“A lot of IoT focuses on the intake of information,” said Stephen Walter, a program director for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. “We are really interested in how IoT can push information out. How can an IoT device augment a physical space? How can IoT be delightful?”

Stephen Walter is a program director for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Created in 2010, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics functions as Boston’s civic research and development team. The team runs experiments and tests new technology, with the goal of harnessing innovation through technology to improve the lives of residents across Boston. In an interview with 21st Century State & Local, Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the office, and Walter discussed Boston’s recent investment in the Internet of Things and their hopes for democratizing urban spaces.

The City of Boston recently received $200,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of the foundation’s $1.2 million investment in city-level IoT projects. According to a release from the foundation, Boston will use the money to “open source” city assets by creating a process and platform for researchers, advocates, startups, and citizens to place sensing technologies in urban environments for research toward the public good. Jacob explains that the city is using “open source” as a metaphor for this project.

Nigel Jacob is the co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. (Photo: Twitter)

“With open source you are being ultra-transparent,” Jacob said. “We want to do something that other cities, especially smaller cities, can learn from. We’re focusing on how we can build physical assets with an open-source mentality.”

Boston wants its residents to have ownership over how the city grows and evolves, and it believes IoT can help improve transparency and access to city resources.

“We want to take a block or a plaza and democratize it,” Jacob said. “We’re interested in how we can create a clearer, more transparent process for people to take ownership over what their city looks like. We want to make cities more modifiable by the community, and we have to lower the barrier to entry for the everyday citizen to do that.”

Both Jacob and Walter view lowering that barrier as essential. They believe a key part of getting resident support from new technology programs is getting residents involved in the programs. Part of getting residents involved is developing policies and programs that are modifiable and easy to understand and navigate.

“We are very interested in enabling people to explore how different tech can be used to make their communities better,” Walter said. “It’s about showing people how to take advantage of tools and technology to analyze their neighborhoods and make them better.”

The team, which includes individuals with backgrounds including computer science and art, and entrepreneurs, is focused on how new technologies can be leveraged in the built environment to improve residents’ lives.

“By applying novel technologies to make the built environment more modifiable, we enable people to decide how their environment should look,” said Walter.

Walter and Jacob admit that they approach IoT differently from most other cities–they aren’t necessarily looking to the technology to lower costs or improve efficiency.

“We are prioritizing experience rather than efficiency,” Jacob said. “IoT is marketed around improving efficiencies–reducing costs and increasing revenue–and that’s important, government needs to efficiently deliver services. But, it ignores the importance of what it feels like to live in an urban environment.”

Jacob wants to focus on experience, rather than efficiency, for a key reason: Residents will have to live with whatever technology the city implements, so it’s essential to focus on how the technology improves quality of life for city dwellers.

“Residents need to be aware of the new technology coming into cities, and they need to be a part of shaping the new technology,” Jacob says. “A lot of our work is around civic learning. We feel the best way to get the average person to understand IoT sensors is to get people involved in the technology through experimentation.”

Walter and Jacob believe that IoT isn’t reserved for large cities with big budgets.

“There are lots of opportunities for collaboration with local colleges,” Walter said. “Don’t feel like you need to partner with a giant vendor and spend a ton of money on these projects. Devices you can get from Best Buy for $20 can yield great information for a city just starting out.”

For vendors looking to get into the IoT space on a city level, Jacob has some advice.

“What we’ve been trying to make clear to our vendors is that there is a lot of nuance about rolling out new tech in an urban environment–not the least of which are privacy and governmental concerns,” Jacob said. “We’re interested in finding a more humane way to find, test, and deploy tech collaboration with the community. We want to solve actual urban issues, not theoretical urban issues.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs