“Believe me, when they finish the Second Avenue Subway, this apartment will quadruple in value.”
Aside from being a favorite inside joke among New Yorkers, this line—spoken by a real estate broker to protagonist Peggy Olson in the 1960s-set television show Mad Men [i]—hints at the pace at which the New York City government has historically implemented new ideas. The Second Avenue Subway is a proposed branch of the city’s underground public transit system that was approved by the Board of Transportation of the City of New York in 1929. In 2017, New Yorkers saw the first signs of progress in nearly a century, when three new subway stops opened on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. [ii]
From policy cycle to idea funnel
This anecdote is an extreme example of how slowly—and expensively: the three recently-opened stations cost the city $2.5 billion per mile [iii]—it can be for local governments to take on initiatives geared towards improving the lives of their constituents. Currently, the vast majority of public projects happen via the public policy cycle, in which government agencies send out requests for proposals, decide on contractors, and manage implementation.[iv]
A myriad of factors contribute to the inefficiency of this process. These include but aren’t limited to: the many conflicting priorities of government stakeholders (e.g. agencies, unions, state and federal representatives), rule-heavy internal decision-making processes, and a workforce that’s more motivated to maintain the status quo than to take risks—thanks to compensation structures that reward tenure rather than impact—and, of course, electoral politics.[v]
The wisdom of the city that never sleeps
While there’s no silver bullet for the city’s sluggish innovation process, the city has in the past decade embraced crowdsourcing as one solution. Take the much-maligned subway system as an example. In March, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA; NYC’s public transportation agency) announced the winners of its Genius Transit Challenge, which gathered ideas about what can be done to improve the subway system. The contest yielded submissions from both transportation professionals and those with no engineering backgrounds (indeed, one of the winners was a lawyer who proposed a new passenger-loading technique). The ideas are currently being vetted by the MTA board, who says they will be developed “as quickly as possible.”[vi]
The ultimate outcome of the MTA’s contest remains to be seen. However, the city has already seen the value in opening up their idea creation processes through other initiatives. One successful ongoing effort is the annual BigApps contest, in which participants submit prototypes of “civic apps” using licensed datasets from various city agencies. The 2017 challenge has birthed PASSNYC, an app linking city kids to after-school activities, and Nesterly, which connects elderly New Yorkers with room to spare to young people needing a place to live.[vii]
The Bill de Blasio administration is also leveraging distributed innovation to meet longer-term challenges head-on through the Call for Innovations online platform. Currently, the city is asking for help in reducing the housing authority’s heat and hot water load (the agency oversees the city’s public housing projects); planning for the driverless future; and building predictive tools to project public school student population trends.[viii]
Narrowing the development funnel
While the Big Apple’s efforts to disrupt its innovation process are laudable, there is much work to be done to ensure that the ideas emerging from the contests it holds are being tracked and implemented. Currently, its innovation challenges are scattered throughout its network of agencies, creating unnecessary complexity for would-be participants. This fragmented external communication may hint at internal disjointedness as well.
In addition to centralizing these efforts, both the city and its residents would benefit from an increased level of transparency of the development process. However, I would not recommend opening up the selection process in addition to the idea creation one. Allowing the public to see and select winning ideas may discourage people from submitting them for fear of copycats [ix]—which may then result in a weaker idea pool. This last point begs a few questions that New York City—and likely many public offices around the world—are asking:
- How can the public sector cast a wide and deep net via its innovation challenges without the resources and financial incentives that private companies can afford to pay participants? Is civic duty enough?
- Is there a way to reduce the risk of idea theft while also increasing transparency? How do we think about tracking the status of “winners” from ideation to pilot to implementation in a way would help keep politicians accountable and innovators inspired?
[i] Chris Barsanti, The Handy New York City Answer Book, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2017.
[ii] Nick Baumgarten, “The Second Avenue Subway Is Here!”, The New Yorker, February 13, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/the-second-avenue-subway-is-here, accessed November 10, 2018.
[iii] Brian M. Rosenthal, “The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth,” The New York Times, December 28, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html, accessed November 10, 2018.
[iv] Maximilian Heimstädt & Georg Reischauer. “Framing Innovation Practices in Interstitial Issue Fields: Open Innovation in the NYC Administration.” Innovation: Organisation & Management via Taylor & Francis Online, accessed November 13, 2018.
[v] Barry Bozeman. “A Theory of Government ‘Red Tape.’” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART 3, no. 3 (1993): 273-303 via JSTOR, accessed November 10, 2018.
[vi] “MTA Selects 8 Winners, 2 Honorable Mentions of MTA Genius Transit Challenge,” MTA press release (March 9, 2018), accessed November 28, 2018.
[ix] A. Malhotra, A. Majchrzak, L. Kesebi, and S. Looram. Developing innovative solutions through internal crowdsourcing. MIT Sloan Management Review (Summer 2017): 73–79 via ProQuest, accessed November 12, 2018.