RTI 2 | Innovative City


A city that thrives is a city that knows how to innovate. In this episode, Abhijit Verekar talks with Brian Platt about how he is fulfilling his role as the City Manager/Business Administrator and the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Jersey City, New Jersey. He talks about what innovation means for cities and shares some of the biggest successes in his municipal career. Putting technology at the heart of it, Brian discusses how he stays on top of technology while maintaining a more collaborative approach with the residents and his team. He also gives his definition of a Smart City, along with his take on the fundamentals of long-term IT strategy, cybersecurity, and more.

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Building A Smart And Innovative City With Brian Platt, City Manager, City Of Jersey City, NJ

Innovation Beyond Just Technology

Our guest is Brian Platt. Brian is the City Manager/Business Administrator for the City of Jersey City, New Jersey. Brian was the Chief Innovation Officer for the city and has been instrumental in many innovative ideas that were implemented and continue to be in the city. Brian, welcome to the show. I’m excited to have you on. 

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Brian, tell me, what is your personal journey? How do you find yourself in this important position?

It’s been a roller coaster of a journey for me. I’ve been moving in a lot of different directions throughout my career here. I’ve been working for the city of Jersey City for years. I started out in the Mayor’s Office. As you mentioned, I was the Founder and First Director of the City’s first Office of Innovation. We started thanks to a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies back in 2015 and now, I’m here as City Manager running the whole show. It’s been an exciting journey for me. Before working for Jersey City, I was in management consulting with McKinsey for a little while. I also was a Kindergarten teacher in Newark and Teach for America for a little while as well.

You also teach CrossFit and a bunch of other stuff. You’re who I aspired to be when I was 35. I never got there. Innovation is something that you live and breathe every day. With your title as City Manager, your responsibilities are a lot more than that. I’m impressed with how you’ve taken innovation and turned that from what people would think of what I call the blinky lights in a data center. You’ve taken it from there to everyday citizens. Tell me, how do you think of innovation? How do you apply this to your role?

I love discussing this broad like, “What is innovation? What does it mean? What is innovation in cities?” questions. I don’t think there is a single blanket answer that you could use to define innovation in one city versus another city. Even for the point in time, you’re in or the technology you’re using. It’s all relative. For example, the fax machine was an incredibly innovative technology many years ago and you look at it and go, “Why do we even have these in our building?” Fun fact, we still have some fax machines in City Hall and across the city. That’s true for city governments across the country and across the world at this point. There are certain things that could be considered innovative to Jersey City that may not be innovative in Boston. By sources, there might be certain things that are innovative to LA that is not innovative in Jersey City. It’s a question of where you are. To me, innovation is pushing the limit and a fresh approach and a unique way of problem-solving using technology or not using technology, to be honest. It could be a lot of things. It’s whatever’s coming next and what’s a unique and bold approach to solving the problems that you have.

I like to say that innovation starts with the vision and how you want to deliver services to your citizens. Speaking of fax machines, I’ve seen typewriters. What would you say have been your biggest successes in your municipal career so far?

There are a lot of successes. It’s hard to point to one, but for me, I’m most proud of the technology improvements that we’ve made across the city with this broad vision to think about how we’re providing city services and how we can better leverage technology to improve service delivery, to make it more efficient and to make the experience better for our residents. That’s anything from systems and tools that generate data so we can better understand our process to literally a front-facing, a forward-facing application or service or piece of hardware that makes the process more intuitive and faster. That could be an app that you use to report an issue you see in the city or an electronic form that walks you through the process in a more efficient and streamlined way.

Innovation is about pushing the limit and taking a fresh and unique way of problem-solving using or not using technology. Click To Tweet

The automation of some of those processes as well has been helpful. The technology innovations are important for us foundationally as a city in a way we provide services. I’m also proud of a lot of the sustainability stuff that we’ve been working on. We’ve had a lot of firsts in that regard. First in the city to do protected bike lanes, to improve different types of more efficient transit and first electric vehicles that we purchased as a city for our City Fleet. We’re moving from forward to make sure that our fleet is as energy-efficient as possible. The use of electric vehicles is the best way we think we can do that. We’re about to purchase some of the first electric garbage trucks in the country at this point. There are only a few of them out there. The list goes on and on for this stuff. There’s a lot of cool stuff that we’re doing in sustainability and using technology as well to make life better for residents here and make government work better.

