A Conversation With Martin O'Malley

The IPaT Industry Innovation Day speaker talks about his new role with MetroLab Network and how cities and universities can be better partners.

As a former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley has a unique perspective on how cities and states operate. He’s now using that experience in his new role with MetroLab Network, a city-university collaborative for urban innovation. In 2015, Georgia Tech joined MetroLab as a founding member. In an interview with IPaT before speaking at Industry Innovation Day on April 13th in Tech Square, O’Malley discusses three qualities of a successful city-university partnership and some of the challenges these collaborations can address.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for clarity.

IPaT: How are you collaborating with MetroLab?

Martin O'Malley: I’m the Chairman of the Advisory Board for MetroLab Network, which is a collaborative of 40 leading cities and their university partners that are all about research, development and deployment of smart cities solutions to big city challenges. One area we’ve focused on this year is sensors. With the internet of things and the technology of sensors, we’re able to see and to track not only the movement of traffic and pedestrians, but in cities like South Bend, Indiana, in partnership with Notre Dame, they’re installing sensors in their water infrastructures so that they can make it a much more dynamic system to reduce storm water pollution and facilitate the building of green infrastructure that allows our city streets to work with, and not against nature. Another area we’re working on is the use of big data for social good. In other words, how do we deliver better and more timely human services in order to heal vulnerable families and to save the lives of at-risk children? In our collaborative of 40 cities, there are multiple projects that are going on, and some of the most exciting ones are the ones that harness the power of universities in terms of their talent for research and development, and combines that with the ability that mayors have to deploy and test solutions very quickly with immediate feedback loops, rather than waiting three or four years to figure out if something is working. It’s governance by the iteration of better practices and better ideas, shared nationally across our network.

IPaT: What are your goals and vision for the future in your role with MetroLab?

MO: The goal with MetroLab Network is to scale up these solutions by learning from one another. Learning from what others have already tested and figuring out ahead of time what the barriers are that need to be overcome, whether it’s privacy concerns or technology solutions, these are the things that mayors really do very well. In fact, having been both a mayor and a governor, I can tell you that mayors learn a lot better from each other than governors do, and they learn more quickly, and they’re able to act more immediately.

IPaT: What does a successful city-university partnership look like?

MO: The successful city-university partnership is one where there’s a point person on both sides of the partnership that can access, at the highest levels, department heads and the talent that exists in both organizations. The second thing is that successful city-university partnerships must meet regularly around the projects that they’re working on, and the really good ones have at least two or three projects that they’re working on simultaneously. And finally, another hallmark of a healthy city-university partnership is where the level of trust is constantly fostered and developed. These collaborations don’t happen by themselves; the good city-university partnerships are figuring out ways to give them structure and to make sure that the mayor and the university president are both empowering their command staffs to work together, and communicating a clarity of intention. The intention being that the university and the cities partner, not only in research and development, but also deployment of real ideas and real solutions that can help real people.

IPaT: What are some of urban challenges that can be better addressed through city-university partnerships and why?

MO: For the first time in human history, more than 50-percent of us now live in cities. By some estimates, by 2050 that number will be 75-percent. So there’s the challenges of density, population, traffic, and everything that goes along with that. The use of land, water and energy – these are some huge challenges faced by cities. Also, urbanization can unwittingly bring about greater income inequality and separation of the very rich and the very poor. Cities play a critical role in bridging that divide and taking concrete actions that expand opportunity and safeguard the most vulnerable lives, who very often live in the hearts of our big cities. Smarter interventions, earlier interventions, and the use of big data can assure that no child slips through the cracks and that every person’s potential is realized to its fullest, whether that’s in workforce development programs, deployment of social services, or ensuring that the workforce can afford to live in our cities where the opportunities are becoming so concentrated.

IPaT: What did these partnerships look like when you were mayor, what do they look like now, and in the future?

MO: A lot of cities and their university partners have figured out how to partner around joint real estate development in that they create an array of housing and job opportunities near the university. Now that we’ve proven we can collaborate around brick and mortar real estate development, we need to take that same spirit of collaboration and put it to use solving big challenges that face us as a people not only in this country, but on the planet. And that is, how do we live in a more sustainable way? How do we improve security even as we face challenges with safety and the well-being of our citizens? Even as we face the challenge of density and income inequality?

IPaT: You've been recognized as having a data-driven approach to policy and administration. Why is this important?

MO: I found technology and information technology, governance by evidence and data, to be really critical to strengthening the common good of a city or of a state. This is a way of governing that is very different than the old way of governing, which was often times hierarchical and structured by command and control. Things got done on the basis of, ‘because I said so.’ This new way of governing is much more collaborative; it’s open and it’s transparent in ways that not only everyone in government can see, but in ways that all stakeholders – especially citizens – can see. Mayors are figuring out how to get things done and doing it in very entrepreneurial ways that improve public trust. And really, that’s the source of all power among a self-governed people, is the ability to trust one another; the ability to trust that our government sees us and recognizes us, is serving our family’s best interest.

IPaT: How do you think universities can motivate cities to have visions of inclusive innovation?

MO: One way that universities can spur the cities on is to figure out the mayor’s top challenges and priorities, and direct university research toward solving those problems. In the past, a university’s idea of a great research project is one that takes 20 years. A mayor’s idea of a great research project is one that takes two months, and allows the mayor to deploy a better solution to a vexing problem. 20-year research projects don’t cut it for things that mayors have to get done today. Universities can be a tremendous help by increasing the velocity of research and deployment, and the iterations that lead to better solutions. Cities aren’t going to be able to replace the sort of federal research dollars that appear to be in such grave jeopardy. But cities can provide a deployment platform; cities can help speed the iteration of new technology and new ideas so that they become commercialized.

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Alyson Powell

Communications Officer, Institute for People and Technology

alyson.powell@ipat.gatech.edu