By Data-Smart City Solutions • August 1, 2014

In May, Philadelphia’s Academy of Municipal Innovation—a training program for city employees in partnership with Philadelphia University—won Pennsylvania’s “Innovation of the Year” award. Today, the city is inaugurating its new Innovation Lab, a technology-enabled space that will house parts of the AMI curriculum, serve as a nexus for civic innovation, and offer programming for Philly’s youth. We spoke with Richard Negrin, Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Administration & Coordination and Managing Director, about the launch of the lab.

Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Where did the idea for an Innovation Lab come from?

Philadelphia has a history of being incredibly proactive in its innovation strategy. In recent years, we’ve been creating a lot of interesting positions here—we have a new Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Open Data Officer, Chief Civic Technology Office; we have the New Urban Mechanics team. These are people in city government who think outside the box, who are tech-savvy and open-minded. I brought these city leaders together and created the Innovation Team, which now meets every two weeks to brainstorm solutions for social problems and government inefficiencies. We have a lot of fun; there’s a lot of laughter. And out of those meetings grew the idea, “What if we could develop a curriculum and lab for innovation in municipal government?”

How did you turn that idea into a reality?

We developed an innovation curriculum with Philadelphia University where 19 employees from different departments were trained on ideation and problem solving, and then received a formal Certificate in Municipal Innovation. That was a great success. Two ideas developed by that first set of graduates are already being implemented. We also hope to expand the program to have relationships with almost every major academic institution in the area. We have around 80 colleges in the region, so whether it’s summits or panels or joint trainings and joint ventures, we want to make sure that we take full advantage of the talent around innovation.

We’ve been asking ourselves: how can we foster innovation in the city without getting in the way?

What inspired you to build a new space for the program?

We visited innovation labs at some of our best local universities. I especially liked what Philadelphia University was doing in their DEC Center—you walk in and there’s a lot of glass, a lot of technology; there’s a 3-D printer down the hall. That’s when it hit me: we’re talking about this great concept, but physical space really matters. It actually changes the way you feel and encourages innovation in a way that we just weren’t able to. That’s what inspired the idea for the actual lab. If we build a place that looks and feels different, and is enhanced with the best technology, then maybe we can make different, better decisions.

How will the Innovation Lab bring different groups of Philadelphia’s stakeholders together?

Thirty-one new tech startups have moved into a concentrated area on Third Street—which they’ve petitioned to rename “Nerd Street”—and they’re all working on pretty interesting things. For the first time as a city, we’re playing an active role in that. We’ve been asking ourselves: how can we foster innovation in the city without getting in the way? I oversaw the development of Philadelphia's subsmission to Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge. We had folks from the tech community and academic community all working hard to put forward the best proposal for an innovative solution to the city’s problems. We were one of the five cities that received a million dollar grant from the competition. That’s the process that I want to capture in the Innovation Lab—identifying a problem, framing a solution, and putting it forward. We’re having Vivek Kundra, the first Chief Information Officer for the federal government, come to speak here for the launch. Putting a guy like him in the room with our employees and with Philly’s small tech firms is a great service and collaboration tool—and only possible using the city as the convener.

If we build a place that looks and feels different, then maybe we can make different decisions.

What part of the Lab you most excited for?

My favorite feature of the lab is the way that we’re bringing kids into it. There are children who’ve grown up just miles away from the Liberty Bell and never seen it. Their whole world is their neighborhood. We believe that technology is playing the role that libraries played for many generations, and so we have to figure out ways to breach the digital divide and expose kids to technology in creative ways. During a bring-your-kid-to-work day, I was talking to a young man about Philly’s award-winning 311 mobile app. He wasn’t impressed, and suggested: why don’t you make it a game, and have the 311 truck do something like Temple Run, where it’s going out into the community and wiping out graffiti—and the more graffiti you wipe out, the more points you get? I thought, boy, that makes a lot of sense—that added value. We want to use the Lab to figure out how to capture some of that potential in creative young minds, while at the same time getting kids excited about public service.

What are your hopes for the future of the Lab?

Wouldn’t it be cool to use the Lab as a place where our city employees could beta-test the latest technology before it even goes to market? I’d love to do that in the future. Often in city government you’re buying the software that’s three generations old because of budget reasons. I’m trying to change that. I want government to have the newest, freshest, most cutting-edge tools. I’d like to partner with some of those private vendors and help them use the city as a laboratory and our employees as testers. That’s where I hope we go.