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An Exit Interview With the Woman Who Drove Pittsburgh Into the Innovation Age

Pittsburgh’s Chief of Innovation and Performance, Debra Lam, is resigning this month after two years of steering the city towards the future. Here are her parting thoughts.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

The Pittsburgh that exists in many people’s imaginations is covered in smokestacks and smog—a city of the past, not a metropolis of the future. In reality, Pittsburgh is increasingly becoming one of the most technologically advanced cities in the U.S., the testing ground for autonomous cars and other innovations that have yet to hit the main stage. Even the way Pittsburgh serves its residents is an experimental notch above many, as seen in apps like Burgh’s Eye View, which city officials created to allow users to spatially map where problems like build­ing code violat­ions and pub­lic safe­ty in­ci­dents are happening throughout the city.

Many of these new advances can be credited to Debra Lam, Pittsburgh’s first-ever Chief of Innovation and Performance, a role the city created and filled in 2014 to help modernize and futurize its operations. After developing the framework for that kind of modernization for two years, Lam is retiring from her role to join her family in Atlanta—her next steps still to be determined.

But she leaves behind a range of initiatives and programs that have made Pittsburgh a leading force in the innovation age—a legacy that includes expanding public wi-fi, partnering with leading tech companies like Google and Uber, and making the city a strong contender for the highly competitive federal Smart City Challenge. Pittsburgh will remain in the innovative space despite Lam’s departure, due to her guidance in establishing the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, a strategic plan for ensuring equitable access to whatever benefits should come from the city’s innovative endeavors.

And yet, some might feel that the future of innovative cities might meet some turbulence, due to the President-elect Donald Trump’s apparently fraught relationship with the tech sector. An upcoming roundtable between the Trump administration and tech leaders might change that, but uncertainty abounds. Then again, uncertainty is where innovators are supposed to thrive.

CityLab spoke with Lam as she cleaned out her city office. Here’s what she had to say about those Trump-tech jitters and how Pittsburgh can progress with an innovative agenda regardless of who’s in the White House.

Is the smart city agenda in peril under the incoming Trump administration?

Regardless of what happens at the federal or international level, cities are still leading the way. We’re now seeing some of the most basic [municipal] levels of governance leading a lot of policy improvements because ultimately [cities] are most beholden to their constituents. Benjamin Barber wrote this book, If Mayors Ruled the World, and that might be very extreme, but it really does feels like cities are leading the charge and you see that really clearly in climate change. In 1992, when the U.S. didn’t sign Kyoto, despite [President Bill] Clinton’s commitment to Kyoto, Congress didn’t ratify [the Kyoto Protocol]. That didn’t stop over a thousand cities from signing their own local Kyoto accords and putting committed carbon emissions reductions standards into their own form.

Are you concerned about the future of federal programs like the Smart City Challenge, which Pittsburgh was unsuccessful in winning?

We actually are moving forward on that agenda regardless because we’re committed to that concept. This means that we prioritize and hash out what makes sense to do given the circumstances. There’s going to be a new Department of Mobility and Infrastructure that has already been committed into the city’s 2017 budget. In the core of our [Smart City Challenge] proposal, we said we would create this department to drive this, because there isn’t a home for that kind of thinking an innovation. So now there will be.

What does this mean for smaller cities, which may not have the resources to simply follow through on an innovation agenda without federal help?

You have to think creatively. You’re not going to win everything. Or even when you win, circumstances change, and unexpected things happen. The whole point of innovation is to be resilient and to fail, and to be OK with failure, and to take that risk and accept it. If we were always afraid about risks, we wouldn’t do anything. I don’t think the uncertainty and scariness of what’s going to happen next year should cause us to stop everything and go running and hiding. It should galvanize us to do what’s right, and hopefully we’ll have partners at the federal level to help us.  

Like many Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh saw some voters motivated by the idea that new, emerging economies and industries are leaving them behind. How should cities deal with residents who are feeling that?  

