UVU launches office to explore innovation in government

Published: Thursday, June 19 2014 4:17 p.m. MDT

Utah Valley University student walk through the Sorenson Center on campus in Orem Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. Utah Valley University next month will launch the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which aims to explore ways to innovate in reinvent local government.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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OREM — Are you a city leader with a problem that needs solving? Utah Valley University wants to help.

On July 1, UVU will officially launch the Office of New Urban Mechanics, an entrepreneurial partnership with the cities of Boston and Philadelphia that aims to utilize the research capabilities of a university campus to promote innovation in local government.

"I doubt there’s anybody that is 100 percent satisfied with how government works," Luke Peterson, UVU's director of Corporate and Community Partnerships, said. "The idea is that it can always be better, it can always improve."

The idea behind the Office of New Urban Mechanics, Peterson said, is to partner with local city leaders to research and test solutions for making government more effective.

Projects could be anything from a more efficient municipal trash can to strategies for curbing air pollution, with students having the opportunity to apply research and develop new strategies that are then implemented on a city level.

"It makes sense to a certain extent to go work with a university, because universities are in the business of research and experimentation," Peterson said. "That's not something that comes naturally to cities."

Peterson said he has been working over the past year to set up the new program, communicating with similar offices in Boston and Philadelphia and hiring UVU's first cohort of student "mechanics" or part-time employees.

He said there are a number of engaged learning courses on campus where students complete small-scale projects for local municipalities. Students who complete those courses are then eligible to work for the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which currently has a staff of roughly 20 part-time students.

"As this next year unfolds it will grow substantially," he said.

One reason city leaders may turn to the university is that students are able to experiment with solutions on a low-cost, miniature level that is isolated from political fallout, Peterson said. Students have already worked with Provo to identify ways of making the city's downtown more welcoming for families, and he anticipates more projects when the office formally launches next month.

"One of the reasons government isn’t innovative is no one wants to fail with tax dollars," he said. "We’re testing and trying things out on a micro level."

The program at UVU is the third office in the New Urban Mechanics Network and the first to be based on a university campus. The three offices are expected to work together by sharing best practices from successful projects.

“Utah has a strong reputation for government innovation, and as a university we are proud to serve communities led by forward-thinking mayors and city council members,” UVU President Matthew Holland said in a prepared statement. “New Urban Mechanics will catalyze these commitments by adding flexibility and capacity to cities, thereby enabling them to operate faster, cheaper and smarter.”

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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