A Fireside Chat with Debra Lam, Incoming Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director

by Chris Thayer

30-jan-17
Debra Lam (via Chandler Crowell Photography)

At January 26th’s IPaT Town Hall, CUI Director Dr. Jennifer Clark sat down with Debra Lam, lately of Pittsburgh fame and now the Institute for People and Technology’s new Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director. Previously Debra led the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance, which was in charge of technology, sustainability, and performance of the city government. In this fireside chat, Dr. Clark asked Debra about her vision for smart cities, the collaborative potential between government and research institutions, and the potential impact of the changing national political climate on local efforts. This article is a transcript of that interview.

JC: For those of you that don’t know, I’m Jennifer Clark. This is Debra Lam, who we’re welcoming today. Debra is coming from Pittsburgh, where she was in charge of what was called the Innovation and Performance Team at the City of Pittsburgh, so when we found out that Debra was moving to Atlanta, the brainstorm we had was “What if we had the person who actually did so much in Pittsburgh on the City side of the city-university partnership come to Georgia Tech and help us manage the University side of our city-university partnership here in Atlanta?”

Some of you have read some of the discussions about Uber, and how Uber came to Pittsburgh to pilot its autonomous vehicle technologies. Actually, Pittsburgh has also developed — Debra developed — an Inclusive Innovation Plan for Smart Cities.  

So, I wanted to start by asking Debra a couple of questions, picking up a bit on what Beth just said about the changing political environment. Some people have the thought that with the changing political environment, cities generally, and Smart Cities in particular, may fall off the radar. But there are other people who argue that cities have been leading urban innovation from the ground up for many years. As someone on the front line, how do you feel about that? What’s your argument for being an optimist?

DL: Thank you, Jennifer. First of all, I’d like to thank you, all of you, for giving me a very warm welcome. I think all of us here — I’m a huge advocator for city empowerment and just see that cities are on the ground and accountable from a purely operational standpoint, in terms of just day to day operations like cleaning the streets and fixing the streetlights, right on to managing citizen accountability and responsibilities like that. So that makes us really on the thrust of not only trying to deliver, but delivering well. And being on that forefront, I think that’s an exciting place to be because the scale is easier to deliver on, and the sensitivities of being on the ground makes us more accountable. Accordingly I’ve been a firm advocate of the idea that it’s great that there are these great international actors, and great national actors, but whatever happens at the international and national levels, cities are still going to be at that front-lines position. Earlier, we talked about how cities have moved forward, proving their potential repeatedly — and it shows that, I think, whatever happens at this national climate means that we’re still going to lead the way forward.

JC: City-university partnerships are emerging as one of the key vehicles for designing smart cities and developing the systems and platforms essential for optimizing urban systems and expanding access and building opportunity. What do you think technology-focused universities like Georgia Tech bring to this enterprise? What are key roles that universities can (or possibly) should play?

DL: So, first of all, are people aware of the MetroLab Network? Do you guys know what it is?

No? No, okay. So, for those those that aren’t familiar, the MetroLab Network is a national partnership of almost forty cities and more than forty universities across the country that have committed themselves to doing applied research. Basically, trying to matchmake urban challenges with real expertise coming from a university and applying them on a wider scale. We started with our own Metro21 Partnership when I signed Memoranda Of Understanding with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. And that partnership really brought research to City Hall — it basically created an R&D Department within the City of Pittsburgh, which had never existed. We had everything from internships to semester-long projects to graduate research projects to faculty-sponsored grants, all funnelling into City operations to be applied for improvements in decision-making and performance. And that was really, I would say, a turning point in how we thought about innovation, because it allowed us to essentially decrease the risk of trying new things, because we have this university partnership, and to fast-track some of these innovations into City operations. And then from that partnership, we expanded it and launched MetroLab Network at the White House a couple years ago, during Smart Cities Week. And today, it’s transpired into that collection of forty-plus University-City partnerships, two of which Georgia Tech and Georgia State are also involved, and Jennifer is in the lead here in the City of Atlanta.

JC: We were talking earlier about Debra’s thinking about a Smart Cities ecosystem, and articulating how we should be thinking about the different pieces of a Smart Cities ecosystem. I wonder if you couldn’t share a little bit about what you think about that?

DL: First of all, I think this is an evolving space, and I think it’s new and growing space. What I found really great, and one of the reasons why I thought it was a great match to come to Georgia Tech, was that there was just a wealth of expertise all around Georgia Tech. And I thought, there’s so much we need to learn in terms of expertise. I really think of Smart Cities as a bigger ecosystem that involves a lot of different parts in collaboration in order to hit some alternate goals. In this ecosystem, there are certain resources or inputs that’s required in any context. These inputs could involve anything from data to technology, software to infrastructure — these are your basic components that cities are constantly looking at in terms of resources that are required to build a Smart City. But then these inputs require processes in order to be utilized. These processes involve new ways to improve efficiency, new ways to engage the public, whether it is for stakeholder engagement or innovative financial or business models, to think about how to find or procure these inputs, that technology or data. There are these processes that could become better or more efficient, or could really, really be more inclusive in thinking about where and how to serve the public, or different sectors of the community. But once you get into pursuing these different inputs and these process improvements, they ultimately lead to: Why do we do Smart Cities, at the end of the day? What is the ultimate goal of Smart Cities?

To me, Smart Cities is ultimately to improve the quality of life for residents. You can think of it as increased resilience, you can think of it as increased sustainability, you can think about it as increased equality, an increasingly just society — all those are goals that we’re striving for. There are certain inputs, resources that we need, processes that we can improve, but the reason why we are going towards a Smart City and all of us are collectively contributing, doing our part, is because we want to make a better world. Call it whatever you want, but that’s basically it. And that’s why I think that as part of the Smart Cities ecosystem, it is central that we are collaborative and integrative in our approaches. It’s hard to put people or areas into a specific box per se, but there are some of us that have great expertise in inputs, whether we are experts in sensors or technologies or data, and there are some who are really heavily involved in processes like stakeholder engagement or different ways of making financial models, and then there are some that are heavily involved in looking at what a just society looks like, or a resilient city looks like. Together, we, and I can say ‘we’ as Georgia Tech, really are formulating a true Smart City ecosystem, with players in all kinds of roles. That’s what makes Georgia Tech really powerful, to me. When we put all that together, we can create a really good narrative of what the Smart Cities should be, and how we could be on the forefront of driving Smart Cities — not just for the City of Atlanta, but for cities all over the world. Thank you, and I’m really glad you’re here.

 

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