University at Albany

Making Cities Smarter

When there’s a need to enlist the A-Team of digital government research on the topic of smart cities, a call should go out to Rockefeller professors Theresa A. Pardo and J. Ramon Gil-Garcia. Their work in developing a body of academic knowledge and practice on smart cities is known around the globe by colleagues immersed in urban research and by government administrators anxious to optimize the possibilities and overcome the challenges of 21st century city life. Harnessing the potential of technology and identifying how best to channel it to help cities become smarter, by operating more openly, effectively and efficiently, is at the heart of CTG’s Governing the City Program.

Kamiar Alaei Kamiar Alaei
Theresa Pardo, PhD J. Ramon Gil-Garcia, PhD

The two are experts in making technology work for government. “Our program is about helping city governments, and those they work with, understand what has to happen across the board both inside and outside of government, before a particular technology can actually create public value,” says Pardo, director of the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government (CTG) and world-renowned pioneer in helping governments improve the way they serve citizens and society through innovations in policy, management, and technology. Pardo’s colleague CTG Research Director Dr. J. Ramon Gil-Garcia, considered one of the most prolific scholars in the field of information technology in government, describes his research focus as “the intersection of institutional theory, organizational analyses and the use of information technologies.” Gil-Garcia is also an early practitioner and leading proponent of partial least squares regression analysis in digital government research, a powerful statistical technique that allows the researcher to look at multiple variables simultaneously. As Gil-Garcia remarks, “Many things affect many things.”

CTG’s Governing the City Program arose from a National Science Foundation grant to build the international digital government research community. “One of the priorities of the Center for Technology in Government has always been the development of a community of folks around the world who identify themselves as digital government research scientists. From the beginning, our vision was to be part of a community that was actively creating that space, defining it, and refining it,” recalls Pardo, who is currently serving as president of the Digital Government Society, a global, multidisciplinary organization of scholars and practitioners interested in the development and impacts of digital government.

CTG used the grant to fund three global networks, including the North American Digital Government Working Group, whose members were interested in comparative work on issues facing the U.S., Mexico and Canada. “That group found there was increasing pressure on cities, with the expectation that going forward, cities would become the center of population activity around the world,” Pardo explains. “The question became how might technology support city-level strategies to cope with pressing demands.” One solution, gathering momentum globally, was to make cities “smarter.” In a unique move, and working in partnership with colleagues around the world, CTG spent over a year studying what “smart cities” meant to authors, researchers, and planners and then built a consistent conceptual framework to support the research conversation. This work garnered global attention and Pardo notes, “We led the formation of a new kind of consortium of research teams based at urban universities around the world who are actively engaged in city-oriented research.” The Smart Cities Smart Governments Consortium continues to grow. “We have colleagues around the world in Latin America, Asia, Europe, Canada, and the U.S. using similar instruments to collect data and in the near future we’ll be able to do comparative analyses among many different cities,” adds Dr. Gil-Garcia.

On the most practical level, CTG’s pioneering efforts with cities involve working with city officials to determine how public sector technology innovation can make a difference in the operations of a city and the lives of its residents. One of the many important problems city officials face is urban blight, which Pardo describes as “multiple deteriorated and vacant buildings in a particular neighborhood, a particular block, in a particular city. The consequences of this downcycle include both high direct and indirect costs for the city.”

In an effort funded by the New York State Department of State, CTG is working with New York State’s Capital District cities to create new capability to address urban blight. Cities are working towards sharing information and aligning certain practices so that together they can combat blight. In many cases currently, property and coderelated data is collected and used within a specific city but that information is not actively shared with other jurisdictions. Data on property owners and their record of code compliance is critical data that cities (in the Capital Region and throughout New York State) want to share on a regular basis. “CTG is unique in that our urban blight project is designed to assist cities as they reconsider approaches to code enforcement and to look at the underlying business processes and information flow to create digital data that can be shared, while always keeping in mind there are policy issues that must be attended to,” says Dr. Pardo. CTG’s efforts also integrate an understanding of the interconnectedness of municipalities and the commonality of their problems. “There are relationships among neighboring cities. We want to expand the concept of smart cities to smart metropolitan areas in which all the different cities and towns can help each other,” Gil- Garcia points out. “The project with the Capital Region cities is generating a lot of attention,” reports Pardo. “Our focus on data and the underlying flow of that data from the point of collection to use, for compliance monitoring certainly, but also for many other government business processes, is unique. We’ve been asked to share the approach at a wide range of conferences and to explore the design of a statewide information-sharing model.”

The Governing the City Program that Pardo and Gil-Garcia spearhead reflects the value CTG places on combining academic research, consulting, training, and teaching and CTG’s commitment to excellence. Gil-Garcia proudly emphasizes, “Three of the top 10 scholars in digital government are here at CTG — Theresa, CTG’s founding director Sharon Dawes, and myself. We’re also the core faculty of Rockefeller College’s nationally ranked Information Strategy and Management concentration. We’ve worked hard to connect our academic research and consulting in a way that enables us to grow our knowledge and transform government service by changing the way people think about the use of information and information technology in government.” For cities, that means the future is looking smarter.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 Rockefeller College News Magazine.