How do you stay on top of technology? Your office probably has software vendors reaching out to you every day selling the same thing with a different sticker. How do you cut through the noise? 

It’s hard to keep up. One of the things that we pride ourselves as a city is a collaborative approach to problem-solving. Collaborative in a sense that we’re not just engaging with our residents and interacting with our residents, but we’re engaging with other cities and thought leaders. We’re trying to stay on top of what everyone else is doing. If we have a problem that we’re trying to solve, we’re not just thinking in a closed room of how we can solve this problem. We’re reaching out to other cities that we know maybe that have addressed this problem already. We’re reaching out to our own residents who oftentimes have a lot of experience in certain things and technologies and dealing with problems. It’s about all of that networking that we’ve done and continue to do to keep on top of things. You’re right. There is plenty of cold calling that happens and plenty of vendors that are reaching out to us about a lot of different things.

We view that as a positive thing. What we’ve tried to brand ourselves as also is the sandbox for new and innovative initiatives and technology solutions. Instead of not wanting to be those people who take all these cold calls from people, we’re reaching out and saying, “You’ve got new technology, a new thing that could help cities? We’re happy to partner with you and your company and try and see if we can make it work.” The worst-case scenario there is that we waste a little bit of our time and the product of the initiative doesn’t pan out. The best-case is we collectively were able to help push forward something that can be helpful not just to Jersey City but to all cities. At the end of the day, I’m doing a few of these calls a week probably and learning about new technologies and hearing pitches from people and so are the people on our staff too. Also, at the end of the day, it’s helping things move forward in the long run.

You mentioned vision and we’re of the same mind here that vision drives everything. Once you have your vision set that is driven by the mayor, you and your team, how do you translate that to your team members that are purely technical, the techies that thrive on building a box and making those lights blink? How do you translate your vision to them? 

There’s been a lot of foundational work that we’ve done to change the culture and the mindset of our team here. It’s not one person or one office or one department, it’s everyone. We’re trying to push people to think creatively and not accept the status quo as all we have are our options. Instead of this approach that a lot of cities take, and it’s a safe approach of like, “This is the way we’ve done it. Let’s continue to do it. It’s not bothering anyone. It’s been fine. Work still gets done,” let’s think about what other options we have here and what we can do differently and celebrate and reward that approach and behavior. When we first started The Office of Innovation a few years ago, this was a lot of the work we did at first. We can show you some easy ways to improve the way that your workflow occurs and help you improve your day-to-day work here. It’s like the “teaching a man to fish” approach.

We would share with people that we went through the process of solving these problems and let them know that it’s not that difficult of a process. We can help you with it and help you make improvements to the way you’re doing your work. That’s where we started. That allows people to better understand the vision that we have here for using technology and the reason and the relevance for why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re not making people use new technologies because we said so or because of our press release. There’s a reason and there’s a purpose for all of it. They can see and look back and say for example, “The innovation team helps this office over there reduce their wait time for people who needed a permit or an application for something,” or it helps their own staff get a certain amount of additional work done in a given day. That’s the thing that they look at and say, “I want that too.”

It’s challenging to do that work when you talk about innovation to a city that probably was behind in technology. Most people are expecting a new computer. They don’t think beyond that. Great job in distilling that vision through. Would you say that was the most challenging piece of the innovation work you did or the modernization that took place?

RTI 2 | Innovative City

Innovative City: If you don’t have that buy-in from the right people, there’s no reason for them to help you and to allow that new initiative to continue.


That’s by far the most challenging piece of it is the buy-in from your coworkers and your team and the stakeholders. A lot of the work, when this Office of Innovation was established from this grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and a big component of the innovation delivery approach from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is engaging with stakeholders and building buy-in. It’s crucial to moving anything forward. If you don’t have buy-in from the right people, there’s no reason for them to help you and to allow that new initiative or that new approach to continue. On the other side of it, if you’ve included everyone that’s important in the process and engage them the entire time, they not only will most likely help you find the best solution that works better than you could have thought about it on your own. They’ll be your cheerleaders and they’ll help to push it forward and make it as smooth of a journey as it can possibly be.

