With the welcome of a new Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the City of the New York as well as a growing call for city administrations to use more technology and data to enable smart cities, we take a step back to explore the real drivers and constraints behind urban innovation in New York and around the world.

Columbia Public Policy Review Board Member Mia Jamili sat down with SIPA professor and political economist André Corrêa d’Almeida to discuss the case studies and lessons learned featured in his book “Smarter New York City: How City Agencies Innovate“.

André Corrêa d’Almeida is an adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs and assistant director of the MPA in Development Practice program at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute. He is also the founder of ARCx‑Applied Research for Change and a former senior advisor to the United Nations Development Program.

Note: This interview has been lightly condensed for clarity.

What inspired your research in New York City government innovation?

So the inspiration was actually two stories. [The first one] was when I was at a Smart Cities Council conference in Silicon Valley in May 2017. And during lunchtime, there were two gentlemen [at my table] who were representing mid-sized cities who [believed] that they were not “smart” yet. This made me realize that the challenge behind becoming a “smart” city is that this idea is being imposed on city administrations that may be bankrupt. They are too small to even engage in this futuristic ideal of “smart cities” highly driven by the industry. We need to build narratives that help mayors from smaller cities build innovation agendas.

Second, unless local governments come up with new platforms to address today’s development issues, the quality of life in these cities will not get better. All indicators show that even though, on average, cities may sound robust. If you stratify by different income levels, the inequality is expanding.

From the beginning, I wanted it to be a citywide research group. The book brought together about 30 researchers from 10 universities and associated research centers studying systems and realities that we all share. The motivation of the book is to understand how city administrations actually work and innovate without debt. 

Could you elaborate more on the connection between smart cities and sustainable development? I know they are putting it at the municipal level when it comes to more innovative platforms, but what does that look like in terms of having a smarter city also be a more sustainable and resilient city?

One of the main ideas behind the idea of becoming smarter is the idea of learning. If we focus on learning, we can tell cities with less resources that you can build with what you have. At the end of the book, the conclusion offers 13 main lessons and one of the lessons is “build on what exists”. 

If the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are about global partnerships and if city administrations and local governments themselves do not feel empowered to build those innovative platforms, I think we are missing something on how to fulfill the SDGs. That is the reason why the first chapter [of the book] focuses on the SDGs and how New York City was the first city in the world to develop an SDG framework at the local level. 

Based off of your experience as a former advisor to UNDP, how do you perceive – similar to smaller cities in the United States – emerging economies in the developing world adopting these innovation agendas? Would there be any other challenges specific to them that they may need to overcome when practicing innovation?

As the inequality within and between cities is expanding, my prediction is that if we do not find smarter ways of using artificial intelligence or think of ways of managing abundant data that can help with mobility, resilience, and economic growth, honestly I do not know how we are going to address the development gap. 

With innovation being a buzzword in industry and in government, do you think innovation has to involve technology? 

Not at all. The book talks about seven types of innovation drivers – tech and data being just two of them. And that is exactly the problem with this “smart city” conversation. One of the visuals in the book’s introduction proposes that we shift the conversation from a tech-centric approach to an agency-centric approach. Then around the agency, you can start having different types of conversations on tech, data, regulation, leadership, decision-making, and networks. Even smaller cities have talent and leadership that can set agendas and prioritize goals, have a legislative body that can be reviewed and  improved, and have networks already in place that can be leveraged even before we think about tech and data. The book gives a more inclusive and holistic perspective on what innovation is. 

If we talk about tech and data, there is a financial issue and a capacity issue because most city governments do not have the in-house talent to understand the industry. One of the things that frustrates the industry a lot is that when they talk about tech and data, they do not find the right partners to have the tech and data dialogue with. The other frustrating thing is the amount of money it costs to have tech and data. We need to have a realistic perspective on how our city can innovate. But we should be careful not to dismiss the strengths that municipalities already have. Imagine a situation where a city has a limited to zero tech and data capacity. If the conversation is about how limited they are, why would a mayor even dare to build that innovation agenda? 

The current Bill de Blasio administration in New York City has been advancing this equity agenda. How would you say government innovation increases social and economic equity for all New Yorkers?

In Chapter One, the One NYC plan featured in the book includes a very large set of social, economic, and environmental indicators and ways of measuring those indicators. The City went through a consultative process to have citizens’ perspectives incorporated when building the range of parameters to monitor issues of inclusiveness. Then in Chapter Three, LinkNYC is making broadband, high-speed internet more accessible to all New Yorkers in the five boroughs. Chapter Four talks about Business Atlas – an initiative led by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics to help entrepreneurs and small businesses access consumer demographic and behavior data that typically only large firms would have access to. 

