Connecting state and local government leaders

How Cities Are Leading the Way on Infrastructure Innovation

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.


Connecting state and local government leaders

“While states weren’t looking, our cities became better governed, better managed places,” said Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore.

WASHINGTON — City governments not only must invest in infrastructure to attract families and economic development but also keep pace with their own growth as residents move farther out in search of cheaper housing.

They’re innovating out of necessity and are becoming better governed and managed than state governments, former Maryland Gov. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is a MetroLab Network senior fellow, said on Thursday in the nation’s capital at The Future of Cities, an event hosted by Bloomberg.

The former 2016 U.S. presidential candidate was on hand promoting Infrastructure Week and stressed the need for greater municipal leadership on the issue.

“Every mayor has a certain amount of innovation capital,” O’Malley said. “Which is why most mayors want to be the best at doing something second.”

MetroLab, a D.C.-based organization that fosters partnerships between municipal governments and universities, aims to turn policymakers into pioneers of infrastructure projects—armed with data and analytics. As mayor of Maryland’s largest city, O’Malley was credited with launching CitiStat, a municipal performance management and data analytics program that was adapted by other cities.

O’Malley said that Baltimore residents felt a lot better about their city because CitiStat gave them a data-centric look at City Hall operations and performance.

Innovation is happening with physical infrastructure as well.

In the District of Columbia, which has seen tremendous growth in recent years, there’s greater stress on the water infrastructure regardless of its age. The median age for the city’s water mains is 79 years old. Some water delivery pipes predate the Civil War, said George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of D.C. Water, during a panel discussion.

Fortunately, D.C. Water already uses an automatic meter-reading system and is close to installing cost-effective chips that provide a core level of analytics on water quality in homes, Hawkins said. That diminishes the likelihood of a water crisis similar to the current one in Flint, Michigan.

While the U.S. is good about implementing one-off infrastructure projects in particular cities, it lacks a national strategy for such efforts, said Daniel Castro, the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and director of the Center for Data Innovation. As such, cities should explore public-private partnerships where risk is shared, he added.

Some city governments remain hesitant to break down department silos or push digital transformation in their municipal utilities.

“If you do something different and it fails, people’s health is at risk,” Hawkins said.

He recommends inexpensive digital technology that already exists to fix pipes before they break by, say, straightening them from the inside—saving ratepayers from spending more money on a system that’s only getting older.

Digital infrastructure can backstop physical infrastructure by identifying problems before they occur.

Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said his agency tries to actively steal good ideas from other cities and advised municipalities to take advantage of partnerships with regional universities, corporations, entrepreneurs or even cultural groups.

“It is important to create a center of gravity around a particular area that you’re trying to revolutionize,” he said.

That could mean appointing a chief information officer or another form of leadership, as long as it’s a good fit, upfront.

The District of Columbia government doesn’t go overboard with bestowing digital titles, said Archana Vemulapalli, D.C.’s chief technology officer. Instead the city focuses on giving groups the tools they need to be sustainable beyond any given administrator’s term limit.

Beantown has begun working with the Boston Area Research Initiative on user research, an outcomes-oriented approach to find out if residents actually like the services the city’s providing, Jacob said.

Cities can also “raise the voice of the underserved” by layering data, said Stephen Goldsmith, a former Indianapolis mayor and New York City deputy mayor who is now director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Big data inside government enterprises should drive operations and allow for predictive analytics, Goldsmith said, while data from apps like Waze is also integrated into the platform. An Internet of Things layer of information makes platforms even more robust, until you get to the point of cities like San Francisco, which is focused on expanding its digital network and in the process of issuing a request for proposals to provide citywide digital infrastructure.

Dave Nyczepir is a news Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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