Smart Cities

The 10 largest US cities have innovation chiefs—here’s a window into why

Miami’s former innovation lead breaks down the role’s responsibilities.
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Joe Radle/Getty Images

· 8 min read

Just as all families have a designated member who acts as tech support, US cities are also hiring people to run point on their transition to the digital age.

The role is often called chief innovation officer, or CIO, but it’s not uncommon for it to be called chief information officer or chief technology officer.

While the specific title and responsibilities may vary place-to-place, the core mission remains the same: to improve the municipality’s relationship with technology. Responsibilities can range from updating legacy government IT systems to helping usher in smart-city projects, like running pilots on wrong-way-driving detection, or using software to manage crowd size and movement at public events. America’s 10 most populous cities all have some form of the role, with some cities, like Phoenix, creating the position as recently as 2021.

We talked with Mike Sarasti, the former innovation chief for the city of Miami, to learn more about the day-to-day of this role. Sarasti became Miami's first chief innovation officer in May 2016, serving in the role for nearly six years, until February 2022. During his time, the city also merged its IT department with Sarasti's innovation department, and put him in charge of the combined unit, which he said has 85 employees.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So what is a city CIO, and what does one do?

It depends on the city and the kinds of distinctions that they do or do not make between an innovation officer role and an information officer role. I started as the city’s first chief innovation officer, about six years ago. That was a team of one working out of the city manager’s office. My…two areas of focus [were] half process-improvement work, and half as a liaison for our local tech startup scene, a lot of civic tech.

So, what an innovation officer does—and, you know, when I started, there weren’t many; there’s quite a few more now—could run the gamut from, like, special projects for an elected official, to thinking about innovation as synonymous with process improvement as opposed to fancy new, cool tech. So it’s really kind of an in-the-weeds process-improvement role.

And then there’s the liaison role—tech startups coming into town, [the innovation officer is] someone that’s keeping up to speed with the latest and greatest tech stuff. My initial focus was around process-improvement work and promoting things like open data in cities, which would act as a bridge for people outside of government to be able to interact. The idea is that open data could serve as a conduit for people to get more engaged and be able to understand what’s going on and maybe build apps around that so that the government doesn’t have to do everything itself.

What sort of initiatives did you take on in your role as Miami’s CIO?

Probably the flagship thing on the innovation officer side was launching our Miami Innovation Academy. I expected [that], coming in as the guy with “innovation” in his title, that I was gonna spend most of my time convincing people that they needed to innovate, and that’s not what I found at all. On the contrary, I had people knocking on my door like, “So glad you’re here; now we’ve got this problem we need to solve.” There was very quickly going to be a backlog, because there’s one of me and like 100 problems to solve. The solution was, “let’s train as many people as we possibly can” to be innovation officers.

We created a program, we modeled it after Denver’s Peak Academy, we brought in Brian Elms, who created the program in Denver, which is kind of like a Lean Six Sigma-based program, but using a lot of design thinking and gamification to trick people and make it more user-friendly for them to learn these complex process-improvement concepts. It was a two-and-a-half day program. And something like 10% of the workforce has gone through the program. At this point, if there was an issue or problem that we were looking to solve, there was a kind of a pool of people that were trained to think like an innovation officer, effectively, you know, some of the basics. But that was a program that we used to accomplish a couple of other things, like setting up and improving the business licensing process in the city, which is something that our mayor really wanted to do…The first half of that has nothing to do with technology. The point was, let’s go through the thinking on this first, make sure we understand the problems, make sure that we understand what we’re currently doing today, before we even start throwing in technology, which can get really expensive.

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The third one that I think is probably relevant is lots of work around data and creating smart cities… Everyone’s like, “Oh, we’re gonna put a bunch of these sensors around,” which, yeah, that’s fine. But before we get to the sensors, our organization needs to make sure that we know how to manage data in general. We had no notable data management practice whatsoever; there was no data position. So it’s fine that you’ve got these sensors sitting around town ingesting a bunch of data into the organization, but if you can’t turn that into meaningful improvement, and you don’t know how to integrate this in your day-to-day, then you’ve got a problem. We hired our first senior data scientist, we set up a data warehouse through a partnership with Google, and we started building some pipelines from our business licensing data.

Why are we seeing the rise of innovation roles across US cities?

Honestly, one of the reasons is pretty simple, right? The city made it a position. The city decided that it was going to create an innovation officer role. And this is an incredible signal to the community that innovation is important, right? It’s one thing to say, “We’re going to do innovation, and we’re going to assign it to some random person in an office.” It’s a very different thing to say, “We’re going to have a funded role. We’re going to name it.” That is a named, funded position that sends a signal to the community that you’re serious.

Cities want to broadcast to their communities that, hey, we care about this thing, and you have a liaison. That’s sort of like step one. Now, a really sustainable, meaningful, scaled program is a whole different ball game. I would argue you still don’t have a lot of cities that have fully formed programs. What you’ve really got is, like, liaisons and advocates. You’ve had organizations like Bloomberg, philanthropies have funded a lot of work in this area. They funded innovation teams for years. I believe some of those programs have been funded, [but] then, when the funding runs out, those positions don’t stay in the organization.

So, you know, when you're making a choice—when cities are making choices between hiring police officers or these innovation positions—often the public safety positions will win out. So, it's very difficult in tough budgetary times to sustain fully formed innovation programs.

What are some of the challenges that arise in the CIO role?

Look, we’re running lots of legacy software, software that works, that we bought or built ourselves 10–20 years ago. It doesn’t necessarily warrant that we make a new purchase and replace it, but then we’re also trying to build modern API infrastructure on top of that, so that it becomes more interoperable with other systems. It’s a classic large-enterprise problem, not unique to cities, where you have stuff that’s been purchased at different times.

But there might be a  political push that says: modernize. That’s not a thing that you can generally do over the course of a year. So you’ve got the cycles of government, where you’ve got very long-standing employees and long-standing software, but you have kind of a rotation of leadership every two to four years, depending on where you’re at. So, managing that cadence can be a little bit challenging. We’re also not resourced to hire the way that a private-sector company might be able to. Again, we’ve got a long-standing workforce, and people that are very skilled at doing a certain kind of work. I can’t build the latest and greatest app. I can’t necessarily hire those developers at the rate that they’re going to be able to get in the private sector. I’ve got to get a little bit more creative. And I want to do that while also upskilling, upscaling [existing] staff.

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