Sometimes it comes down to fixing that fax machine for somebody for them to trust you. 

It’s also helpful to have a resume of accomplishments. You can turn around and go, “The innovation team has only been here for 3 or 6 months, and we’ve already been able to make these changes and help these people do these things.” You can talk to them about the experience and see how great it was and we want to help expand that approach to you and your office as well.

How big was your innovations team?

Originally, the team was seven people including myself. It has morphed and changed over the years depending upon the challenges and problems the team was addressing at the time. The team also has split up and focused on different things. The staff that is under the so-called innovation umbrella is focused on a lot of the smaller projects with different types of experts doing different types of things. We had, for example, one person that had one data scientist role. We have three at this point because we are seeing a lot more desire and calls for data analysis and the data-driven approach to problem-solving in this city. It’s great that the city is seeing the need and recognizing the importance and the value of it and allowing us to expand that capacity.

What would you say is your definition of a smart city? You’ve hit on a few points already, but if you could summarize that for us?

I don’t think there’s a good definition or even a good example of smart city out there. You can point to some cities that have interesting technology that could be considered smart city technology. A lot of times, people misrepresent their technology as being smart city technology when it’s just data and it’s connecting the points between those datasets. A smart city is a city that has an ability to learn from itself and automatically make changes and adapt to the atmosphere and the environment around itself as that atmosphere and environment changes. For example, as traffic builds up in certain streets, a smart city could theoretically change the signal timing from traffic lights or change the priority streets or GPS systems to reroute and change the flow of traffic immediately and on the spot.

Theoretically, you could have a smart city that would never have traffic, that vehicles are always moving in different directions. You’re never taking the same route twice and it’s optimizing the assets and the abilities of the city to be most efficient. There are a lot of great ideas. You’re hearing autonomous vehicles are a great smart city technology that people talk about, but we’re not seeing them executed in the public fully. The definition of a smart city is vague and it’s changing and people misrepresent it sometimes. I don’t think there’s a good example that we can point to and say, “This is a city that is a smart city.”

It's no longer a luxury to have innovative technology. It's almost a requirement to be launching it as quickly as you can. Click To Tweet

It’s interesting that you mentioned traffic patterns and advanced traffic management systems. Those things have been around for decades. Some cities may be smart and they don’t know it. What would you say are some of the fundamentals of a long-term IT strategy for a medium-sized, small or even a large city?

There are two parallel but equally important workflows here for the fundamentals. One is the basics and the foundation of IT. The infrastructure or the hardware, the software, the necessities that you need to operate, whether or not you’re doing that next level type of stuff, the innovation type of stuff. You’re going to need your computers and phones to work. You’re going to need video conferencing software. All of that stuff cannot be forgotten at any time. It is important. It’s the stuff that you don’t think about until there’s an issue with it and then that’s all you can think about. The purpose, the key value of your IT team is to allow everyone else in the city to not have to think about that stuff.

It’s to be able to do their job at their highest capacity and efficiency possible with technology and not have to have it be an extra ounce of energy that they have to manage. That’s one of the workflows. The other part of it is the next steps, the improving things, the progressing of the city itself. What new types of technology can the city implement as we’ve been saying about innovation to make life better? How do you better leverage technology to improve the quality of life in the city and city services? That’s a separate workflow in itself. Until you have the foundation in place, it’s hard to do that innovative, progressive workflow component but it’s equally as important. There’s a growing demand from not just the residents of the city but the elected officials of cities.

It’s been great to see even over the last years how elected officials have gone from State of The City speeches or campaign speeches that talk about the need for data but not understanding what that means to specific instances and examples of how that city is using data and how they’re using it well. There’s been a big learning curve for key stakeholders in cities and there was that initial embrace with skepticism over what this all means and what it does. We’re at the point where there’s no turning back. It’s no longer a luxury to have innovative technology. It’s almost a requirement to be launching innovative technology as quickly as you can in a lot of different ways.

A lot of cities go out and buy things that don’t necessarily do 100% of what you want it to do or drive them in the right direction in the future. A good example, I was on your city’s website and I saw that you did a virtual meeting for the council. This tech, it’s not new. It’s been around for a long time, but we’ve always seen non-adaption of virtual meetings. How did you get them to do it? I know it was an emergency, but do you see it going back to the way it was, or is it here to stay?

