Chandler Crowell Photography / courtesy of Debra Lam
Debra Lam

Smart cities leader Debra Lam on making innovation work

June 13, 2023
The founding director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation set the stage as Pittsburgh's first-ever chief of innovation and performance. She was recently appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce's inaugural IOT Advisory Board.

Debra Lam is the rare leader and big thinker who is also a doer. The founding director of the Atlanta-based Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, a statewide public–private partnership that invests in innovative solutions, also leads smart communities and urban innovation work at Georgia Tech. Previously, she served as Pittsburgh’s first-ever chief of innovation & performance, where she oversaw all technology, sustainability, performance, and innovation functions of city government. And prior to that, she was a management consultant at the global engineering and design firm Arup.

Named one of the top 100 most influential people in digital government by Apolitcal, Lam serves on the boards of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta and Public Policy and International Affairs Program. Last fall, the Georgetown University and University of California, Berkeley graduate was appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce's inaugural Internet of Things Advisory Board. Lam spoke with SBT on her firsthand experience with smart city initiatives and innovations.

SBT: You have been actively shaping the parameters and potential of smart cities for many years. How has the definition of a smart city evolved?

Lam: At the beginning, a smart city was tech-centric and focused on local government, like the actual city boundary, if you will. It’s evolved over the years where, first, we realized that local government can’t do everything—it’s not the singular entity, and the community at large, the private sector, and the civic tech sector have a lot of agency. Some of the most successful work has been done by a coalition—researchers working with the private sector, the local government, and a nonprofit community group.

Second, a smart city is no longer about technology as a silver bullet solution. “Smart” often conveys a certain degree of technology. Technology remains an important tool, but we should really start with the problem. What is the problem that the community faces? What are the appropriate tools, which can include hardware and software, but also data literacy and business models that help improve the quality of life for the community and its residents?

[A] smart city is no longer about technology as a silver bullet solution.

The third area that has evolved is who can be smart. Originally it was a certain tier of cities: San Francisco, New York, London, Paris—postcard cities that have a certain development level and population density. What we found is that because [a smart city] is a continuous improvement process based on the locality and the local organizations, it goes beyond a certain tier of city. Smart cities can work in smaller, more rural communities; it could be at the neighborhood- or block-level. It goes beyond one rigid, large urban government entity.

You say the smart city now encompasses more players. Who can participate in its planning and execution?

Some city governments have a smart city director or manager, which is great, but a lot of cities don’t. Smart isn’t owned by any one person or department. It’s a vision and an objective that can be shared across departments: public works, transportation, or different participants depending on the problem the community is facing. It’s a collaborative effort.

Secondly, when you look outside city government, you start to see an expansion of entities. I come from the higher education space, where academia and research have played a huge role in advancing smart cities. Most cities don’t have an R&D unit, but locally, they have anchor institutions with tons of research happening. And these researchers are citizens of the community.

Universities have an incentive to help their city because it advances their research. The city can be a place to implement and try innovations and technologies. It forces researchers to go outside their laboratories and allows the research to advance with feedback and validation from the city.

You have the private sector, which has some resources, but is also incentivized to expand and develop the space.

And then the community at large—nonprofit groups or local neighborhood associations—all have a stake because smart cities are about collective ownership and shared responsibility. As long as you get more people aligned with a common mission, you will have a shared sense of responsibility—and a shared appetite for risk.

If there’s only one entity, then that sole entity is responsible for all that risk. But once you have a shared risk—something that everyone’s committed to and can accept—then you’re more likely to innovate, fail fast, continue learning, and progress beyond that one entity carrying that burden.

As long as you get more people aligned with a common mission, you will have a shared sense of responsibility—and a shared appetite for risk.

How have intelligence and technology been leveraged in systems and solutions at different scales—neighborhoods, cities, states?

Ultimately technology is great if it reduces the barrier to entry and empowers people to make decisions based on the collected and analyzed data—information they wouldn’t have otherwise. In the transportation space, when you have mobility-as-a-service type platforms, people can have choices based on their criteria. If I want to go from point A to point B, and I only have a certain amount of time and money, certain health considerations, and I only want to emit so much carbon, I will choose my mode of travel, whether it’s an electric scooter, a bike, walking, mass transport, or a single occupancy vehicle if I have one.

Integrated transportation allows people to have greater accessibility, convenience, and hopefully affordability to get to their home, place, service, or good. That’s a sophisticated, higher-end platform.

A [less-intensive platform] is data literacy. How does getting more information improve decision making on food or housing? Technology can benefit people in day-to-day life across the gamut.

What are metrics for gauging the success of a program or project?

A good metric is if you can institutionalize the project—that the project goes beyond the pilot, and there is enough energy, support, and funding to have it become common practice. But even if some of the work doesn’t progress, it can produce playbooks for others to advance. Maybe you’ve only hit it to stage three, but someone learns from you and then they can hit it to stage five. Then you can build off each other.

