Debra Lam is standing in the atrium of the City County Building, stately rows of gilded classical columns rising 47-feet above her. She smiles confidently for the photographer, a picture of someone at home with a new job, a job that has brought her home.
Debra, 32, is the City of Pittsburgh’s first chief of innovation & performance, a high profile position she is inventing in a role that draws on her far-flung international expertise.
As a member of Mayor Peduto’s executive cabinet, she leads a team of 70 some people working in the areas of technology, sustainability, performance and innovation for city government.
This puts her squarely in the ring with some of the city’s toughest day-to-day challenges. Working with city information systems and handling the 311 response line for things like pothole repair or broken streetlights. Finance, Act 47 and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority all report to her.
Aside from a brief stint with the U.S. State Department, this is Debra’s first job in the public sector. Her qualifications—her dossier is long on accolades—are impressive for her age. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of North Hills High School, she graduated cum laude from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and earned a masters in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.
From there she stepped onto the global stage, working for more than a decade for organizations around the world, including global consulting and design firm, Arup, the World Bank, and C40 Cities.
Her travels have taken her from Beijing to London to Hong Kong where she engaged in issues ranging from policy and socially responsible investments to sustainability and climate change. And she speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.
So what enticed this whip-smart, culturally savvy professional to boomerang to her hometown with her husband John? Mayor Bill Peduto, she says matter-of-factly.
“I’ve advised many other cities, why not my hometown?” she explains, sitting at her desk on the sixth floor of the city county building, home to the new department. “The timing was really great.”
She is eager do her part in transforming the city into a world-class model of sustainability. And that makes her a great example of the kind of talent and energy the mayor wants to attract and keep here.
“The next Pittsburgh is going to built by newcomers, including immigrants, just as the city we inherited was,” says Mayor Peduto. “While Debra isn’t exactly a newcomer, she brings great, globally recognized talents back to the city, and I’m working every day to attract more people like her.”
Debra points out that Pittsburgh isn’t all that different from other cities in the rest of the world. It faces many of the same challenges that confront others struggling to keep pace in the 21st century.
As illustration, she shares the story of a project she worked on for C40 Cities that addressed the flooding of the lower Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. Despite a century of flooding, the people thrived, she says, due in large part to their knowledge and understanding of the problem.
For a foreign group to sweep in with a studied list of solutions would have been disastrous, she says. Instead, upon arriving, her team spent several months meeting with local stakeholders and learning about the problem from the perspective of the people.
“It was a process and very challenging, but once we got to that point (of making recommendations) we had really built a relationship and had an understanding of the community and the people.”
She plans to take a similar approach in Pittsburgh, building relationships through a foundational process. The overarching plan is to work from the bottom up to integrate the “two Pittsburghs,” a goal at the heart of the mayor’s vision for the city.
“It’s the only way to make sure no one is lost in the process,” she says.
What would you most like to accomplish in the coming year?
My plan is to take a step back in the first quarter to understand what’s going on, what is happening and why is it happening this way. As I mentioned, I don’t believe in coming in with change. It’s really important for me to just absorb feedback and suggestions.
Many people working for the city have been here for decades. They know the city a lot better than I do. I’m humbled by their resilience. They’ve survived several administrations and have been able to continue to service Pittsburgh residents.