The City of Los Angles Should Create a Pilot Program to be “Smarter” — and Here’s How
With the advent of smart tech and the Internet of Things, everyday thing are becoming “smart”. Cars will start driving themselves. Trash cans will provide free city-wide WiFi. And streets will become huge solar panels — capable of charging our street lights and bus stops at no additional costs.
But cities will remain business as usual. New programs will need to be studied and evaluated from every angle, then sent up the bureaucratic latter for multiple rounds of approval. By the time the funding has been secured and the project is ready to break ground, the idea has become commonplace, or worse, obsolete.
How can the City of Los Angeles tap into this chaotic and fast-paced world of new innovations and creative ideas without going over budget? Create a pilot program to test out these new concepts in a small-scale, controlled manner before full-scale deployment!
Run like a startup, but within local government. The small but highly capable team would have full access to City resources but be given the freedom to experiment with new ideas, forge new partnerships, and, dare I say it, fail.
That’s why the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (NUM) in Boston, MA was founded. The team, led by Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood (before he was tapped to be the Mayor’s Chief of Streets, Transportation, and Sanitation), were tasked with improving the entire range of services within local government.
For example, they created City Hall To Go, a mobile truck that brings City Hall to the people. Rather than creating an app for everything, they realized that people would rather speak to an actual person. Nigel talks about some of his other projects and what he thinks is the key to NUM’s success here.
Put in a few words, Nigel believes thinking about the human experience and connecting with local startups and entrepreneurs has helped his team come up with out-of-the-box solutions to age-old problems.
How would it be structured?
The team would issue an open call for ideas on how to improve or incorporate new technologies into government processes and property. This would eliminate the geographic barrier and allow anyone in the world to provide their insight and pitch their ideas.
The Road to Tomorrow was created by the Missouri Department of Transportation to make Interstate 70 “the most advanced highway in the nation.” They issued an open call for ideas and had a simple online application. The team of 6 would then field the submissions for anything that looked promising and followed up with a quick phone call.
While the team initially started out without any evaluation criteria, they eventually came up with 5 levels of project readiness, from submission to piloting. The higher up the idea was, the more likely it would be implemented.
During my call with Tom Blair, the Road to Tomorrow program manager, he stressed his main goal for the initiative is to find more funding streams to finance transportation projects. Our highways and roads are deteriorating and current funding mechanism such as the gas tax is simply not enough. That’s why one of his main criteria for a project is that it comes with some method of being financed.
One plus one equals three
If we pull ideas from both programs, we get a program that is supported by local government but loosely structured and willing to work with businesses, local startups, and private citizens. What we would get is the City of Los Angeles’ Innovation Commission.
The City already has an initiative to seek out and fund pilot programs within city government, called the Innovation & Performance Commission. The catch? It’s only open to City employees and the Innovation Fund is currently capped at $1 million. Once it’s out, it’s out.
Out with the old, in with the new
The reinvented Innovation Commission (IC) would have several improvements. First, rather than restricting the field of applicants, it would be open to anyone. This would allow for more collaboration and partnerships among public, private, and nonprofit players.
It would also have a continuous revenue stream. The team would be tasked with identifying new sources of funding, such as grants or partnerships, and submissions would be highly encouraged to consider the long-term viability of their idea.
Next, the IC would be run like a startup. The team would be given leeway in terms of choosing which ideas they would like to pursue, working out the logistics, and making adjustments before and during piloting. Of course, they would still need Innovation Commission’s approval before implementation.
The City should begin planning the new program now to be ready to implement the program the following fiscal year. This includes putting together a team, compiling a list of City assets that are open for piloting, and identifying focus areas they would like to tackle first.
Within 5 years, the team should evaluate their progress and streamline their processes as much as possible.
After 10 years, the team should think big — beyond city limits big. They should put together best practices and partner with other cities — or the entire Los Angeles County — to expand the program.