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Showing off city's new Innovation Lab

The new penthouse on the 16th floor of the Municipal Services Building is like no other room in Philadelphia city government.

The new penthouse on the 16th floor of the Municipal Services Building is like no other room in Philadelphia city government.

Columns are painted bright teal. High-top tables with large flat-screens are ready to be hooked up to laptops or tablets. The panoramic view of City Hall and Dilworth Plaza is better than ever: The blinds have been pulled up.

And now, you can draw on the windows.

This bright space is the city's new Innovation Lab, designed to spur creative problem-solving by city employees and, eventually, others.

During a Thursday night reception to show off the lab to area techies, guests marveled at the concept of a city often tangled in bureaucracy inviting employees across all sectors to work together.

Joel Vardy, the consultant who designed the city's innovation strategy last year, was exultant. "Out of the 37 recommendations I gave them, I said, 'If you do nothing else, do this,' " he said at the reception.

Another guest, Mjumbe Poe, a software developer, said, "If they could have a real collaboration hub, it would be a huge success."

Those who work in innovation and technology shared similar thoughts, saying it was not so much the space, but what happens once you're in it.

"It's the people and the culture that make all the difference," said Alex Hillman, one of the founders of Indy Hall, a so-called co-working space in Old City used by many tech entrepreneurs. "Space is just a tool."

The Innovation Lab, touted as one of the first of its kind in the country, is supposed to be free of the usual government silos and a place in which city employees can dream up governing strategies that make use of technology. Markers are placed under the window sills so that the glass facing City Hall can be used like whiteboards.

For a city that still keeps many records on paper or in out-of-date computer systems, the lab is a step forward.

"It shows that we embrace change and technology," said Managing Director Richard Negrin, who has overseen the effort over the last year.

The idea took shape after the city was awarded a $1 million innovation prize in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge last year to implement a program that helps fund small tech start-ups.

Negrin and Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid started discussing how to make innovation a regular thing and not just something done ad-hoc.

"It was a great team concept," Negrin said, adding that people from other departments pitched in. "We kept improving on it."

The events Thursday included unveiling the lab's mural, which depicts a history of innovation in Philadelphia, ranging from Ben Franklin to the first computer, designed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. The 1,600-square-foot lab cost the city $115,000.

Mayor Nutter, who stopped by Thursday night, joked that Philadelphians love change.

"They grab on to change and strangle it," he said. "That won't happen here."

The lab will also host civic "hackathons" - in which computer programmers are given a municipal issue to solve. It's also intended to host neighborhood groups and get young people involved in tech-related activities, Negrin said.

But he expects the lab to be transformed over time as innovators arrive.

"If we do this really well," he said, "it will look totally different than it does today."