The city of Pittsburgh has codified the idea that technology is a means to achieve business goals, not an end in itself. By creating a new position of chief innovation and performance officer and hiring Debra Lam, an international sustainability consultant, the city is demonstrating a recognition that they need a new, holistic approach to city services. On Jan. 6, Lam took office alongside Mayor William Peduto.
Lam, who grew up in Pittsburgh, has worked around the world as a product manager and policy consultant for consulting and design firm Arup, showing communities what it means to be sustainable. In recent years, governments have begun viewing IT less as a tech support center and more as an integral tool to enhance all business operations, and in Pittsburgh, they’re really taking that idea to heart, said Lam, pictured below.
As chief innovation and performance officer, Lam’s job is multi-faceted. She is charged with overseeing innovation, sustainability, performance and technology, and specifically overseeing 311, finance and low-income accessibility.
“Technology is one of the important components, but it’s really the intersection of technology, sustainability and performance,” Lam explained, adding that it’s not the job of IT to just fix things for departments when they break. “We should be there at the very beginning, in terms of the strategy, in terms of how you use services, how you think about services, how you’re able to provide services.”
One of Lam’s focuses will be to ensure that technology and services are made available to all segments of the population, not just demographics where it’s easiest for the city to deliver those services, she said. In that vein, the city has created a new division and hired new officials specifically for the purpose of looking at “vulnerable” communities, she said. This is an important part of what it means to be sustainable, she said – it’s about ensuring that not only is the environment sustainable, but the people are given the resources and information to be sustainable, too.
“Pittsburgh has made enormous progress in terms of where we were compared to the heavy industry of the 70s and the 80s, the decline to where we are now, which is more high-tech, cleaner air quality and rivers, younger populations coming back in, a strong identity with the city – there’s a lot of improvements and the city has made great strides in doing that,” she said. “The city should recognize that but also know there’s a lot we can do moving forward. The mayor really wants to propel Pittsburgh to become a world-class city. It’s very ambitious but it’s not out of the question in terms of the possibilities and the potential that we do have.”
The city is now looking at version three of its climate change initiative, Lam said, explaining that Pittsburgh, like many cities, is still in the learning phase when it comes to many things. For many cities, sustainability has, in the past, meant carbon mitigation. Now, however, cities are seeing that they must be more forward-thinking; they can't just react in the short-term to the unfortunate reality of climate change, she said – this is one of Pittsburgh’s goals when it comes to sustainability.
So far in her position, she said, she’s been looking into the organization to see what resources the city has and how the city can best match those resources to meet the goals the mayor has put forward. An important part of this process, she added, will be to look at what other cities have done and figure out how that applies to their region.
“This is going to be a cultural shift," she said. "To have the team respond to this new vision is something that I think is going to take time, and we need to be prepared for that. But once we have the foundation set up, it’s going to be much easier going forward to be able to support the vision and the recommended strategies that come out of that vision."
Lam characterized her own work style as diligent and persistent; she says she thinks carefully and has careful preparations, which she acts upon. "It’s constant evaluation after you take whatever action, so you’re constantly improving, and I think that’s the cycle in my head of how we’re going to approach this,” she said. “We have to think about this from all angles, plan accordingly and be prepared for whatever situation or scenario, but then after the planning, we need to act.”
Lam said she feels Pittsburgh is an exciting and progressive place to be today.
“I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and what I’ve found about Pittsburgh is that it has such a strong identity,” she said. “People are really proud of it, and that’s something you can’t really institutionalize or plan or put an executive order or policy. It’s really ingrained in the people, and I think that’s one of the best assets we have.”