Boston: An Exciting Place for Civic Innovation

| Hollie Gilman


For those of us interested in civic technology and innovation, Boston continues to be an illustrative petri dish. What is particularly exciting about Boston is its multi-faceted approach. Boston is not just trying one strategy or using one tool; rather it is creating an entire ecosystem for innovation to thrive. The recent passing of the “urban mechanic” Mayor Menino, only underscores Boston’s rise as a leader in this space.

Boston’s experiments are too vast to fully catalog, but there are a few that exhibit paradigm shifts in traditional approaches to engaging citizens in their community. Importantly, they employ a variety of tactics.

MONUM LogoEmpowering citizens as problem solvers: The New Urban Mechanics has ushered in a transformative approach, spreading to other cities, for citizens to engage with public service delivery. The app Citizens Connect enables residents to report non-emergency public issues that need to be dealt with. Citizens are empowered as problem solvers and can track and monitor service implementation.

Boston also launched Boston About Results, an interactive scorecard that visualizes city performance. This gives citizens a window into city hall while garnering trust and legitimacy.

Photo via What Happened When the City of Boston Asked Teenagers for Help With the Budget by Hollie Gilman for

Creatively engage citizens: Technology in Boston is not constrained to apps. It also can include the first U.S. Youth driven participatory budgeting process and a refurbished truck that delivers services directly to the people. Earlier this year, youth aged 12-25 were given $1 million dollars from the city’s capital budget to allocate. The winning projects included funding for playgrounds, art, and security cameras. This project, called “Youth Lead the Change” in partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project, illustrates that when youth are given real decision making power, they are active participants.

cityhalltogoAnother exciting initiative is City Hall To Go.  The truck helps people get essential services, including birth certificates for new moms and easily accessibly services for elderly community members. It has a lively social media presence tweeting up-to-the-minute city updates. People enjoy the direct and convenient interaction with city officials.

Fostering innovation spaces: Boston is showing the import of dedicated spaces to foster innovation, creativity, district halland skills sharing. District Hall is a modern space, with local coffee and food, which bring together a broad range
of entrepreneurs and civic minded people with exciting events. Importantly, the space is a public-private partnership that works across sectors to bring new people into dialogue to share lessons learned. There are even office hours hosted by business to provide mentoring opportunities.

All of these examples suggest that Boston is an exciting and important city to watch for civic innovation. Its multi-dimensional approach cuts across ages and sectors to present a new vision for a 21st century city. Its continued experiments will shed light for important domestic and international examples.

Hollie Russon Gilman holds a PhD from Harvard’s Department of Government.  She is currently a fellow at New America. 

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