The National Security Agency’s spying seems to demonstrate a scary Orwellian marriage of big government and awesome electronic power. But the City of Boston’s computing innovations, spearheaded by the Office of New Urban Mechanics, are warmer and more empowering, more Wall-E than HAL. As Mayor Marty Walsh contemplates the city’s future, he should embrace and expand Tom Menino’s commitment to computing on a human scale, because the speed and power of the Internet and the convenience of mobile phones increasingly inform residents’ expectations how everything else, including government, ought to operate.
Mayor Menino managed to combine old-school urban leadership with a remarkable — but selective — openness to transformative technology. Menino disliked innovation, such as answering machines, that he feared would depersonalize government, but he loved the energy of young talent. Nowhere was that talent more obvious than in the Office of the New Urban Mechanics. Its co-chairs, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, were two of Governing Magazine’s public officials of the year in 2011. (A disclosure of sorts: The Rappaport Institute, which I direct, has been lucky enough to collaborate with that office over the years.) The office’s name is a play on the sobriquet given to Menino because of his desire to focus on the humble basics of urban government.