How New York City Is Working To Merge Government With Innovation

With its new “calls for innovation,” the city is trying to consider new ways of thinking about how to improve the services it provides.

With a budget that is many millions of dollars in the red, the New York City Housing Authority–North America’s largest low-income landlord–doesn’t have a lot of cash to spare. So it’s not ideal that the electricity and heating bills for its more than 2,000 buildings are much higher than they should be. The agency, abbreviated NYCHA, estimates its spends more than 40% more on energy than a typical apartment building in the city. But tackling such a large and sprawling problem and encouraging energy conservation–especially when, in many NYCHA buildings, residents don’t pay their own electric bills–isn’t straightforward.


So the agency approached Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Tech and Innovation with the problem, and out of that came two new open innovation challenges launched on Tuesday. Their aim is to ferret out ideas, from the private sector, for reducing electric bills without taking away residents’ control of their own apartments and, in a smaller number of buildings, reduce steam heating bills.

In city government, the idea of looking outside of the public sector for fresh ideas is nothing new, and with a stream of hackathons, more open data, and innovation challenges–such as the massive New York City Big Apps competition, which dates back to 2009–it is becoming more common. But the NYCHA challenge is a good example of how city governments are starting to look at open innovation in a more focused and specific way.

[Photo: Timo Wories via Unsplash]

“Cities have been partnering with the private sector and individuals pretty actively for the last decade or so. But we’re getting more evolved on both sides,” says Jeff Merritt, director of innovation in the mayor’s office. “Government is better at articulating what we need and the private sector and individuals are able to work more closely and productively with us.”

The NYCHA challenges are the third and fourth formal “calls for innovation” issued by Mayor de Blasio since taking office in 2014. The strategy informally began when the city put out an open-ended request for designs to reimagine how the city would use its outdated payphones, and out of that came LinkNYC, the partnership that is now converting old phone infrastructure into a free public Wi-Fi network.

[Photo: srikanta H. U via Unsplash]

After that test drive went well, last April, the city put out its first formal call for innovation, an alternative to what would normally be a much more prescriptive request for proposals or information (RFP and RFI, in government contracting parlance). In response to an 11-week call for ideas–again to increase New Yorkers’ access to high-speed internet–the city received 69 proposals from 50 different sources, the majority from startups and small businesses that had never done business with the city before. One result, says Merritt, is a pilot project that the city is testing to put Wi-Fi on the Downtown Alliance’s free shuttle buses, creating a roving network in Lower Manhattan, based on a similar project in Portugal.

In another project, the Department of Education wanted to improve its demographic forecasts so it could plan better for future school enrollment. The challenge it launched is very specific and directed, but open-ended in terms of the approach taken: It releases city data sets to entrants who sign a nondisclosure agreement and asks them to come up with better models to predict student enrollment in particular school districts. The winner of the $15,000 award has the chance for future city contracts, and the city hopes the statistical models produced could be applicable for other populations, such as predicting the future elderly population in a given neighborhood.


As city agencies and departments become used to the idea, calls for innovation (or CFIs) could pick up. Right now, they are time-intensive, taking about six months to a year to set up. For the Department of Education’s project, there was a long vetting process with city hall–making sure the problem was the right fit, framing it correctly, engaging stakeholders, making sure the intellectual property issues were figured out. The city also worked with a firm called CityMart, which specializes in helping cities set up open innovation challenges in Europe and the United States, so they can “focus on what problems they need to solve instead of what things they want to buy.”

[Photo: srikanta H. U via Unsplash]

“A lot of what we do is capacity building in cities to help them do them on their own,” says CityMart project manager Nina Robbins. “Often times, when you’ve been doing something one way for a decade, it’s really hard to step back and see the opportunities in a different light.”

Eventually, the goal is that more agencies and departments will have the capacity to open up their biggest problems to a greater community of people. “We think this is an idea that’s definitely taking hold,” says Robbins. “A lot of cities and legacy institutions always want to see momentum first.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.