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Pete Buttigieg

Mayor, South Bend, Ind.

Pete Buttigieg, Mayor, South Bend, Ind.

It’s not like Pete Buttigieg’s background screams “tech.” The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., who also happens to be running for president, got his bachelor’s degree in history and literature. He served in Afghanistan and worked at the consultancy McKinsey and Company for a spell.

And yet, in eight years leading South Bend, Buttigieg has carved out a national reputation as one of the most technology-forward, innovative mayors. There was the smart sewer system, completed with a local company, that helped the city avoid sewage runoff during periods of heavy rain. There was his push to hire the city’s first chief innovation officer, a position more common in larger cities. And there was his initiative to repair or demolish 1,000 run-down houses in 1,000 days, which progressed with a public tracking system.

So how did he get there?

“Trial and error, to be honest,” Buttigieg said. “When I first took office, the city was contemplating a massive IT implementation that promised to give me a grand unified dashboard of everything, and it turned out that was something that could never be delivered. Instead we turned to a more scrappy, improvised solution.”

His approach is one of pragmatism: New technology should fulfill a specific purpose, not just exist for its own sake. The chief innovation officer position should help other city officials work more efficiently and effectively. Data should be used not just to identify problems, but also people who are doing a great job.

“If they’re mission-driven, and a piece of technology can help them do their job better, then the people you might expect to be the most resistant about new technology will (embrace) it,” he said.

Buttigieg also takes pride in the city’s natural advantages. He struck up a formal problem-solving relationship with the nearby University of Notre Dame, for example. The city’s size, too, he regards as a gift.

“We are big enough to … face complexity when we try to solve problems in our city, but small enough to be creative; small enough that you can get ahold of the mayor when you have a solution.”
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.