Cities and towns across America face myriad challenges—from crime and criminal justice policy to educational and transportation infrastructure—but perhaps none as visible and visceral as so-called "problem properties." Boarded up houses and fenced up vacant lots represent urban blight, deflating property values and spawning a number of health and security concerns.  Even small to mid-size cities are experiencing this reality as the economy struggles to recover from the Great Recession. 

The Innovation Field Lab challenges graduate students to develop data-driven strategies to assist cities in improving social conditions.

The problem of poorly-maintained properties is exacerbated by city governments encumbered by bureaucratic silos, which are simultaneously struggling with decreasing public revenues.  But the Massachusetts towns of Chelsea, Fitchburg and Lawrence are re-engaged in the challenge with support from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) student teams deployed through the Innovation Field Lab spring module. Co-taught by Jorrit de Jong, lecturer in public policy, and Joe Curtatone, Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the mayor of Somerville, the seven week module offers students the opportunity to do real work on real problems in real settings and to learn firsthand about the practice of public sector innovation.

"We designed the course to stimulate problem driven innovation, attuned to the local context, with respect for the strengths and challenges of each city," de Jong remarked. "We used the cities as a classroom and the classroom as an engine for municipal innovation and in the process we learned a lot about the social issues and administrative challenges in Massachusetts Gateway Cities."

The students were organized into teams, taking several site visits to their selected city, and meeting with officials from across a range of agencies to gauge how best to understand and confront the issue of problem properties in that city. The teams were then charged with designing a framework for leveraging existing resources in more effective ways to remediate the problem moving forward.    

Emily Jones MPP 2015, who worked with the Lawrence team, called it, "a fantastic experience meeting, getting to know, and learning from Lawrence's local government officials. It was especially eye-opening and inspiring to see so many people in multiple city departments working tirelessly on the issue of distressed properties in order to improve the quality of life for the people of Lawrence. I came away with a much greater appreciation for the amount of dedicated people power it takes to make a city run well." 

Each of the student teams presented their final reports during the last module on May 5.  In attendance were Chelsea Acting City Manager Ned Keefe, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, and staff people from all three cities.  Once the presentations were complete, the city leaders responded with their observations and questions, providing the student teams with the opportunity to reinforce their key findings and recommendations.   

"Each of the deliverables were custom tailored to fit the needs, capacity and reality of each particular city," said field lab coordinator Nolin Green MPP 2016. "The students built off of each department’s current data collection processes and each city’s existing collaborative foundation. Each team provided valuable ways for the cities to better organize information, strategize priorities and address their most pressing challenges." 

De Jong praised the students for their efforts, and emphasized the importance of this type of field work.

"It demonstrates that taking time to listen and learn and diagnose social problems thoroughly does not have to preclude action: on the contrary – because the students took time to understand the local challenges, they built the trust and support needed for adoption of their innovations and actual implementation this summer," he said.

The Kennedy School's engagement with the three cities will continue, as four students from the module will be selected as interns to work with the cities throughout the summer to implement the innovations that were developed in the course. The internship will be funded by the Ash Center and the Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston

 “The Ash Center’s mission is to bridge the gap between research and practice, and our partnership with the cities of Lawrence, Fitchburg and Chelsea through the Innovation Field Lab provides a wonderful model for Kennedy School students and faculty to provide real value to local cities which in turn provide one-of-a kind learning environments for them,” said Ash Center Executive Director Marty Mauzy.

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