New Adventures in the City of New York

It’s a new decade, and after 7 years at frog, it’s time for a new challenge. I’m excited to have started 2020 with a new job, as design lab director in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

frog was the right place for me, at the right moment in my life and my career, and I gained a lot from being there. I joined frog in 2012, my first day delayed by Hurricane Sandy. 7 years is a long time, at least by the standards of the 21st century and certainly in the world of design consulting, but the variety of work, of industries, and most of all of teams and people, ensured that it was never boring. I learnt an immeasurable amount from my colleagues over the years, and together we created some work that I’ll be proud of for a long time.

Nonetheless, I never quite felt I was done with applying the process, mindset, and craft of design to the domain of cities, communities, and urban systems – a path I had personally begun going down with my thesis at CIID, taken further with City Tickets as it was exhibited at MoMA and the Boston Society of Architects, teaching at CIID and elsewhere, and at Urbanscale – the sadly shortlived startup that brought me to NYC, and allowed me to professionally pursue what had hitherto been a theoretical investigation.

I was also able to work on a handful of related projects at frog – we submitted out proposed reinvention of the payphone to a competition shortly after I joined; we worked with the Rockefeller Foundation on their 100 Resilient Cities initiative, running workshops with a handful of cities and contributing to an event at BAM; and most recently, I was able to contribute to Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, as a coach to the cities of Denver and Oklahoma City. That work, bringing a human centered research-and-prototyping approach to air quality in the vicinity of schools, and to the provision of coordinated care services for those in the criminal justice system, respectively, just highlighted to me how much I enjoyed working in the context of city government.

It’s rare to see job postings for designers or adjacent roles in the public sector, even as the world of civic tech and the concept of human centered, agile teams has taken hold in organizations such as GDS, 18F, and elsewhere in the past couple of years. I had not come across any plausible openings in New York, and then late last year, a whole handful landed on the internet, all at once. Clearly something was going on.

A few conversations later, I had a sense that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up; a chance to close the loop on thoughts from a decade previous. Some neat timing meant that I was wrapping a project I was proud of, with a team I loved working with, on the last working day of the year, and I wasn’t yet staffed on anything for January. Things moved fast. Some frantic paperwork, a bout of the flu, and last minute confirmations later, and I was cleared to start on the first Monday of the year.

The Seal of the City of New York

Change

As much as everybody expects me to say how different things are in government compared to the private sector, there’s a lot that is similar between some of my previous clients – especially those that were large, established companies – and my new employer. There’s the natural and entirely warranted risk aversion, the slow decisionmaking, the desire for consensus. The City of New York is, after all an organization with over 300,000 employees, and an annual budget pushing $100bn – all in service of the largest city in the country. There are plenty of incentives to not move fast and break things. that said, I walked into the office 72 hours before the launch of a major report, and the rush and chaos of a looming deadline was comfortingly familiar, albeit with the added pressure of pending mayoral approval in the mix.

Indeed, many of the stereotypes of government appear to be rooted in truth: the quantity of paperwork is ridiculous, the bureaucratic hoops to jump through for the most trivial of things very real, and the siloes are as separate as can be. The 20th Century is going strong, 20 years into the 21st. But so far, I’ve mostly been able to take an anthropological perspective on the organizational quirks and flaws that I’ve encountered – it’s as much an adventure into a new culture as a trip to another country. And where that doesn’t work, I’ve so far been able to see the comedic side of things, such as when I had to file an IT helpdesk ticket about not being able to view the ticket status of the ticket I had had to file by phone because the online ticket-filing form wasn’t working for me. The equally kafka-esque hiring system, established in 1883 by Theodore Roosevelt, has been a so-far-endless source of newly discovered nuances and oddities; you’d think that having just been through it, I’d have seen the process from beginning to end, but apparently I barely scratched the surface of the underlying logic of how the civil service system is supposed to work, let alone the reality of how it actually functions. In other words, I urgently need to brush up on my organizational ethnography and industrial/organizational psychology reading.

Something I knew I was getting myself into, but am still getting used to, is how decisions are made, and how rapidly (or more often, slowly) change happens. I’ve spent the vast majority of my working life in various forms of consultancy-type contexts, generally working for commercial clients (with a few exceptions here and there). I’ve very literally changed lanes from commerce (and occasionally fashion) to governance and infrastructure in Stewart Brand’s “order of civilization”, an idea I explored a couple of years back at the IxDA Interactions conference. At the Office of the CTO, we are tasked with innovating, ideally rapidly… but to remain part of, and to impact, the larger, slower, and inherently more careful bodies in this large organization. Our challenge is to find just the right balance so that the layers do not, as the saying goes “tear each other apart” due to the different rates of change.

The order of Civilization, from The Clock of the Long Now

Light in the darkness

But in amongst all the fascinating oddities and frustrations are also incredibly talented and dedicated individuals, with encouraging pockets of design capability and mindset, and innovative effort, to be found. I’m lucky to be joining a unit with the explicit mandate to bring new ways of working to NYC government, so I’m surrounded by people who want to do things differently. And I’ve also been fortunate to encounter people in a variety of different departments who seem to be ploughing their own furrows, in their own contexts – to have found the tricks and workarounds, and to have learnt that reaching out, and being willing to be reached out to, is the biggest trick of them all. I’ve found some that haven’t worked with designers who are excited to learn what that might mean; and I’ve found those who are themselves designers, or have picked up designerly ways by osmosis, who are keen to welcome another (seemingly) likeminded individual into the family.

Optimism

There’s an infinite amount of work to be done. Huge hairballs of systems to unravel, as well as boughs bent by the weight of the low hanging fruit – all with true impact at scale, if we’re successful. We’ll never have enough time, nor enough people, to do everything we’d like – but it’s exhilarating to be in the midst of it, and to be part of a team very much giving it a go.

Ask me in a couple of months if I still feel the same way.


← Back to the latest posts