In the city of Pittsburgh, Debra Lam and her staff are taking the traditional concept of a municipal IT department to the next level.
Lam is the chief of Pittsburgh’s Innovation and Performance (I&P) department, which mayor William Peduto created in 2014. Peduto’s intention was to transform the city’s IT team into a more forward-thinking, public-facing unit aimed at advancing Pittsburgh with solutions focusing on, but not limited to, technology.
“It’s not just other departments coming to us for a specific software or a specific, shiny IT gadget,” Lam says. “They’re coming to us with a challenge and their goal, and we’re systematically working through that process with them and then determining what is the best solution, which might not necessarily be shiny new IT equipment or software. Maybe it’s about process. Maybe it’s about service, responsibilities changing, et cetera.”
I&P’s main strategic plan is the Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation , a digestible list of goals organized by six main focus areas including providing open government data and addressing the digital divide. Projects within each focus area are grouped into three “buckets,” to use Lam’s term: those currently underway, those identified but not yet begun, and those initiatives the department hasn’t even thought of yet.
“It’s a living document,” Lam says. “We’re never going to meet that vision or hit inclusive innovation within this one term…Even when projects are done, new projects will come in. We were very cognizant about not making a glossy report or coffee table book.”
One of the Roadmap’s six focus areas is promoting Pittsburgh’s local business environment. Lam says that initiative is key in Pittsburgh, a city that saw what she describes as “a huge decline in the ‘70s and ‘80s from a powerhouse, Industrial Revolution kind of status.” In recent years, however, entrepreneurship has grown in the city–and Lam says that’s important.
“It broadens the opportunity for people to become economic drivers and be financially self-sufficient, using creative ways and having greater flexibility to exert in how they work and why they work,” she says.
The Roadmap outlines several key initiatives to help small businesses do that. One of them is supporting mentoring and fellowship programs to connect established local leaders with upcoming entrepreneurs. Lam references TechShop Pittsburgh, a maker space I&P has partnered with on “maker parties” introducing newcomers to maker technology. And TechShop is just one
of a plethora of innovative Pittsburgh organizations I&P has engaged with, holding roundtables on topics like the maker movement and business accelerators.
Another of the main initiatives under I&P’s local business focus area is branding Pittsburgh as an “Inclusive Innovation City.” The concept of inclusivity comes up again and again throughout I&P’s work, and Lam says it originates from research the department did showing that many of the world’s most innovative cities struggle with social inequity, rendering innovation “a privilege or a luxury for a select few.” In the local business focus area, I&P seeks to avoid that situation with initiatives aimed at increasing
the hiring of immigrants and using partnerships like PowerUp Pittsburgh to create innovative new jobs in underserved neighborhoods.
“We wanted to make sure that the projects were addressing the whole city, rather than just the traditional, so-called innovation community,” Lam says.
Since she took the head job at I&P two years ago, Lam says Pittsburgh residents and her colleagues in city government have been enthusiastic about the innovative ideas her department is putting forth. The key, she says, is inspiring them to act on that
“At the end of the day, no one’s going to be opposed to improving the quality of life or driving economic development or diversifying our opportunities and base,” Lam says. “But people need to understand what that change is…and then they need to be the active drivers of that. I can’t mandate or fiat everything. That would be impossible and that wouldn’t be sustainable. That change needs to come from everyone.”