Smart Cities

Boston has a new innovation chief—here’s his vision for the city

He was previously CIO of Pittsburgh and South Bend.
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Patrick Perry/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Just like any other role in most city governments, chief innovation officers take their cues from the mayor.

Few understand that better than Santiago Garces, who became CIO of Boston in May 2022, after serving stints as CIO in both Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and South Bend, Indiana.

Garces created South Bend’s Department of Innovation and Technology during his tenure from 2014 to 2018, before becoming CIO of Pittsburgh from 2018 to 2020. Now, he’s working with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who assumed office in November 2021.

Garces and Wu have mapped out an extensive digital equity plan centered around expanding broadband access, improving transportation access, building telehealth infrastructure, and expanding public wi-fi coverage.

We talked to Garces about the relationship between innovation chiefs and mayors, and how he has navigated the responsibilities of the role and the priorities of the mayors in his career.

What is the vision for Boston? What are you hoping to deliver that is unique or new to the city?

I think that Boston has a unique opportunity to do…a digital transformation that has the residents in mind, which is very difficult. And I think that [in] most places, the way that you do it is you carve out a little bit of a team to focus on that while everybody else is kind of managing this legacy infrastructure. The big thing that we’re going to try to do is flip the script a little bit and say, “In fact, for this to be successful, we have to change the way that all of it works.” We have to be able to have a good strategy that allows us to deal all the way from the cutting edge to the legacy systems. None of this works unless we’re literally thinking about reconfiguring how the city works…I think that the scale is really complicated.

How important is the mayoral relationship with the CIO in getting objectives across the line?

It is really important to understand what it is that she’s trying to do, so that we focus our energy in the areas that are of interest to her, that we are able to do things in a way that brings up the values of the mayor. I’ve had the pleasure of working for four mayors…Each one has different work styles—has different things that they value. It’s not only the objective, but you also want to make sure that you’re resonating with the way that they would want you to do it, and so having a good relationship is really important.

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One of the things that attracted me to the job here is that the CIO position reports directly to the mayor. That’s been the case in my experience in South Bend and Pittsburgh as well. I think that it makes it so much better if you know what that vision is so that you can support it and that you have a close relationship so that you align your resources to deliver that.

What is Boston’s vision for implementing the digital equity plan?

Digital equity is directly tied to what is important around digital transformation, because if we create great digital experiences for residents but a subset of those residents are unable to access those experiences—not because they choose not to, but because they cannot afford them, or because they don’t have access to the tools, or the skills, or the devices to do it—then we’re not doing a good job.

The way that we think about it in Boston is that the pandemic really changed the discussion around digital equity. Pre-pandemic digital equity was always an important issue, but I don’t think that it was the top issue that most people thought about. During the pandemic, because people had to be isolated and separated physically from one another, having access to digital tools to be able to stay connected with their education, with their employment, with their healthcare, with their government, became so essential. The ability to pay your taxes online became a life safety matter. Having to stand in line to pay your taxes added risk to you. Digital experiences all of a sudden went from “Oh, it’s convenient,” or “it’s smart,” or “it’s nice,” to “it’s kind of essential,” right? I think that part of what we need to do, what we’re doing in Boston, is looking at this post-pandemic world where we—society, not just the city governments—will never be able to think about digital experiences as just, like, an afterthought. It at any moment can become a primary lifeline of how people do work, and to the extent that we have the right resources and the right tools as a society to do that, we will be better off.

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