Why Cities Are Hiring Chief Innovation Officers

Big Data and analytics will fundamentally change how public services are produced and consumed in urban areas over the next few years, and many cities expect the Chief Innovation Officer to figure out how best to adapt to this fast-evolving landscape.

Chief Innovation Officer

The role of a Chief Innovation Officer varies according to cities, and can include duties such as:

  • Lead implementation of a smart city framework into government operations;
  • Explore and execute new ideas and innovative strategies into city plans;
  • Analyze trends in local government to forecast future changes in practices, processes, and programs;
  • Import innovations from other communities for testing in the city;
  • Utilize quantitative methods to identify opportunities for improvement in operations and services;
  • Provide oversight of metrics and data analytics to facilitate strategic utilization of data;

Dallas is looking to hire a “Chief Innovation Officer.”

The job ad says the person filling this newly created position will “inspire and develop data-driven best practices in municipal government.”

Dallas is not the only city preparing for a data-driven local governance, especially when it comes to public services. In recent years, many others such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, Louisville and Kansas City have created similar positions.

Dr. David Ricketts

“The creation of a Chief Innovation Officer is in response to Mayors saying, ‘we can do new and better things for you, things you didn’t even know a city could offer,’” said Dr. David Ricketts, Innovation Fellow at Harvard University’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH). “The position is a stake in the ground for the city offering new value to citizens, usually through technology.”

A Chief Innovation Officer is not just the city’s IT person. The role doesn’t have defined duties; they can vary depending on a city’s growth plans and resources.

“Depending on the city, they are varied from the IT person to someone who just does smart city projects,” Ricketts added. “Bob (Bennett, chief innovation officer of Kansas City) does many things, but one of his big jobs is the new smart city corridor. In Riverside, CA, it’s an IT job.”

Most folks agree that that Big Data and data analytics will fundamentally change how public services are produced and consumed in urban areas over the next few years, and many cities expect the Chief Innovation Officer to figure out how best to adapt to this fast-evolving landscape.


“The differentiators between a Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer and a Chief Innovation Officer, is that the former are existing jobs that run ‘IT’ or technology for the city. They could innovate or not,” Ricketts said. “They don’t need to do anything new, just keep the ship running.”


Kansas City Streetcar
What does a Chief Innovation Officer do?

Bob Bennett doesn’t have an eight-to-five daily grind.

Bob Bennett

As Kansas City’s Chief Innovation Officer, he travels at least one day each week – visiting his counterparts in other cities to learn from them or share his experiences. There’s tacit understanding among members of this group that most cities don’t have the resources to figure out solutions to their pressing issues, so sharing ideas is a necessity.

This group is regularly brought together by Ricketts at the Harvard Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator Summits to discuss innovation and society, and explore roadmaps to execute those ideas.

“There’s lots to learn from others,” Bennett said, having attended the summits. “Grace Simrall of Louisville (Kentucky) is amazing, she’s doing great work in public health systems.

“Samir Saini of New York is awesome, he’s working to eliminate the digital divide and partnering with industries to deploy smart technology.”

Bennett also works closely with Kansas City’s procurement department to develop “Request for Proposals” for various projects, updates the city council on various initiatives, or meets up with city entrepreneurs to hear their pitches.

“A lot of companies come to us to pitch their technology or solutions,” Bennett said.

An army veteran who’d been stationed in war-torn Iraq, Bennett says his military experiences taught him how to conduct “mission analysis,” “risk embrace” and extensive training prior to any venture, helping him transition to the “techie” environment in his new job.

Today, his focus is the city’s smart corridor.

“Right now, we have the smartest 54 blocks on the entire North American continent,” Bennett has said. “It’s about $20 million worth of infrastructure. It’s 328 Wi-Fi access points. Sprint owns those; they are manufactured by Cisco. The city owns about 8,000 miles of fiber.”

Overall, having Bennett on board has helped the city even as it earns national recognition, such as the 2018 “Smart 50 Award” at Smart City Connect and a Gold Award (Collective Disruption) at the 2017 Edison Awards, for its initiatives.

Louis Stewart (City of Sacramento)

Louis Stewart, as Sacramento’s first Chief Innovation Officer, spearheads the city’s smart initiatives.  But unlike other cities, Sacramento is not just interested in new kinds of technologies but also economic and educational opportunities – especially in under-served regions, taking a holistic approach that involves the well-being of the entire city.

Los Angeles was a pioneer in planning for an innovation-focused future, hiring Dr. Joshua L. Schank in 2015 as the first-ever head of Metro’s newly created Office of Extraordinary Innovation. The intent of that office was to champion new ideas to improve mobility in Los Angeles County.

Today, its Metro Vision 2028 plan – with goals such as all county residents will have access to high-quality mobility options within a 10- minute walk or roll from home – is admired and emulated by cities across the world.

Boston's 311 app
Is this a good use of Taxpayer dollars?

Some may question whether having a Chief Innovation Officer is a good idea, when a city may have other competing needs.

“I think the return is long term, so it is harder for the average person to see the impact for the tax dollar each year,” Ricketts said.

In some cases, the returns may be quickly apparent. But in others, it may take a while since many new ideas are being tested which may or may not pan out in the future.

“Certainly, in Boston we do (see the returns), as the 311 system that Nigel Jacob and team developed has made city services much easier to engage with,” Ricketts said.

311 is an easy-to-remember telephone number that connects Bostonians with customer services representatives who help with requests for non-emergency city services and information. The BOS:311 app helps residents and visitors improve neighborhoods. For example, one can report non-emergency issues, like potholes and graffiti. Jacob is the Co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic innovation incubator and R&D lab within Boston’s City Hall.

“Louisville under Ted Smith has one of the biggest returns. San Francisco has a great startup-city innovation program,” Ricketts added.  “It really depends on the Mayor and the CIO, these are the individuals who are making the difference now.

“This is because the ideas are so new, that the institution of city government doesn’t have a history to know or manage consistently through different Mayors and CIOs.”

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