In our own research, we show that innovative cities are often some of the most exclusive cities. Even the language around innovation—startup, incubator, accelerator—there’s a certain terminology that not everyone understands, and it could be a bit prohibitive. So we were very conscious that if we were going to go forward with a path on innovation, it would be inclusive. We are really trying to make a conscious effort when we were asking the questions like: Is this going to be impactful? Is this going to be inclusive? Are we making a difference? Is this something we can do together and try to galvanize more of the communities, neighborhoods, and groups that typically wouldn’t be in that innovation space?

Can you cite some specific examples from the Inclusive Innovation Roadmap that speak to this?

With our Connecting Urban Entrepreneurs program, which we developed with Google, Chatham University and Urban Innovations, we saw that some startups and entrepreneurs had very little digital literacy [in areas like] web presence, social media, online payments, and getting wider marketplace reach. So we created a program for developing digital literacy for entrepreneurs with classes and also mentors who could really focus on specific entrepreneurs and their brands. That kind of knowledge is like a utility, and you have to make sure there’s a certain kind of upkeep.

What about below the entrepreneurship level, in terms of the digital divide?

There’s a general assumption that we need to buy more laptops for people, but the latest studies from Pew and others [suggest] ownership of smart devices across all social demographics is increasing. The difference, though, is it’s not the hardware, but the data plans. So you and I can go home and have this awesome in-home Comcast or Verizon setup that’s fast and incredible, but not everyone has the same credit, or the same means to do that. So they’re working with a debit system, or their system is slower, or they use it too much. Or, frankly, can you write a resume on something like [a smartphone]?

So, we decided to open up more wireless opportunities. We expanded wi-fi to all of our senior centers, parks, and recreation centers throughout the city so that anyone could come in and tap into it. Not everyone can have Google Fiber come in and just blanket the city. We had to have a more decentralized approach that involves more partners.

The libraries have a really great system. The YMCA has a system. We have started to blanket the city with more hotspots. Libraries are now looking into renting wireless mobile hotspots like you would rent books, and that’s amazing: You can take it and now you have wireless in your home. It’s something other library systems have been doing for the past couple of years, and now we’re looking into it. It’s not 100 percent. There are still pockets that don’t have access, and even if you do come into the library or into one of our facilities, is there the training or the resources so you know how to look for more opportunities? That’s the stuff we’re going through now.

Pittsburgh is often described as one of the most livable cities, but there’s been pushback from people in the city who don’t agree with that, or who haven’t enjoyed that “most livable” experience. How does the innovation agenda affect their lives?  

It goes back to our Inclusive Innovation Roadmap, which is a living document. There’s a list of over 100 actions that we have committed to, and we haven’t finished them all, but there’s this third batch of things that we haven’t even thought of yet. As context changes, and as resources become more available, and partnerships made clearer, there might be new ideas that come in that can be incorporated into the roadmap. We were very conscious that it wasn’t going to be just a glossy coffee-table book that was static. It’s ongoing updates on the website, and ongoing outreach. We’re not hitting everyone as much as we could, but we are consciously making sure that we are checking ourselves and seeing how to incorporate more people, and making sure that everyone has opportunities.

Have the recent political scandals involving tech—Hillary Clinton’s emails, Russian hacks—made your job tougher, in terms of pushing an innovation agenda?

It’s something we discuss a lot. I think the very fundamental thing around technology and data is that its not 100 percent valuable. It’s really important to note that there are risks across the board—government and corporations. The main thing is to manage those expectations.

When you think about open data and the risks of it being jeopardized or compromised, it’s very important to be upfront and have this ongoing communication and be honest about knowing your vulnerabilities. But saying we’re not going to do this because of these risks just isn’t feasible. At the end of the day, innovation and the desire to improve is inevitable. It’s instilled in our human psyche that we want to do better and we want to make sure we are improving the quality of life for ourselves and for the next generation. If that’s the ultimate goal, you will always want to try new things and try to do better.

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