What a “Secretary Pete” Buttigieg Means for DOT Innovation

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Yesterday it was made official. President-elect Joe Biden selected his one-time opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination and former Mayor of South Bend to serve as the Secretary of Transportation.

Both progressives on the left and conservatives on the right will have their qualms about Mayor Pete becoming Secretary Pete — check out Twitter if you don’t believe me. But soon-to-be “Secretary” Pete’s South Bend track record and proposed national transportation policy proposals present hope for people in the transportation and mobility space who have sought innovation-centric leadership at the Department of Transportation (DOT).

This need for strong leadership and new approaches comes at a pivotal time. The pandemic has laid bare the embarrassing and underfunded state of our public transit systems and infrastructure. And it’s no surprise that the American Society of Civil Engineers has continued to warn both elected officials and the public of our crumbling infrastructure and the looming disastrous impact on safety, national security and our economy. Moreover, Congress has been unable to come together and pass bipartisan legislation for the 21st century transportation policy that everyone in the United States needs and deserves.

And despite all these problems, we are living in the golden era of big ideas and innovation in transportation and mobility — from rapid advancements in autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technology to scaled adoption of micro mobility solutions, to a sea change in electric vehicle demand, to moonshots like Hyperloop to a public debate on parity of transit funding!

Secretary Pete is the right person to take on the herculean task of embracing and leveraging these exciting innovations to chip away at the immense transportation, mobility and infrastructure problems we face. Here’s a preview of the exciting ways that Secretary Pete may bring innovations to the Department of Transportation.

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Photo Credit: The Washington Times

Prioritizing systems-based innovation

Secretary Pete was early to champion innovation and performance management within his administration at South Bend. He hired Santiago Garces initially as a Performance and Innovation Manager to reform the city’s key performance indicator tracking system, which ultimately led to Santiago being hired as the City’s first Chief Innovation Officer — a unique role for a small US city in 2015. This new position led to the systematic overhaul of IT services, the formation of Business Analytics group and a Civic Innovation Department and slew of adopted innovations that were both developed in-house and adopted from external vendors. It’s one thing to elevate the role of innovation and technology to the Mayor’s cabinet, it’s another thing to welcome and encourage the full-scale modernization and re-thinking of government systems ranging from public works to 311. If Secretary Pete implements even a fraction of his bold approach to systems change at the DOT, then he will reshape how the federal agency embraces and promotes innovation and technology as a standard practice.

Climate change and the environment

On the presidential nominee campaign trail, Secretary Pete announced a $1 Trillion plan to address America’s crumbling infrastructure. That ambitious plan included proposals specific to tackling climate change and environmental issues — ranging from billions in federal funding for modernization of flood protection systems for communities impacted by climate change to new regulations aimed at incentivizing smart electric grid technologies across the US. It also included $150 billion to improve public transportation with a majority of that funding to go to repairing and expanding existing rail and bus services. How would this bold policy plan be paid for? The bulk of the expense for the transportation and infrastructure plan was covered by a $1 trillion climate change plan that included $200 billion in investments in clean energy R&D, a $250 billion Clean Energy Bank for financing new clean-technologies and an additional $50 billion seed fund to help catalyze riskier experimental green tech. Of course, these policy proposals may never see the light of day, but it’s clear that Secretary Pete will mobilize the full force of the DOT to combat the massive challenges of climate change in America.

A focus on the little guy

Most folks know at this point that Secretary Pete was once Mayor Pete of South Bend, Indiana — population 100,000. As Mayor of a small midwestern city, Secretary Pete championed and served as a genuine amplifier for the hard work of small towns and cities beyond the usual big city circuit of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. His ability to resonate with leaders of small cities and towns across the US became obvious when local elected leaders from California to Pennsylvania endorsed him for the Democratic nominee for president. Secretary Pete is likely to not forget his small city roots or those who supported his candidacy when taking this new role. He is uniquely suited help the DOT better deploy much-needed federal resources, programs and attention to the small towns and cities that millions of Americans call home.

Lions, Tigers and Complete Streets Oh My

As Mayor of South Bend, Secretary Pete selected a team of city employees to participate in the Safe Street Academy. The result of which was community-centered research and the implementation of complete street and traffic calming strategies in South Bend. The project implemented short-term pilot projects to try and slow dangerous traffic and create alternative mobility options for community members. Secretary Pete has seen firsthand how such strategies to form complete streets can dramatically improve safety. It’s possible that Secretary Pete could help champion such approaches in the DOT and unlock new resources and funding for more local governments across the US to adopt similar strategies to those that helped make South Bend’s street safer for everyone.

Silicon Valley’s Secretary

Secretary Pete views the world through tech lenses. This belief became apparent when Silicon Valley coalesced around his presidential campaign. To the chagrin of many progressives, he built relationships and received contributions from tech leaders ranging from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to Reed Hastings of Netflix and many others in Silicon Valley’s Big Tech and startup scene. While one may negatively question his coziness to technology companies, I would argue that Secretary Pete is well positioned to leverage his relationships and mobilize the private sector tech community to be an integral part of the 21st century transportation, mobility and infrastructure solutions we need. In this way, Secretary Pete could jumpstart new private sector investment towards infrastructure and transit tech that the federal government would never be able to accomplish on its own.

Welcome mat for start-ups & infrastructure tech

While running for president, Secretary Pete may have been embraced by Silicon Valley tech leaders, but during his time as Mayor of South Bend it was he who embraced infrastructure tech and startups to help solve major infrastructure challenges. Two such examples include the infra-tech startup companies EmNet and RoadBotics,. While EmNet was adopted by South Bend before Pete was Mayor, he championed the tech’s value nationally and shared the impact it had on South Bend to prevent more than 1,500 gallons of combined sewage entering the local St. Joseph’s River. As Mayor, he did initiate the adoption of RoadBotics’ AI pavement assessment software to receive in-depth data about the potholes and surface condition of its 550 mile road network (full disclosure, I previously led the Growth team at RoadBotics). If Secretary Pete maintains his risk tolerance for testing and adopting new tech from startups like EmNet and RoadBotics, then it’s likely that we will see more programs and funding geared towards connecting startup solutions to the DOT as well as creating more opportunities for state and local agencies to adopt impactful infra-tech.

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A final thought: Equity-based transportation

When publishing his $1 trillion infrastructure campaign proposal as candidate Pete, he defined it as a plan focused on opportunity, equity and empowerment. And in a tweet publicly announcing President-elect Joe Biden’s offer to be Secretary, he made a similar nod to enhance equity for all. What this rhetoric means in practice is still to be determined. But, it is certainly important to have the Secretary of Transportation who publicly acknowledges the systemic inequities built into the very fabric of your transportation, infrastructure and mobility systems. Admissions is a first step. But, real meaningful ‘innovation’ at DOT will be bringing forth policies and programs that tackle the challenge of inequities in American transit head-on.

I think Secretary Pete is up for the job.

Government Tech, Policy + Politics | Founder @ Recode America Govtech + Entrepreneurship Practice Leader @ KRNLS

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