Are there any agencies that you wish would have adopted more innovative practices?

The book covers twelve case studies in total. We interacted with 30 different agencies. The goal for the “becoming smarter” framework was never to impose the New York City model to other cities. In that sense, the book is very humble and explains that what we’ve tried to do is document how city agencies in New York are doing in terms of trial and error and in terms of finding the problem, designing a solution, and implementing that solution. It is not about how successful a specific program individually; it is about how much more effective a city administration can become if they learn about themselves through innovation mapping.

The book touches on the focus on analytical excellence and the need to strive towards that goal. Could you elaborate more on the importance of that when it comes to an age where big data is driving decision-making and how technologies are better utilized?

With the case of the NYC Department of Planning, their team’s work in open data is so under the radar. When you map innovation that is happening within the City, you are creating a very powerful narrative that mayors can use to talk about their cities and to talk about new innovation roadmaps or platforms without even spending a dime. When a mayoral candidate runs for office and gets elected, he/she usually has 2 or 3 flagship priorities, policy areas that they know really well. But when you do not know 50-80% of what is going on, you cannot think about new ways to leverage and connect talent or new ways to go about cutting costs.

What role do you think government leadership can play in fostering this innovation ecosystem?

I think that’s where partnerships with academia could play a huge role. Let’s just use the very specific example of the Chief Technology Officer case in New York. We have the [fourth] CTO in four years, and I think one of the difficulties is that someone had the idea that just because you throw someone to an organization to be empowered and capable of building a whole smart city strategy for New York. A city like New York will never have a single strategy for anything because more likely than not there are many well-resourced groups with strong political power. Help first map what is already happening instead of coming to impose the next new, great thing. 

In that case, the example of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) is fascinating. We’ve learned again and again to “build and they will come”, but they will not come. Therefore, MODA decided to become a consultancy unit for other city agencies where they as the agency what it is looking for and then help them to the extent that they want. This new vision of MODA to help agencies make the most of their data also has [them dealing with] issues of how to best standardize the data, how to publish data, and how to address data privacy. Instead of looking forward first, get to know yourself. 

Is there anything you think the private sector can learn from public sector innovation or anything the private sector may have missed when it comes to working with government?

The book was also prepared with a private sector audience – specifically their urban tech units – in mind, so they can understand how to better engage with the cities. Then for the City side, the case studies offer other city agencies a window of how these particular cases dealt with vendors. The energy demand response chapter [of the book] does well in displaying that. This was an interagency initiative which aimed at reducing peak energy consumption levels, and the collaboration between the NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and the  third-party vendor NuEnergen was incredible. We hope that example can give city agencies a set of benchmarks that they can use in terms of how the problem is specified and the type of assistance that you would expect.

We are no longer in an era where city agencies are the clients who [simply] hand out the RFPs.  More and more, procurement is organized around determining which the best vendor to co-develop [a solution] with is. 

Say I were a city agency with a fully capable tech team when it comes to adopting a whole new innovation lab as you have outlined in the book. What would be your advice for my agency to ensure we do not miss the mark when addressing a community’s actual needs? In other words, where should we begin when it comes to creating a conscious strategy that aligns with the needs of the local community?

A good example of that in the book is the chapter on Neighborhood Innovation Labs – Chapter 9 – that was contributed by the City of New York’s former Director of Innovation Jeff Merritt and the NYC Economic Development Corporation. The Neighborhood Innovation Labs aimed to study neighborhood-level initiatives that needed to be scaled up, so they institutionalized these collaborative platforms between stakeholder associations, commerce, academia, city agencies to collect data and make recommendations on how that community can better benefit. It is a good attempt to bring concerns at the local level to the mayoral level. Other examples of successful initiatives that a group of citizens put together were Vision Zero and the first Circular City program that we ran in downtown Brooklyn with startups and city agencies to build a new data pool. There is huge power in informed communities. There is a very strong tradition of [New York City] neighborhoods being very well-organized and socially engaged. That is not the same case in places like my hometown, Lisbon, Portugal. [There] it is much more politicized, so the communication only happens through the elected bodies. A lot more work needs to be done. 

The book is a contribution to help build trust between city agencies, citizens, and the private sector.