I have many thoughts about this. This is a great example of what was mentioned about how innovation is relative to where you are. Video conferences are not an innovative technology by any means. For a city, not just our city but any city, they are because we’re not doing it. It’s not something that we include in our regular day-to-day life. During this state of emergency, when we entered into these social distancing protocols, we realized that there’s going to have to be a way for us to continue certain types of urgent and essential city business, including meetings of the governing body where we’d be able to deliberate and approve certain contracts and that stuff. There’s no way around it. Thankfully, the state gave us the ability and authority to have a meeting in a virtual setting. They didn’t give us a lot of guidance. Other than that, they said, “You’re allowed to do it.”

We were going to do it anyway, to be honest. We had already been planning before they even issued that guidance. It was serendipitous that we weren’t going to have to fight them on this. The good thing for us was that since I became City Manager, I’ve been trying hard to make sure that we have that foundation of technology in place. We were switching to digital systems. We have a digital council agenda system for example. For council meetings, we had a stack of paper that was the council agenda. It moved from a lawyer’s office to my office, to the clerk’s office. If I, for example, spill the cup of coffee on it, then who knows what contract didn’t get approved to that meeting? If we needed to change something there, who knows how we would go do that? We switched to a fully digital system. It took us almost two years to implement this.

Things like that grew our foundation and maybe that foundation is stronger allowed us to then transition to this virtual meeting set up much more seamlessly. We launched Microsoft teams, which is the platform that we been running our meetings on smoothly. That included some SMART Boards that we put up in key conference rooms across the city and on everyone’s desktop as well. Our staff was already becoming familiar with the technology and already have a foundation of use and awareness of it. It wasn’t a totally new thing that everyone was looking at. We already were becoming more familiar with using technology. The systems and software that we wanted to use for this meeting are not new to the city at all. It wasn’t like we had to go out to a store and go buy something to get this to work. It was using what we already had and tweaking it a little bit.

RTI 2 | Innovative City

Innovative City: A Smart City is a city that has an ability to learn from itself and automatically make changes and adapt to the atmosphere and the environment around it.


That’s incredibly important to cities that are thinking about, how do we take the next step and go from where we are? The digital council meeting is a perfect example of this. Instead of saying, “I’ve seen other cities do it on Zoom,” “We don’t have Zoom. Let’s go get Zoom and learn Zoom from the beginning,” and all of these things. Not to say that Zoom is that difficult to use, but we were looking at what we already had and said, “We can build on what we’ve had and the progress we’ve already been making with this technology to improve it and make it better and make a change in it.” That is the innovation process. We had a challenge and we looked around and see what we were already using, what’s the easiest way to solve this problem and it came out with a great answer.

It’s amazing how existing technologies will be adopted overnight because of the crisis. Let me switch gears a little bit. What are your thoughts on one of the other key buzzwords these days, cybersecurity and Ransomware, in addition to putting in the networking and the software elements to this? How do you keep yourself safe?

I’ll be honest, I am not an expert in this, but I do have a lot of conversations with their team about this on a regular basis. It is that next frontier of the unknowns and threats that cities are facing. It is something that has been a huge issue for many of our colleagues in other cities across the country, these successful Ransomware attacks. There are a lot of things that we put in place and we’re proud of our defenses. Technology is ever-changing, ever-evolving. You’re never going to be able to sit back and say, “We’re done. We’re good. We don’t have to think about sending more.” The second we put some stuff in place is the second that it becomes obsolete in this world. We’re always evolving, updating and upgrading all of our systems. It’s a big challenge. It is. We’ve had some close calls, especially during this new social distancing environment.

We had almost no staff working from home or in a remote environment before this and now, we have maybe half of our staff. It’s hard to send everyone home, like police officers and firefighters. They can’t work from home necessarily, but we have a lot of hundreds more staff working from home at this point. They’re all working in potentially open and exposed environments on devices that are their personal devices that we maybe haven’t fully vetted or fully secured. There are a lot more threats and vulnerabilities there. It’s been an interesting learning experience for us thinking that we were fine and everything was secure. We had to implement a lot of new steps and a lot of new safety and security protocols to make sure that we’re keeping up with everything.

