Making Pittsburgh grow: One goal Debra Lam hopes to accomplish


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In a winding career path that has bounced from Washington, D.C., to Beijing and back, Debra Lam couldn't help but notice cities on opposite ends of the globe struggling with similar issues related to change and development.

In Asian cities, officials are upgrading infrastructure and properties to accommodate a growing middle class ready to move from farms to urban areas.

Among European Union member states -- which must present plans to make public properties more energy efficient by the end of next April -- the idea of retrofitting older structures and technologies with new products has taken hold.

In Pittsburgh, where Mrs. Lam, 32, will jump in as Mayor-elect Bill Peduto's new chief innovation and performance officer next month, the idea is to combine overseas strategies with the aid of local, regional and even remote stakeholders to create a true model for sustainable development. The newly created position follows in the footsteps of cities such as Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, both of which have city departments dedicated toward sustainable development and innovation.

Mrs. Lam is ambitious but pragmatic, as well.

"It's important to think about two things when it comes to sustainability. Whether it's air quality, water quality, energy transfer issues, climate change -- control over that doesn't just lie within a city administrator's jurisdiction," she said.

"When it comes to sustainability, we need a wider effort, so the city should definitely take the lead and serve as a model but must also acknowledge that [true sustainability] can't be done by itself."

Transforming Pittsburgh into a world-class model of sustainability is only one of her goals. The North Hills native has more than 10 years of experience working with government and nonprofit organizations, including work on projects designed to encourage socially responsible investments.

And her responsibilities will be far-reaching.

Mrs. Lam will oversee technology, sustainability, performance and innovation within city government -- roles that put her in charge of everything from City Information Systems such as the website, the 311 service where residents can send direct complaints, the Act 47 distressed communities program, and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees city finances.

She hasn't lived in the region since she set off for Georgetown University in 1999 -- one of her jobs was as an environmental sustainability expert for a London consulting firm -- but she's excited to be part of a team she believes is motivated to create what could serve as a model for the future of city planning.

"Most of the challenges are pretty universal in terms of what issues cities face in terms of sustainability," she said. "One of the key differences is the mayor. If the mayor has that vision and the mayor is committed to that transformation, that makes all of the difference."

For his part, Mr. Peduto said he is excited the administration found someone with such extensive experience who also has a personal stake in seeing the city grow.

"Debra Lam is a global expert in helping governments become more innovative. I am pleased that she has agreed to return home to help lead the transformation of city government," said Mr. Peduto in an email statement.

His new employee believes the surest path toward cities that use resources in ways that best suit an ever-changing pool of residents lies in three ideas: infrastructure, institutions and information.

Hard infrastructure issues such as roads and bridge repairs are issues that Pittsburghers see being addressed in a seemingly ongoing cycle. Mrs. Lam believes even those problems can arise less often with better research and forward-thinking that comes when cities partner with local institutions.

The idea of partnerships for the city's greater good also extends to residents, Mrs. Lam said.

She didn't say exactly what new tools users could see on the city website soon, but said she hopes to increase the amount of digital data available so citizens can see how their personal activities or properties can help or hinder a plan for sustainable development.

She also is open to the idea of using resident-created civic technologies such as smartphone apps or website plug-ins to increase engagement and provide solutions.

For Mrs. Lam, the city's future of collaboration has already begun. As she prepares to move back into the city and dive into her new position, she has been leaning on members of Mr. Peduto's transition teams to fill her in on key issues facing the city.

Talks with the transition team have become her first point of engagement with city stakeholders, but she said her goal to fulfill Mr. Peduto's vision will make it far from her last.

"The vision I think Mayor-elect Peduto has is to transform Pittsburgh into a world-class city and to do that by fostering a culture of innovation, sustainability and accountability in all sectors of society," she said.


Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.

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