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Politics & Government

City's Departing Innovation Chief: Inclusion A Must In Innovation

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courtesy: city of Pittsburgh
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  When Bill Peduto became mayor of Pittsburgh three years ago, he restructured some of the city departments and created a new one: the Department of Innovation and Performance.

One of his first hires was Pittsburgh native Debra Lam to be the city’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” Lam said. “We took the old city Information Systems Department, which was just an IT department, and (Peduto) saw technology as a means rather than an end; and he wanted to see technology as a driving point to improve the quality of life for Pittsburgh.”

After nearly three years on the job, Lam resigned this month and moved with her husband who accepted a new job in Atlanta.

Prior to her Pittsburgh return, Lam had worked as a consultant for several cities around the world on urban policy and sustainable development. But, she said, “as a consultant, we got to recommend stuff and then moved on; but to be able to implement the recommendations that I did with other cities, in my hometown was an opportunity I could not turn down."

She said her intent was to improve services for residents by encouraging innovation across city departments. Innovations implemented in the last few years included Plow Tracker to allow residents to follow Public Works plowing during snow storms; Burgh’s Eye View, a mobile app that provides access to neighborhood data; and the White House driven Police Data Initiative, which intends to increase transparency in police interaction with the community.

Lam noted the city did come up short on its proposal for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart Cities Challenge” grant. Pittsburgh was one of seven finalists for the $50 million grant to build technology-based systems to address urban transportation and transit challenges. 

While Pittsburgh lost out to Columbus, Ohio, which was awarded the grant, Lam said the city is still continuing to address transportation issues.

“If we’re going to do this, if it doesn’t include everyone, we’re not going to do it,” Lam said. “We have learned from our past mistakes. When we looked into public infrastructure and public infrastructure divided neighborhoods and segregated populations, that is something we’re not going to do this time around.”

According to Lam, innovation is about always moving forward.

“It’s not an end state," she said. "It’s not ‘Congratulations you’ve done innovation, you’re done, you can go on.’ It’s very much a process where we’re constantly trying to improve.”

Lee Haller will lead that ongoing process for the city. The former deputy director of the Department of Public Works, has been named as acting director of the Department of Innovation and Performance.