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A spark of innovation in a bureaucracy

By

Lucy Wong EMBA '17

What’s the most bureaucratic, change-resistant organization you can think of? The government.

That’s my world. I work for the New York City Department of Design and Construction. Before the pandemic, that meant I helped to design and construct the city’s homeless services, administrative children’s services, and the universal prekindergarten program. But when the coronavirus broke out, my job changed entirely. I became the lead for the COVID-19 testing sites for my agency.

NYC suffered the largest number of infections and deaths in the U.S. during the beginning of the pandemic. The mind-boggling public health emergency meant the city government had to drop all of its normal plans and build for a public health crisis that it last faced a century ago. And that required the ability to innovate and try new approaches. It was an unstructured problem – something the MIT EMBA program prides itself on teaching the tools to solve.

The Problem

The NYC Test and Trace Corps partnered with the NYC Department of Design and Construction to create interior and exterior pop-up COVID-19 testing sites. For the first three months, we built costly test sites, however I knew city resources would be stressed as business tax revenue declined. We needed a better solution to this unstructured problem.

The Idea

The combination of nightly applause for frontline workers and roaming ice cream trucks on deserted streets during the days of the first wave sparked an idea. On the one hand, I felt a connection to the community in my quarantine loneliness with the unifying 7 p.m. cheers and the 4 p.m. social calling of the ice cream truck song. On the other hand, I felt sorrow with a daily reminder of constant death and an unobtainable freedom as the song trailed around the block.  

It made me wonder: How could we enable an approachable testing site to ensure that additive deployable architecture such as military tents and construction containers won’t become the urban landscape? Could we instead utilize existing agile infrastructures to blend into the city, such as ice cream trucks?

My team’s unconventional idea was to improve the distribution of testing sites into neighborhoods that private partnerships could not reach by creating testing sites on wheels. These trucks are outfitted like our pop-up sites to create a greater impact with the same resources: heating and cooling capacity, electrical power, and the ability to distribute future vaccines.

New York Times article noted that 80% of tests were occurring in Manhattan – not in communities where people may lack access or be afraid of testing. Whether using step vans, ambulances, or ambulette vehicles, parking in smaller neighborhood main streets with the ability to change locations as needed could remove those obstacles.

The Framework

At MIT, one of the lessons I learned was the ability to understand problems, be persistent, and continue to put in effort during setbacks. This framework, from Roberto Fernandez’s Organizational Process course, called the “three lenses” involves looking at a problem through three different perspectives: a political lens, a cultural lens, and a strategic lens. To make our idea of mobile testing trucks a reality, I used this framework.

Political Lens: evaluates an organization as a contest of wills between people.

It took multiple stakeholders involved in the decision-making process to bring their interests together within three months. From ideation in July to the delivery of the first truck in November, the forces that push and pull decision-making meant figuring out who were the most influential stakeholders, understanding gaps together, and determining how to gain their support through transparent discussions.

Cultural Lens: reinterprets an organization’s communication of artifact and values.

The Department of Design and Construction has expertise in building construction sites, not customizing trucks. It is expected that agencies stay within their lanes and look to other agencies for expertise on things such as leasing vehicles. How do we bring testing truck to life with no precedent? This project challenged NYC agencies to bring together fragmented puzzle pieces to find solutions. It became a benchmark on a payment process.

Strategic Lens: understanding organizational intelligence to align goals.

In this dynamic time, testing site set ups are ever changing. These winterized trucks will replace storage mobile vans to continue to sustain the mobile fleet throughout the winter and additional seasons. During the design phase in August, we had the foresight to include the outfit of medical-grade refrigerators for future vaccines. The mobile trucks are designed for maximum throughput of micro communities specimen collection testing and last mile vaccine distribution.

We all have the power to drive change. We just need the confidence and frameworks to make it happen. They may even be powerful enough to change the government.

Lucy Wong, EMBA '17, is the Executive Director at the New York City Department of Design and Construction. She is the lead for the COVID-19 testing sites portfolio.

For more info Mike Miccoli Associate Director, Marketing (617) 324-8101

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