When Bill Peduto took over as Pittsurgh’s mayor in 2014, the city’s construction regulatory process was still paper-based, but that wasn’t the half of it. Inspectors didn’t have office computers, or even city-issued cell phones. When they were out in the field, the only way for builders to reach them was by leaving a message on an answering machine. In an era where cloud data and mobile communication are revolutionizing the real estate sector, Pittsburgh’s regulatory regimen was “like a soundtrack by Duran Duran,” according to Peduto.
Since then, Pittsburgh has made great strides in catching up with the digital curve, equipping its inspectors with up-to-date gadgets and moving its permitting online. But as Peduto and fellow mayors Ed Murray of Seattle and Jean Stothert of Omaha explained at the Mayor’s Forum at the Spring Meeting in Houston, city governments generally are struggling to keep up not just with technological innovation, but economic and demographic shifts that are remaking urban areas and altering land use.
In the discussion, moderated by National League of Cities executive director and former South Bay, Florida, Mayor Clarence Anthony, in partnership with the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership, participants identified multiple trends that pose difficult challenges for city governments—but which also potentially provide opportunities to improve services, capitalize upon new economic opportunities and lift up distressed urban neighborhoods.
“As a CEO in Silicon Valley said to me, ‘If you’re using the same business model as five years ago, you’re probably irrelevant,” Anthony said.
One major trend is the rise of big data, which cities potentially can utilize to manage their resources more efficiently and provide better services to residents. Pittsburgh, for example, recently implemented a web-based tracker that allows city dwellers to see in real time where snow plows are working during storms. Peduto is so keen on utilizing such advances that he’s hired a chief innovation and performance officer, Debra Lam, to oversee and upgrade the city’s use of information technology.
“You want residents to have the ability to be able to see online if a ball field is being used, or when recycling is scheduled for this week,” Peduto said. “It should be as easy as changing your wide receiver in fantasy football.”
But cities struggle to provide that sort of functionality, because they generally lack the money that private sector companies have to invest in IT talent and software development. Additionally, they’re hindered by cumbersome legacy procurement processes that can’t move at the speed required to keep up with change. Peduto has sought to overcome those constraints through partnerships with the city’s educational institutions, including computing and IT leader Carnegie Mellon University.
In Omaha, Stothert said that the city funded an upgrade to the Acela software platform, which puts city regulatory functions and information online, by designating a portion of the fees from permits.
“The technology has enabled us to deal with things in real time,” Stothert said. “We can move forward quickly, as opposed to taking weeks and weeks to react to things, as we did in the past.” 60 percent of the city’s permits are now issued online, and permit reviews that used to take six weeks now are accomplished in just two. “It helps that all the different departments can look at the same plan at the same time online, without having to wait to get the paper copy,” she explained.
Cities also are still scrambling to figure out trends such as the rise in the sharing economy, as exemplified by fast-growing companies such as Uber and Airbnb, which are disrupting the taxi and hospitality industries. While they’re providing economic opportunities and new conveniences to urban dwellers, the sharing sector also creates a regulatory conundrum for cities.
“There’s an issue of safety and reliability,” Seattle’s Murray said. “And we have to figure out how they affect zoning. We don’t want neighborhoods that are just [taken over by] hospitality.”
Murray said that Seattle initially faced a culture clash when it came to Uber and other shared transportation services, with some residents wanting protection for the taxi industry and its unionized, largely immigrant drivers, while conservative free-enterprise types favored looser restrictions. But ultimately, when Seattle became one of the first cities to deregulate its transportation market, those fault lines quickly vanished. “Pretty quickly, the African immigrants moved into Uber,” he said. “The community adapted before the politics did.”
Another rising trend is the “maker” culture, in which small technology manufacturers and artisans make custom products. While cities need such economic activity to revive decaying neighborhoods and keep Millennial workers from leaving for opportunities elsewhere, officials face challenges in facilitating and influencing the spread of what largely is an organic, under-the-radar movement.
Murray said that cutting-edge entrepreneurs aren’t accustomed to working with government officials and seeking their help, so it’s necessary to be proactive. He recommended forging such relationships early, by reaching out to them while their enterprises are still in the incubator stage.
In Omaha, Stothert said that supporting redevelopment of neighborhoods by maker-culture entrepreneurs has created land-use and regulatory challenges.
The rise of social networking also provides city officials with new opportunities to engage with the public, the mayors said. Users of newly-created maker-culture centers in a formerly distressed area north of downtown, for example, complain about heavy truck traffic from nearby industrial areas—a problem that officials are still trying to figure out how to solve.