at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the “City Upon a Hill” mantra has driven the City of Boston to new heights in technological and urban innovation. With some of the world’s greatest universities (Harvard, MIT, Boston University, etc.) within the city’s limits, and a periphery of many more in the surrounding region, some of the most innovative minds walk the streets as everyday citizens. We’ll examine how the city’s preference of disruption has found a new home within the walls of City Hall, and what we can learn from their digital initiatives as they establish a precedent of innovation and action.

New Urban Mechanics Pitch: build the product, take the blame if it fails, and give away all the accolades if it wins.

Build a Groundswell of Innovation

It wasn’t too many years ago that the City of Boston represented the poster-child of a bloated city with multiple, and often conflicting, technology initiatives. Change arrived in 2010 when Nigel Jacob co-founded the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to find ways the city could leverage the local academic talent within the civic technology landscape. Their pitch to departments was simple: we’ll build the product, take the blame if it fails, and give you all the accolades if it succeeds. While their message resonated with many agencies, a larger cultural changed needed to take place:

  1. Reposition civic technology from a labor-saving mechanism to an opportunity to interact with citizens ubiquitously throughout the day
  2. Establish an understanding that technology wasn’t a substitute for offline communication and collaboration
  3. Prioritize product design and seek out multiple partnerships with local talent to crowdsource development

Lesson 1: Make Civic Awareness Fun for the Citizen

Perhaps the greatest success story of the New Urban Mechanics was the release of Citizens Connect, the first iteration of a platform agnostic (desktop/mobile) non-emergency civil information and service provider — widely known as BOS:311 today. The mobile application allowed citizens going about their daily lives to interact with the city in two main functions:

  • Report Issues — potholes, cracked sidewalks, excessive garbage, etc.
  • Get Information — recycling pickup, nearest city office, etc.

Today every city is deploying a tool of this nature, but Citizens Connect (BOS:311) remains unique in its design. The application empowers its users to explore the reporting activity of their fellow citizens with the map user interface of the “Recents” view. Each report is represented by a pic encouraging the citizen to not only contribute their own voice (comfort in crowd-activity), but to raise their own awareness of the city through viewing ongoing report activity.

BOS:311 Map Feature — the representation of pins on the map invites users to interact, while keeping them geographically aware of the content they are viewing.

When I spoke with Nigel, this exploration interaction was one of the core tenants in his understanding of their digital product success— solutions were built with an understanding of user interaction preferences. This focus leverages the core principles of social network theory to ensure citizens continue to engage on the platform, preventing network decay.

Lesson 2: Brand Your City, Brand Your Products

Established within the Department of Innovation & Technology, the Boston Digital Team has taken the product development principles of the New Urban Mechanics and implemented them at a citywide level. While innovation around the urban social network may be the future of the digital city, the Boston Digital Team recognized a need to revamp the city’s digital design infrastructure into a cohesive, recognizable, and user-friendly interface. Two guiding objectives led this digital redesign:

  • Humanize digital interaction with the city
  • Reach people where and when they are

The former taps the citizen-design mentality of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology (post), while the latter is a more complex initiative representing a technical challenge of catering to citizens’ state of mind as they seek information on the platform. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat the City of Boston’s digital network is an open system (as it should be), preventing the Digital Team from recognizing a visitor’s digital identity during interactions.

No matter where you interact with the City of Boston the design, experience, and functionality will be consistent across devices and access points.

To circumvent this issue the team used design to offer a flexible solution — making sure a citizen’s access point (mobile, desktop, or physical) is familiar, consistent, and trustworthy. Whether a citizen was in a rush, under duress, or just browsing they would be able to interact with their city in a calm and fluid manner. On the backend, the team built horizontally scalable network systems to handle traffic spikes during times of high information need (i.e. emergency events).

Lead and Be Led, Citizen-First Design

Boston has been at the forefront of digital innovation within cities for the better part of a decade — while the city’s technical talent is amazing in itself, perhaps most critical to their success has been their obsessive focus on designing products for their citizens. As Boston’s former Chief Digital Officer Lauren Lockwood once told me, the ideology of “if you build it, they will come” need not apply.

…Boston leads in innovation by following the needs of their citizens…

Next Topic: Civic Engagement isn’t a Checkbox


I welcome your feedback; keep in mind this is only a part of a series in which we’ll fully vet the concepts proposed here. Opinions are my own.

I’ve attached links to the subjects/actors of this article; periphery content was collected from a series of interviews with city employees and citizens in Boston, MA. A roster of these interviews is available at request.

Further Reading

Lauren Lockwood @ City of Boston (former Chief Digital Officer), “Why online government services often suck — in one graphic

Raphaëlle Cayla for cocity.co, “Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, the <match.com> for the government

Boston Digital Thinking

Boston Digital Team, “Digital Team Case Studies: Branding and Design

Boston Digital Team, “Digital Team Case Studies: Web Development

Boston Digital Team, “Creating an Iconic Boston.gov

Boston Digital Team, “Creating a Boston.gov that works for everyone

Boston Digital Team, “If we build it, will they come?

Boston Digital Team, “Writing for a human-centered website

Boston Digital Team, “Making Boston.gov mobile friendly

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