Objective: This What Works for Cities case study profiles Philadelphia’s FastFWD project, a two-year pilot that challenged the city’s procurement process and created a new mechanism for entrepreneurs to test their innovative solutions to the community’s most pressing social challenges.
Major Participants: Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics; GoodCompany Ventures; Wharton Business School Social Impact Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Halloran Philanthropies; the Impact Hub network; Code for America
Background: “Government has a very prescribed way of thinking about problems,” said Alan Greenberger, Deputy to former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, in a video on Philadelphia FastFWD’s website. Typically, when local officials identify a problem, they will determine what they think is the best solution and then go procure what they need to solve it. In this traditional model, government is telling vendors exactly what goods and services to provide rather than inviting proposals for what could turn out to be more disruptive, forward-thinking solutions.
The Nutter Administration decided to take a long, hard look at these assumptions. The City of Philadelphia, through the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), teamed up with Wharton Business School’s Social Impact Initiative (WSII) to identify what challenge facing the City was most ripe for innovation. This “Challenge Definition” process evaluated issue areas based on five criteria: internal spend, internal interest, internal willingness and execution, external regulatory environment and absence of external competition.
After interviews with more than 75 city, civic and industry leaders, it became apparent that public safety presented the most significant opportunity to deploy new entrepreneurial solutions.
In March 2013, the City and WSII partnered with GoodCompany Ventures, a social impact business accelerator, to launch FastFWD, an “Urban Innovation Refinery” that seeks to recruit and support entrepreneurs in developing solutions to urban challenges – starting with public safety. With the support of a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, FastFWD would focus on both reactive solutions to public safety issues (Cycle 1) and proactive solutions (Cycle 2) with a focus on the connections between public safety and substance abuse, housing stability, re-entry employment, and youth and gang violence.
How it Works: FastFWD consists of a five-step process:
Results for Local Economy: FastFWD received applications from 137 companies from around the world; 10 startups were selected for the first cycle. The acceleration of these companies resulted in nine pilot projects and three contracts with the City of Philadelphia:
Another nine startups were chosen for FastFWD’s second cycle.
FastFWD also sparked procurement reform at the city level. Procurement processes are now more streamlined and codified; paperwork has been significantly reduced and the city plans to pilot an online registry for other innovators and entrepreneurs to directly submit their ideas for pilot projects.
Remaining Challenges: The FastFWD pilot that began under Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration is now complete, and it remains unclear whether there will be resources available for future cycles that would bring innovative solutions to these areas as well. Mayor Jim Kenney has indicated that MONUM won’t be retained in its old form, but has stated that innovation is still a priority.
Replicating a similar accelerator program in other cities might also prove to be a challenge without risk-ready funding. The Bloomberg Philanthropies grant lowered the barriers to entry for municipal experimentation because funds from the City’s capital budget were not at risk. Not only is funding critical at the outset, but it proves critical in sustaining the program over time.
Lessons Learned: Supportive local partnerships proved to be key in holding the FastFWD pilot together. From the outset, the team drew on the expertise of local partners to help identify the city’s most pressing challenges. Engaging stakeholders early on helped to ensure their buy-in throughout the process. Many city, civic and business leaders went on to provide discounted, low-cost and pro-bono resources for program participants. Building internal partnerships is as equally as important as those developed outside city hall: one of the most transformative aspects of FastFWD was the work by a cross-agency procurement working group that the Mayor’s office convened.
One of the benefits of having two cycles is that the first FastFWD cohort provided valuable insight for partners before launching the second cohort. For instance, startups need guidance early on to ensure they are developing the right kind of pilot to test with the city. In the first round, many startups used the accelerator to develop technology and then hoped the city would fund or invest in the technology. Instead, pilot projects should consider the city more as a partner than a revenue source. Companies need to be groomed before they apply to the city RFP, which is why in Cycle 2 each company was paired a municipal employee who helped in the pilot project’s design to maximize the startup’s likelihood of success.
To learn more about FastFWD, visit http://fast-fwd.org/.