NYC[x] Co-Labs: Human-Centered Design and Civic Innovation In New York City

By Eliana Sherwood, Communications Fellow

“Cities are only smart when they listen to their residents.” - Oscar Romero, Program Director @ 2019 Smart Cities NY IDC Awards Ceremony

In New York City we are committed to becoming a strong, fair city through bold actions to develop an inclusive economy and thriving neighborhoods. At the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) we believe that such a goal can only be achieved by working with local communities to design a smart cities agenda that reflects the priorities, local needs, and diversity of all New Yorkers.

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Building Community Power Workshop in Inwood and Washington Heights, 2019

In 2015, in response to the Obama administration’s “Smart Cities Initiative”, MOCTO and The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) launched NYC[x] Co-Labs, formerly known as Neighborhood Innovation Labs. The purpose of NYC[x] Co-Labs is to create community-driven agendas on pressing urban challenges. We do this by leveraging the resources of the NYC tech ecosystem to serve local communities and implementing innovative solutions to address community concerns, particularly among low-income and diverse neighborhoods.

NYC[x] Co-Labs uses a unique and agile approach to civic innovation that is neighborhood-centered and community-driven. It developed from a recognition of the legitimate place of community members at the very center of the public policy design process. At MOCTO, we believe that technology and innovation are tools that can and should be leveraged to help creatively solve problems New Yorkers face every day.

NYC[x] Co-Labs work in practice as short-term, neighborhood-based pilot programs that go through five stages:

1. Community engagement

This initial phase of NYC[x] Co-Labs puts communities at the center of the design process. Through a variety of events ranging from one-on-one conversations, to town halls, expert panels, and participatory workshops, community members become directly involved in shaping the NYC[x] Co-Labs pilot program from the very beginning.

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Challenges to Immigrant Communities in Inwood and Washington Heights Workshop at Zahn Innovation Center of the City College of New York, 2019

The backbone of the program is the Community Tech Board, composed of service providers, advocates, tech professionals, academia, government agencies, and community leaders at each NYC[x] Co-Labs site. They channel their expertise to identify and research community priorities — pressing local concerns that may benefit from urban tech solutions- and transform these into Innovation Challenges: an open competition on specific issues the community seeks to tackle with innovative solutions. Wherever a Co-Lab is set up, a group of community-based organizations are assembled to define local programming.

2. Field research

The field research phase of NYC[x] Co-Labs creates a deeper awareness of local issues. At MOCTO we recognize that while technology is an extremely powerful tool, not every problem can best be tackled with a technology-enabled solution. Throughout this phase, the focus is on determining whether the local need that has been identified can, or should, be addressed through technology. We do this by dedicating a significant amount of time to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the local community and the specific issues they face.

3. Challenge design and selection

Throughout the Challenge design and selection phase, we concentrate our efforts on framing the problem identified by the community as a global call to action. While the previous phases have focused on the importance of creating a deep understanding of the issues that the local community faces, we recognize that in the globalized, interconnected world we live in, communities across the globe are facing similar challenges. By encouraging international cooperation and engagement with NYC[x] Co-Labs, we are able to reach entrepreneurs in other countries, learn from what others have achieved, and create solutions that can be scaled to other cities and communities around the world.

4. Pilot implementation and evaluation

During the pilot implementation and evaluation phase, we work closely with members of the community to drive toward lasting community-level change. The Community Tech Board plays a central role in this by drawing together a strong coalition of community partners to co-create, implement, and learn together, enabling MOCTO to focus programming on priority community needs. This cooperative and equitable approach, along with built-in flexibility during implementation, allows for regular feedback, assessment, and adjustment of the pilot so it meets the needs of all stakeholders.

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Villuminate the Block Pilot Launch at Osborn Plaza in Brownsville Brooklyn, 2019

5. Scaling and ecosystem maintenance

In this phase, we focus on using data gathered throughout the pilot to inform public policy going forward. We work to source lessons learned during the pilot program to create enduring change at scale. Finally, we encourage action on these takeaways for both NYC and internationally.

There are clear benefits for all participants involved with NYC[x] Co-Labs. For city agencies, NYC[x] Co-Labs enables them to deploy new technology quickly, to innovate with cutting edge solutions, and to serve the community by working collaboratively to find tangible solutions to the problems people face. For the local community, NYC[x] Co-Labs provides both educational and employment opportunities through networking, skills building, and enhancing the local economy. Additionally, local communities are empowered to take charge and have their voices heard through increased civic engagement. For Challenge winners, NYC[x] Co-Labs provides enhanced visibility and the opportunity to work with government, as well as extensive support throughout the pilot process.

We have successfully launched four NYC[x] Co-Labs Challenges at two sites in New York City: Safe & Thriving Nighttime Corridors and Zero Waste In Shared Space in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which launched in 2018, and the Accessible Mental Health Challenge and Housing Rights Challenge in Inwood and Washington Heights, which launched in 2020. Each Challenge brought together an incredibly diverse group of local and international stakeholders who have all played a vital role in creating lasting outcomes for local communities.

The NYC [x] Co-Labs challenges are successful thanks to our strong partnerships with city agencies, foundations, nonprofits, international governments, and technology companies. We look forward to continuing these partnerships in the future, and call on any foundations or nonprofits investing to challenge inequality; any technology companies or entrepreneurs interested in leveraging their products for social change; and any international governments or city agencies interested in learning about our process or partnering for an Innovation Challenge to contact us.

We are always looking for change-makers with a passion for civic service to work with us and help make these challenges a success, and invite any students or academics who are interested in this work to apply for a fellowship or internship position with MOCTO. Additionally, any researchers or academic institutions interested in developing research projects or case studies regarding the data and outcomes of NYC[x] Co-Labs programs should contact us at nycx@cto.nyc.gov.

Finally, we encourage entrepreneurs, technologists, and tech professionals who are interested to learn more about our upcoming challenges and participate in our upcoming open competitions by submitting their proposals to solve a specific problem of urban life.

To learn more about NYC[x] Co-labs or our work at MOCTO, we encourage you to visit our website for the most up to date and detailed information.

Eliana Sherwood is a communications fellow at the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer

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