Continuation is an important metric. A pilot is about process and whether other people can continue and learn from that process. Other metrics include cost savings, environmental considerations, efficiencies, and ultimately if you’re improving the quality of life—whether doing this is better than not doing this.

What obstacles can the building industry expect in smart buildings and smart infrastructure?

A major barrier for anything is the hesitancy to change. The building industry has a “certain way” to design, construct, operate, and maintain buildings. Change that and you might encounter resistance. It’s easy to go back to what one knows because they’ve been doing it for decades.

A major barrier for anything is the hesitancy to change.

Like any best-practice project, get people on board early on, explain the vision, and communicate frequently as you need to. Be open and honest about expectations and progress, what worked, and what didn’t. The building industry has a wide range of people so bring in all the different characters and actors so they can contribute accordingly.

Though you mentioned that smart cities encompass more than city governments or city limits, I still sense friendly competition among cities when it comes to achieving economic, environmental, and community goals. Do you see this happening?

Behind cities are people, and people are naturally competitive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s competition, it is about encouragement. You see this in the climate-change space and carbon emissions. International groups from the C40 to the Rockefeller Foundation to the Global Covenant of Mayors are not only sharing information with each other, but also [offering] a safe place to share that information. When mayors are talking to each other and being honest about what worked and didn’t, that’s actually very sound. It’s collectively good for everyone.

Do you see this collaborative spirit at the global scale?

It’s been advancing, and it’s in part because cities ultimately have a greater role to play at the international level. Cities are the future in terms of where population and infrastructure shifts are occurring. But some national–international efforts are not as strong in terms of the available resources, enforcement, and the law. You see exciting, innovative things happening when you have a few cities working together to move forward on a common vision, such as traffic safety, carbon emissions, climate change, buildings, and sustainability. Because there are commonalities across all cities, there’s a willingness in people in those places to work together.

Tell me about the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation.

The Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (PIN) is a statewide public–private partnership that invests in innovative solutions to spur shared economic opportunity for all. We define inclusive innovation as increasing access and opportunities for innovation. But innovation isn’t the end state—it’s a way to think about economic and community development. With our structure as a public–private partnership, we have representation in the public, private, state, and academic sectors not only in resources, but also in decision making. It’s very much shared, which means if one individual or entity leaves, the institution survives.

We are also statewide: We go beyond one singular city or region. We were intentional about that because, as much as we want cities to grow, we want the whole state—and its many cities, localities big, small, rural, and urban—to grow. It’s a bit harder [to oversee], but if the state is stronger, everyone in it thrives.

The final piece of what we do is our research and opportunities. We have four pillars—student engagement, workforce development, economic opportunities, and community research—that drive our investments and programs. We’re a cross between a foundation and think-and-do tank.

What are some of PIN’s current projects?

Our work ranges in terms of projects and scale, but all are around innovation for shared economic success. We have a summer student internship program that tackles three layers of intersectionality. We team students of any year, any major, and any university together to work on a civic-tech, inclusive innovation research project.

Another project looks at climate resilience on the Georgia coast using smart sea-level sensors in an open-source platform whose data and analysis feed into emergency planning and policy. Researchers and local governments are involved, but also local nonprofits and schools, which have incorporated the project into curriculum on climate change for third graders. Then a high school STEAM class worked to build the smart sea-level sensor prototype.

What innovations has PIN made in structuring public–private partnerships?

Most people know P3s as a specific legal term that has been used in financing large infrastructure, such as bridges, dams, or major roads. We see a public–private partnership as spanning relationships beyond a singular infrastructure project. It’s about a group of stakeholders that are making progress in physical infrastructure, but also in social and even virtual infrastructure, such as in common data, security, and privacy. PIN goes beyond a single infrastructure project to [foster] a series of projects for long-term generational change.

We see a public–private partnership as spanning relationships beyond a singular infrastructure project.

Last fall, you were appointed to the Department of Commerce’s Internet of Things Advisory Board. Describe your efforts.

We are still in the thick of things, but the goal is to advise the federal government on accelerating IOT development and adoption in critical sectors and addressing the digital divide. It is a great group of experts and partitioners who care. The final report will be shared by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Stay tuned.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. This article has been updated since first publication to use the acronym PIN in reference to Partnership for Inclusive Innovation.

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About the Author

Wanda Lau | Editorial Director

Wanda Lau is the editorial director of Smart Buildings Technology, LEDs Magazine, and Architectural SSL. She is an award-winning editor, writer, and podcaster whose work appears in several publications, including Architectural Lighting and Architect, where she was most recently the executive editor. In 2021, she was named one of Folio: and AdMonsters' Top Women in Media, in the DEI Champions category. Along with working a decade in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, she holds a B.S. in civil engineering from Michigan State University, an S.M. in building technology from MIT, and an M.A. in journalism from Syracuse University.

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