The Responsive City: An Interview with Stephen Goldsmith

Your city is getting smarter. Can its leaders keep pace?

By Matt Carmichael on January 21, 2015 at 6:50 am CST

The Responsive City

Your city is getting smarter. Using technology, sensors and data analytics, civic leaders increasingly have access to the tools that allow them to perform city services with greater precision and transparency and even predict where needs will occur – from policing to infrastructure and beyond. Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis and former Deputy Mayor of New York City for Operations, has co-authored a book about this phenomenal change to government. Utilizing detailed case studies from Chicago, Boston, New York City and other metropolises, The Responsive City gives us a great look at the present and hints at the future. He spoke to Livability by phone.

Livability: Am I correct in saying that a lot of “responsiveness” at this point is related to livability issues like community policing, making sure restaurants have safe food, and getting potholes and street lights fixed in a timely fashion?

Goldsmith: For a city to be responsive, it has to start with the fundamentals, as you suggest. How do your streets work, does your water system work, do your street lights come on, and if your have a complaint, how quickly does someone resolve it? That first level of responsiveness is just quality of life responsiveness.

Livability: How do you see these responsive technologies and philosophies scaling up to some of our bigger problems like schools or inequality?

Goldsmith: There is a responsiveness driven by data that applies to any problem small or big. If you have a number of resources and more issues and challenges than you do dollars, how do you allocate those dollars to solve those problems? You have a lot of information. Schools have for a long time been a place with a mammoth amount of data, but how do you get it to the teachers in a useable way? It’s a blend of transparency and government opening up its data, so consumers can make better decisions. But more importantly for the purposes of our book is how government makes its decisions and where it allocates its dollars and how it creates quality of life in each neighborhood by pledging each dollar to where it makes the most difference. It creates more efficiencies, and that frees up more resources to tackle some of these larger problems.

Livability: Is there a risk that we’ll spend more to provide the same services in the short term because costs of tech and tech talent are high?

Goldsmith: I think the risk here is a risk that will take a long time to incorporate the standards of data because the upfront costs often are not insignificant, and the talent is very difficult to achieve because people who do this are in high demand for much greater pay in the private sector. So how we organize the resources to support cities and states and schools systems is important. A typical government problem is you say you can spend $100 now to save $1,000 later, and the government says I don’t have $100 now.

Livability: Is it easier to use the responsive technologies and set up these systems in big cities with big-city budgets?

Goldsmith: The challenge in small to mid-sized cities is even greater in one sense because the talent search is more complicated, so you have to buy the shared-service offering. A midsized city might have a really talented one or two people in the mayor’s office, but they might not have access to their own data scientists. They are going to have to get those from the private market or a nonprofit that can provide the service. The advantage of cloud computing is that the entry-level costs are much less. The software costs are achievable, but the personnel costs are more complicated.

Livability: Will cities that are doing this well have a better chance of attracting the talent?

Goldsmith: To some extent, it’s a little circular. Chicago and other cities are wonderful places to live. They’re attracting a large number of young professionals who want a high quality of life who are creative people. That produces a labor source that helps cities attract talent, which makes them more responsive and helps them attract more talent.

Livability: How important is the use of open-source technologies?

Goldsmith: It’s important because what a city like Chicago is doing should lower the cost of entry for other cities that might want to follow what they’ve done. The more open source the tools are, the faster they’ll spread.

Livability: That should reduce costs for other cities as well, then? In some ways, the big cities could be essential in subsidizing cost for smaller cities.

Goldsmith: Yes, I think so. That’s not how they like to think about it. But there’s not a monopoly on brilliance in big cities; a breakthrough in a midsized city could set a great example as well.

Livability: Why is it easier at the city level? Why doesn’t it seem to scale into our federal government?

Goldsmith: I think it’s easier in part because the leader – the mayor, the CIO, someone really strong and committed – can power these changes. Often the bureaucracy and status quo at the federal level make it so much harder to be a disruptive innovator. There’s some pretty sophisticated stuff at the federal level; it’s just harder to translate that into the kind of retail accomplishments like you can see in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco or New York as the case may be.

Data can help a good leader be really good. The data’s not going to overcome bad leadership. It won’t be a cure. What we’re looking for is qualified public servants who want to make a difference, or the tools can be used by community groups and advocates to hold the mayors more accountable.

Livability: So we’re still reliant on humans to make good decisions with the data they’re given?

Goldsmith: I hope so. I’m not yet to a point where I’d trust the data, as operated by computers, to run the cites. There’s still a role for the people.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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