You touched on data-driven decision making. Where do you think cities and counties need to go next in terms of acquiring systems that allow them to do those things? You have your ERP systems and your reports that come out of your financials, but are we missing something in terms of artificial intelligence or taking advantage of business intelligence?

There are a lot of layers to this answer. One of the key questions to answer is, how can you use the data and who can use it and how usable is that data? Not every city has a team of data scientists, who have a background in data analysis and can write code and our programmers and developers, that can build things from scratch. On the other side of that, most elected officials are not as well-versed as data scientists in this thing. The data has to be simplified and digested in a way that is easy to understand for any of the team members that aren’t data scientists. That also holds true for the public. It’s one thing to have an Excel spreadsheet with rows of data. That’s great for some people. It’s not great for most people. You need to turn this data into something that a decision can be made in a short amount of time with little to be left to question. It shouldn’t take 30 minutes to go through a data set to fully understand it and be able to make a decision based on that data.

The other side of all this is, how do you get that data? That may be one of the bigger challenges. There are a lot of vendors and technology out there that can provide you with endless amounts of data on anything and everything that you do in your city. The question is, how much is that going to cost? For the most part, they cost too much for cities. We’re trying to find that hybrid approach to this. Is there a way to generate data from things that we already have and do or cheaper technologies that get us maybe not the entire universe of data that’s available, but enough data to make that decision that’s going to still have the same or close to the same ultimate impact on what you is trying to solve there? That’s the two big key things to keep in mind.

It also touches on as a city leader or an administrator, your job is to be risk-averse for the most part. All of these new things that will improve lives for the citizens require some financial or reputation risk. How do you keep the balance and keep things moving forward? 

Technology is ever-changing and ever-evolving. You're never going to be able to sit back and say, 'We're done. We're good.' Click To Tweet

There’s a need to be able to justify the value immediately on any of these new technologies that a city is looking to acquire. Think about having to go to your municipal council, your governing body and say, “We want to spend $10 million on smart streetlights that have ShotSpotter. They track all of the parking spaces that are open or not open in that area and they track traffic flow.” The question that the council or the governing bodies going to turn and say as well, “That sounds nice, but what’s the value? Why are we investing all this money? It’s interesting to know these things, but how does it help us?” There has to be a connection to the relevance and the why and the outcomes as well. Maybe it’s nice to know how many parking spaces are available in a neighborhood, but is that improving the quality of life for people? Is there a way to help make that improve the quality of life for people? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Sometimes it might help and it might improve quality of life, but it may not be worth $10 million. It may only be worth $500,000. There’s got to be a way to do that in a different way.

Your thoughts on delivering value through technology as a tool is in sync with mine. I’ve enjoyed the stock a lot. Thank you for making time for us. 

Thank you. It’s been great being on the show. I appreciate it.

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About Brian Platt

Brian Platt is the City Manager/Business Administrator for Jersey City, NJ. The position is similar to the role of Chief Operating Officer but for a city government.

He was previously the Chief Innovation Officer for Jersey City, NJ and helped create the Jersey City Office of Innovation in 2015 (thanks to a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies).

The office focuses on addressing Jersey City’s most complex challenges utilizing a data-driven, collaborative, community-based approach to problem-solving. Major projects include initiatives seeking to better support small businesses and mitigating local flooding and pollution of waterways through better stormwater management.

Brian previously worked for McKinsey & Company and as a kindergarten teacher with Teach For America.

Brian completed his Masters in Public Administration at Columbia University.

Brian was recently included on the “Traeger List” as one of the top 100 local government leaders in the United States in 2017, 2018, and 2019 (ranked number 2 in 2019). He has also been highlighted on the INSIDER NJ 2018 list of top 100 millennials in New Jersey government and politics and as a Government Innovator of the Week by Bloomberg Cities.

Brian is extremely involved in the Jersey City community. Some of his hobbies include:

Teaching Olympic weightlifting at CrossFit Jersey City

Volunteering as an Emergency Medical Responder with United Rescue

Serving as President and co-founder of the Hudson County Young Democrats, a grassroots political organization with a mission to expand civic activism and engagement in the political process for young people throughout Hudson County

Serving as a board member and co-founder of Content Creators Academy (CCAJC), an after-school youth mentorship program focusing on digital media skills