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Pittsburgh's Debra Lam on Bringing Her International Work Home

The city's chief innovation and performance officer discusses making Pittsburgh a world-class city.

Debra Lam was selected by incoming Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to head up a newly created office that merges traditional IT functions with the city’s sustainability and performance goals. Charged with helping transform Pittsburgh into a world-class city, Lam previously spent six years at multinational design and engineering firm Arup, where she advised cities around the world on sustainability in the face of climate change.

Why did you decide to come back to Pittsburgh?  

I advised a lot of cities, but I felt I should also be contributing to my hometown. Having worked with cities with different socio-economic development levels, geography, etc., I found that what makes a city successful is not so much development levels or GDP or even governance structure, per se. It’s really the mayor. If the mayor is willing to push the city forward, it makes all the difference. I saw that with Mayor Peduto’s vision for Pittsburgh, to make it a world-class city and create that culture of innovation and accountability.

Describe some of the lessons you learned from your international work.

The Asia Pacific region is one of the most vulnerable areas in terms of climate change impacts — both in terms of the population density and the scale that are affected, but also in terms of the assets — historic, cultural and the infrastructure along the coast. Yet compared to other parts of the world, like the U.S. or Europe, their carbon footprint per capita is not as high. They’ve taken a very proactive approach in trying to address climate change impacts. I’ve worked with cities such as Ningbo, China, on a local resilience action plan, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, on developing flood and water management plans and Manila, Philippines, around the same area.

We can provide a lot of really sound, technologically robust engineering solutions around the hard infrastructure, and those can be effective, but if no one understands them and how to maintain them, and there isn’t governance and leadership in place, it won’t be as effective. We worked very closely with each of these cities to build capacity and understand the local context and knowledge distribution, so that there is a much better understanding of how best to address this.

Do international cities use technology differently than U.S. cities?  

Most cities, regardless of location, size and economic development levels, have similar urban challenges and similar goals. Ultimately the goal of any city is to try to improve the quality of life for its residents. And we all have similar challenges: trying to optimize the limited resources that we have against a growing demand and growing responsibilities, and changing context. And so, the exchange of knowledge is really important, and I think technology supports this. I always say that technology should be the means, not the ends. A lot of these issues are beyond any one technological solution. Talking about people, systems, processes and structure is a lot harder. Technology can certainly support it, but it can’t solve it.

How are you bringing about a culture change in Pittsburgh?  

Internally we’ve tried to really empower our team to do more, to ask for more, to question more — just because it’s been done this way in the past, doesn’t mean that it needs to continue. For example, if something is broken, does it automatically need to be replaced with that same thing, or should we be looking at something else? That critical assessment is really important — this was good to start with, but I know I can make this better, so let’s meet and discuss how to improve it. 

e.Republic Executive Editor Noelle Knell is a contributing editor to Emergency Management magazine.