Harvard Finds New Partner in City Hall's 'Urban Mechanics'

Over the last ten years, Harvard has made headlines with a bold plan to build a massive engineering complex in Allston, but it has also been working—quietly and methodically—to lay a different type of infrastructure across the river. This initiative focuses on behind-the-scenes collaboration rather than press conferences, and on developing apps rather than developing property.

Founded by graduates from the Business School, the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is a newly minted city department that aims to transform the way city services are delivered, using principles of entrepreneurial innovation and collaboration formulated with the help of HBS faculty.

Over its five-year history, the office has partnered with other universities around the Boston area, though it has always maintained a particularly close relationship with Harvard, partnering with the University and leveraging its vast academic resources.

From research and teaching partnerships to smartphone apps and projects analyzing how to improve city services, city officials and Harvard faculty say, the New Urban Mechanics are redefining what civic innovation means in the 21st century.

“People see New Urban Mechanics and working for the city of Boston in general as one way they can change the world,” the office's co-chair Christopher P. Osgood said.

FROM HBS TO CITY HALL

Former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who was himself nicknamed the “Urban Mechanic,” created the Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2010 with an eye toward embracing technology to find ways of improving city services for the 21st century.

The Office now works to build “partnerships between internal agencies and outside entrepreneurs to pilot projects that address resident needs,” according to its website. It has focused its work on areas such as education, city infrastructure, and improved constituent services.

New Urban Mechanics has been tied to Harvard since its conception. Though the Office was not founded until 2010, the phrase “New Urban Mechanics” was first coined in 2005 by Mitchell B. Weiss ’99, a Harvard Business School lecturer, who was then a student at HBS, working as a fellow in the Mayor’s Office.

Weiss later oversaw the launch of the office while he was serving as chief of staff for Menino.

Now a senior lecturer at HBS, he credits many faculty members with providing mentoring and insights on everything from the organization of the office, to open innovation and open government.

“HBS made it possible for us to be there in the Mayor’s Office in the first place...but HBS also trained us to do something there to make a difference in the world,” Weiss said. “The way we decided to make a difference was to invent.”

Osgood, a fellow Business School alum, agreed that the school taught him to apply business strategies to public sector work, while connecting him to a network of colleagues who graduated from the Business School and still work in Boston City Hall.

“HBS does a very good job of helping students understand how organizations should be best structured to deliver value for their customers or constituents,” Osgood said. “It’s something that which we think a lot about in our work which is really understanding what customer needs are or constituent needs are.”

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