Michael Slaby and Debra Lam Bring Inspiration to Pittsburgh

“Bonafide bad ass.” This was the phrase of the night according to guest emcee Andrew Butcher at GBA’s April 9 Inspire Speakers Series lecture. Butcher himself was kind of a bad ass, seamlessly leading the audience through the evening’s kick-off without lights or audio for a time when a thunderstorm caused a brief power outage. Once the lights flickered back on, the night continued without a hitch and our speakers – Michael Slaby and Debra Lam – indeed inspired the audience with their perspectives on innovation and engagement.

GTECH Vacant Lots

Andrew Butcher shares a map of Pittsburgh’s vacant lots.

As guest emcee, Butcher laid the groundwork for our lecture topic – Reimagining Engagement – by reminding us that while we might know the answers to some of our region’s challenges (Butcher used Pittsburgh’s vacant lot issue as an example… did you know there are 30,000 vacant lots in the city?), what we really need to do is distribute knowledge and capacity to others who can take action where action is possible. “If knowledge is power,” he asks, “how do we give that power away?” He called on GTECH’s unofficial mascot, the sunflower, to demonstrate: One sunflower has the potential to distribute 500 seeds, and those seeds each have the potential to plant one more sunflower, which has the potential to spread 500 more seeds, and so on. With this in mind, the audience could envision true engagement as seeds being spread across a field, each with its own distinct role in achieving a shared goal.

Debra Lam

Debra Lam talks innovation and engagement.

Debra Lam, who according to Butcher has been charged with bringing “cool” to Pittsburgh, is the city’s Chief Innovation & Performance Officer. Lam, whose department includes the city’s sustainability initiatives, quoted her boss, Mayor Bill Peduto, to introduce the goals and engagement points of her work: “It is now our moment, our opportunity — indeed, it is our duty — to create the next Pittsburgh:  A city that gleams not only with the lights and glass of our towers, but one that also glows with the hope of revived neighborhoods, that thrives in a renewed sense of possibility for every child born here.”

“We all know Pittsburgh is great,” Lam said. “But we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think it could be improved.” In terms of engagement, Lam wanted to make it clear that everyone has a role in creating the “next” Pittsburgh: the public sector, private sector, foundations, businesses, communities, government, individuals, non-profits, everyone! For her part, Lam asked herself: how can the city of Pittsburgh take innovation to the next level and how can it make that innovation more inclusive? This led to the creation of her Innovation Roadmap, which attempts to translate the tons of data collected by the city over the past year into action. Lam described the main elements of that Innovation Roadmap:

  • Expand digital infrastructure
  • Empower citizen to city engagement
  • Enhance public services
  • Improve internal operations and capacity
  • Advance the clean tech sector
  • Promote Pittsburgh’s business environment

The really cool thing about Lam’s work is that she’s only been in her position for one year and she’s already re-crafted and re-branded what was once essentially the city’s IT department. She didn’t make any changes lightly; she listened to staff members and stakeholders, observed, and collected information. Then she got started and by the time of her presentation, already had nearly 100 actions underway towards meeting the goals of her Roadmap. How can we help the city down the road towards achieving the goals of this Roadmap? “We want your insights and recommendations,” said Lam. “You can’t complain about city government unless you tell us what we can do better.” True that. We can all consider ourselves officially invited to engage with city government and help make innovation as inclusive as possible.

Michael Slaby

Michael Slaby demonstrates a shift in the way we think of communications.

For Michael Slaby’s part, his mission for the evening was to show us what true engagement can look like at scale. And when I say scale, I mean like, millions of people. Slaby played a key role in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and was able to engage an unprecedented number of people over social media – volunteers, campaigners, voters – towards a shared goal: winning the election. But Slaby won’t let social media alone take too much credit for those successful campaigns. “People talk about how ‘social media won those elections,'” he said. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was about politicians with ideas talking to people, but technology allowed us to scale up and reach more people.”

Turning the conversation towards the theme of this year’s Inspire Speakers Series, Creating the Most Livable Places for All, Slaby asked: “How do we know we’re succeeding at building sustainable communities?” To answer, Slaby had these suggestions for any organization hoping to succeed in engaging people and reaching its goals.

  • Always maintain clarity of mission: Things move fast. If you need to make an important decision quickly, you should always be able to look to your mission and make swift decisions. Also, if you have consistency of purpose, you’ll be able talk meaningfully about that purpose and empower others to talk about it accurately, too. In short: know who you are.
  • Data convinces, but emotion inspires: Good content and good storytelling are imperative to draw others to your mission.  According to Slaby, people who run effective movements are great storytellers. They build storytelling into the entire process of their daily work so they’re able to share that work in a meaningful way with others.
  • Build velocity of engagement: Guide people up your ladder of engagement from Awareness to Affiliation to Action to Advocacy. Good storytelling is part of this, but it’s also about realizing the right engagement points and not overdoing it. Remember that not everyone lives and breathes your mission like you do; your mission is a part of their lives but it’s not their whole lives.
  • It’s about connection, not audience: Organizations always talk about “audience.” Who is our audience? How do we expand our audience and best reach that audience? To Slaby, that word sounds too passive. You don’t want people to simply listen to what you’re saying, you want them to feel connected to it as part of a network. “We’re all comfortable thinking of social media as a network,” says Slaby. “But all communications are networks now.”
  • Infuse with inspiration: Draw inspiration and innovation into and across your organization so you and the people you engage can become more empowered to reach your goals.
  • Empower others: Make sure everyone knows how their part impacts the larger goal. Show them how they work into the larger story and again, make sure they have a clear understanding of your purpose so they can share it with more people.
Inspire Speakers Series

Terri Baltimore (Hill House), Andrew Butcher (GTECH), Debra Lam (City of Pittsburgh), Michael Slaby (Timshel), and Mike Schiller (Green Building Alliance).

Michael Slaby, Debra Lam, and Andrew Butcher provided our audience with some great new perspectives on innovation and engagement. I’d say the 100+ people in the Elsie H. Hilman auditorium that night feel prepared to go out and spread their seeds of inspiration and engagement throughout the community, with perhaps a little more clarity than they had before.

We’d like to offer a big thanks to our speakers, our co-presenting partners, and everyone who joined us for the April edition of this lecture series. Don’t miss the season finale of this year’s Inspire Speakers Series on May 14 with Charles Montgomery and Chris Koch. Learn more and register here.

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