Transportation Department Hires Pair To Explore Possibilities
By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 19, 2023…..A new office created by the Healey administration is intended to “bring experimentation” and “different ideas” to the state’s department of transportation, which has come under scrutiny lately in the face of a litany of safety and service issues.
Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca approached two employees on Boston’s civic innovation team to pitch the idea for the new Office of Possibility, within the Department of Transportation, according to new Chief of Possibilities Kristopher Carter.
“Government works in sort of a probability mindset, right? Where you’re taking very little risk, you’re working with experts that are already known to you. So the theory here of a possibility government, is can we take slightly larger risks, knowing that not everything is going to work out? That failure is an outcome. But can we do that on a scale that is small enough where we learn, and we improve the thing until we get it right?” Carter said.
For now the Office of Possibility is made up of Carter and Deputy Chief Possibility Officer Jaclyn Youngblood, who both previously worked in the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM).
The city office was formed in 2010 as one of the first civic research and design teams in the country. MONUM was created to “explore and tackle experiments and prototypes” that cover topics ranging from “the future of mobility to city infrastructure to collective well-being,” its website says.
“The secretary was very interested in taking that ethos, she had worked with us at one point when we were running that office, and trying some things. She was like, ‘Hey, can you infuse that way of working into MassDOT? Can you think about how that body of work would translate into a state region?'” Carter said.
They officially got to work on June 20. Carter will make $160,000 this year, and Youngblood will make $138,633.
The office launched its first “prototype” project within its first four weeks — an extension of the work Carter and Youngblood were doing for the city of Boston.
MassDOT extended what had been a city-level program called “Browse, Borrow, Board,” partnering with the Boston Public Library to offer free digital content for public transit riders during the summer-long Sumner Tunnel shutdown that is driving more people who live north and east of Boston to the T.
Carter and Youngblood went out to 18 greater Boston communities to put down sidewalk decals that feature a QR code that riders can scan to access digital library content without a library card. The decals are focused on areas most affected by the tunnel closure.
“When we got here and we were quickly getting up to speed on all the Sumner Tunnel restoration work, we thought, gosh, how can we contribute? What’s a small thing we can do to be part of the team effort? ” Youngblood said. “Kris and I are not fixing the tunnel … We don’t need two more cooks in the kitchen. But what’s something that we could do that would maybe bring some joy and delight to hopefully folks that we can turn into forever riders, not just riders during the closure.”
As of last Wednesday, 1,632 people had used the free library content. Some of those are repeat users with a total of 1,868 QR code scans.
More people are using the free library access to read newspapers and magazines on public transit than audiobooks and ebooks, according to the office.
During a presentation on the new program to the Regional Transit Authority Council on Wednesday, Carter showed an email from a Massachusetts resident praising the project.
“We need more of these kinds of collaborations across our social services. Increasing access to knowledge without restriction is a noble endeavor. Please do not limit this collaboration to the duration of the Sumner tunnel closure,” the email reads. “Please also work with the BPL and other local libraries to bring this program to all MBTA bus and train stations, not simply those around the highway closure. With the current state of MBTA headways we could all use something to read.”
Carter said he hopes the program will give people something to do other than “doom scroll through social media” on the T, and help people enjoy the ride.
With their first prototype out the door, Carter said he and Youngblood are embarking on a listening tour inside MassDOT and the MBTA, coming up with ideas for their next ventures.
“There’s lots of good ideas … and I think we have a little bit of work over the next couple of months to figure out where we’re going to spend a lot of that energy,” Carter said. “But at this point, I think we’re very much in the learn and listen phase.”