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Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: Tech Is Vital in Leading Cities

At day two of the MetroLab Annual Summit, Reed said mayors must work with collaborators to create tech-friendly cities that appeal to businesses and residents.

ATLANTA — On the second day of the MetroLab Annual Summit, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed discussed the power of our specific moment, saying city government leaders now have growing influence on quality of life in the country, as well as unprecedented access to talented collaborators who are eager to do tech work that improves communities.

Reed, who concludes his time as mayor on Jan. 2 upon reaching his term limit, has guided Atlanta into becoming a smart city leader, creating a culture within city hall that values and encourages tech and innovation. Reed emphasized the importance of cities effectively harnessing tech, both for the sake of their reputations and for improving quality of life. Being known as a tech-friendly place helps entice or grow major companies, while high quality of life attracts the skilled workforce companies covet.

And this tech work doesn’t always have to be sweeping. Small solutions, when efficiently deployed, can have a massive impact. In Atlanta, for example, the police recently switched to a new tool called e-citations that allows them to write tickets digitally rather than by hand, bringing the time it takes to do so down to five minutes from 20 and helping officers get back on the street to do policing. Reed acknowledged that this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but crime in Atlanta has dropped 36 percent and the city is on pace to have its lowest annual murder rate in a decade.

A major key for accomplishing this work has been attracting talented people to government. Throughout his talk, Reed praised Atlanta CIO Samir Saini, often crediting him for most of the tech progress, noting that he himself does not come from an extensive tech background.

“I am not a technology expert,” Reed said, “but I understand that if your city isn’t technology friendly, you lose national and international prestige.”

Reed said he was lucky that Saini, previously a tech leader for MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, decided he wanted to use his skills to help people, and Saini really has been an effective and prolific tech leader for Atlanta, landing on Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in 2017. In his time with the city, Saini has created a gov tech culture that values gathering big data for predictive analytics used to manage city resources more efficiently.

And Saini is far from alone. While Reed didn’t theorize on a cause, he said more people want to help these days. They want to work to make the communities where they live better. Hiring them into city hall is a first step. Once the talent and expertise arrives, city leaders must then support and execute their ideas. That, Reed said, can turn someone who thought they would spend a year or two working for government, into a lifetime devotee who either stays in city hall or in the gov tech space by working for philanthropies or vendors.

“There are some real talented people who will give you two, four, six years in government,” Reed said. “Something is going on out here, people want to help.”

One potential cause for this interest is that right now cities really matter, to an almost unprecedented extent. Living nearer to urban cores has become desirable, leading to population increases in many cities. As a result, CEOs of companies that once negotiated with federal or state governments, now work with mayors. Reed described this as “a massive shift,” driven by cities having more capital and more talent to offer.

This influence can also impact how cities use technology to address issues often thought of as the purview of the federal government, with climate change being a prime example. Research has shown that cities alone can make a major dent in global emission reduction goals, and while support is not coming from the federal level currently, this will likely change in the future. If cities are engaged with combating climate change when it does, they’ll be in position to accelerate their work.

Reed sees Atlanta as a regional leader in climate change work. When New York City or San Francisco makes progress, it doesn’t resonate in Birmingham, Ala., or Tampa, Fla., as much as when Atlanta does, because those cities relate better to Atlanta.

It’s a big responsibility to be sure, but mayors have long been amenable to collaborating with one another, and that has only increased in recent years as tech efforts have accelerated. Gov tech collaborations with academia, which is the mission of the host MetroLab Network, are also quite valuable.

It was fitting that Reed spoke at Georgia Tech. He discussed how many of that institution’s tech programs were formerly located in the county, rather than near the urban core, and that they’d recently moved to their current location downtown. Academia investing in that area of the city has spurred nearby development, also attracting a hub of tech companies, co-working spaces and new housing.

Tech culture shifts, academic collaborations and society valuing meaningful work can be somewhat abstract concepts. Reed, however, also passed a more tangible progress test. Former Maryland Gov. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley spoke alongside Reed at the event and was happy to report Reed had passed “the Uber Test.”

O’Malley’s Uber Test is simple: He asks an Uber driver what he thinks of a mayor. Well, his Uber driver in Atlanta said Mayor Reed has been great. O’Malley said this speaks to another nationwide trend: an increase of trust in city government, one that will only grow stronger as data and analytics create tangible ways to display ways that cities have been improving.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.