IPaT Spotlight: Debra Lam

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When Debra Lam joined Georgia Tech in January, she hit the ground running. Within the first few months of becoming the Institute’s managing director of its newly-created smart cities and inclusive innovation initiative, she developed meaningful partnerships at the campus, local, national and even international levels. Lam has brought together Georgia Tech researchers and smart city leaders with workshops, and a smart city speaker series where researchers present their work for feedback at Atlanta City Hall. She’s also helping to organize the upcoming MetroLab Summit, hosted for the first time in Atlanta.

Although she’s new to Georgia Tech, Lam has over a decade of experience in urban innovation and resilience, strategy and management. She previously led the City of Pittsburgh's developments in innovation, open data, and resilience, successfully creating and executing the city's first comprehensive plan on inclusive innovation.

In an interview with IPaT, Lam talks about taking smart city testbeds to the next level and how to engage the people who live and work in Atlanta.

Editor’s note: This interview is lightly edited.

IPaT: You’ve previously discussed how, currently, there’s no smart city. Why not, and what will the first truly smart city look like?

Debra Lam: There are testbeds, demonstration areas, and innovation districts, but there isn’t an actual smart city. I think the big, next phase for the smart city ecosystem is how to move beyond the testbed. What is this level of success or performance metric that allows us to move beyond the testbed into a full smart city? There are areas and cities that are super close and more advanced, particularly in Asia. But they’ve had certain advantages in terms of building a city from scratch or having very strong centralized government control to move forward, so they’ve been able to showcase a lot of success. But I don’t think we’re at smart city yet, certainly not an inclusive smart city. 

IPaT: What else does a smart city consist of besides technology?

DL: A smart city is really about improving the quality of life and using technology and data to facilitate that. This is very explicit in terms of the application and usage and institutionalization of it. It’s not just buying a bunch of technology and calling a city smart. It’s really how you use the technology, who uses the technology and how does that technology change or improve the quality of life or decision-making.

IPaT: How can cities put residents’ needs first when adopting smart city initiatives?

DL: Engaging them from the start, rather than at the end. How do residents see the technology? How do they the city applying the technology? What do they think about it? Getting their feedback, making sure that they understand not only the advantages but the risks that are involved in these changes. 

IPaT: Should residents be concerned about privacy when it comes to smart city technology?

DL: When it comes to technology privacy unless you live in a box with no technology and you're not connected to anything, there's always a risk. That's just unavoidable. Just by having a cell phone and having a contract with a provider means that your information is being collected. I think it's naïve for anyone to say, “this is 100% guaranteed security.” I think it’s important to be open and transparent about that. We make meaningful choices each and every day of whether to accept that risk because the benefits outweigh the risk. Or the risks are tiny enough that they're not that valid. Now with all this, it's certainly important to think about security and privacy and to be open with citizens and to understand some of those risks and then take precautions to minimize them. Georgia Tech is collecting data for research and development purposes and has very strict protocols on confidentiality, classification, and security. As a public institution, we’re not driven by the same profit motivations as others.

IPaT: What is your smart city vision for Atlanta and how can Georgia Tech continue to be a leader in this effort?

DL: Atlanta is one of the leaders in the U.S. around smart cities, and it’s really great that there is energy and hunger to move forward. Georgia Tech is unique in terms of understanding the vision of smart cities, components like data and technology, and the application of those components. So that unique combination produces a sweet spot for us to contribute in this larger smart city ecosystem, and we have proven to be a critical player and leader. We certainly can’t be the only player, nor do we expect to be, so at the end of the day it’s a broad coalition of people that includes Georgia Tech. But it’s exciting that we’re on the forefront of this space.


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