The New Status Symbol for Cities

The New Status Symbol for Cities

By Barbara Fletcher

SourceGallery Stock


Being head geek for a big city is a really cool job title. Shouldn’t your hometown have one?

By Barbara Fletcher

Chief Digital Officers are hot. So hot, in fact, that there are now magazines, websites and even clubs dedicated to the profession. Market research company Gartner predicted last year that by 2015, 25 percent of companies would have a CDO, calling it the ”most exciting strategic role in the decade ahead.”

So, what does a CDO do exactly? The gig is part tech prowess, part digital alchemy. “The CDO’s job is to turn the digital cacophony into a symphony,” according to the Harvard Business Review

The gig is part tech prowess, part digital alchemy.

The role itself isn’t brand new. For years, businesses have been employing top geeks in an executive capacity to evolve and deliver the company’s digital strategies. What is new, however, is that large cities around the world, including Vancouver, Canada, and Brisbane, Australia, are starting to do it. These smart cities are hiring high-profile tech heads to boost their tech savvy – and get some serious digital business done. 

Take New York. Two years ago Mayor Bloomberg tapped firecracker Rachel Haot as the city’s CDO – the first city CDO in the world. Haot earned her nerd chops early. According to a 2011 interview with Vogue, she picked up her first Mac at 7 and designed a website – mostly fashion links – at a precocious 13. By the ripe old age of 29, she had already founded crowd-sourced GroundReport, a civic-journalism portal that enables breaking news reporting from anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. No wonder Bloomberg said of her arrival, “She isn’t entering this job walking into a headwind. She’s got a hurricane at her back.” 

Smart cities are hiring high-profile nerds to boost their tech savvy – and get some serious digital business done. 

Her goal: Make New York the country’s leading digital city through the marriage of industry and government. Not an easy feat, but Haot is not one to back down from a challenge. She credits her nana – “one of the only female union organizers in her town as a young woman,” who championed desegration and workers’ rights – as a main source of inspiration

In her two years on the job, Haot has been a cyclone of activity, bringing to fruition the strategies outlined in NYC’s “Road Map for a Digital City” – a document she put together within the first 90 days of her tenure. Under her leadership, access to free Wi-Fi has been expanded in subways and city parks, making the city more attractive to tech-industry workers. New York started an Academy for Software Engineering high school, the city’s social media audience has dramatically increased, and the digital infrastructure Haot helped set up prior to Hurricane Sandy worked to communicate emergency information to a much more plugged-in city.

Rachel Haot

Rachel Haot attends #UndocumentedNYC, in 2013

Source Getty

Hurricane indeed. 

Haot has set the bar high for CDOs following in her footsteps. Jessie Adcock was recently appointed as the inaugural tech head for Vancouver, B.C., likely the first-ever CDO for a major city in Canada. Even Toronto, the eighth-best city on the planet for startups, doesn’t have one. So, no pressure there.

Adcock starts work implementing the city’s digital strategy on October 15. Her main objectives: Increase Vancouver’s “digital maturity” and revolutionalize the way city hall conducts business. That’s quite a pair of deliverables, but for a digitally savvy self-starter – one who has a boatload of expertise in mobile, social media, e-commerce, analytics and website deployment – it’s an awesome opportunity. 

CDOs around the world are tasked with not only making their cities more tech-friendly for businesses, but with creating seamless, state-of-the-art digital experiences for residents and visitors.

Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson says the position “is critical for making sure that we’re on the cutting-edge of new technology to serve our residents and businesses.” Adcock’s experience in several senior marketing and IT roles with global financial institution HSBC, plus experience in IT and management consulting, is bound to serve her well in one of Canada’s coolest new job titles. Stay tuned.

Also new to the scene over in Australia is Kieran O’Hea, Brisbane’s first CDO. In July 2013, Brisbane became the second city in the world (after New York) to appoint a chief digital officer. Like Haot and Adcock, O’Hea holds an impressive resume, earning his geek stripes working for various government departments and doing online project consultation for the European Commission.

So what made Brisbane jump on the CDO wagon so soon? The city was “inspired by New York,” O’Hea says. Brisbane needed to “find its place in the global digital economy, which is worth an estimated $20 trillion dollars.”  

Kieran O’Hea seated second from right at a speaking event

Kieran O’Hea, CDO of Brisbane, Australia, second from right

Source Neil Duncan

O’Hea’s goals for the city look like this: Make Brisbane a more tech-friendly place to live and foster a strong startup culture in the city. This means, over the next five years, doubling the number of Brisbane companies selling online and supporting 250 digital startups – hopefully those with global export potential. 

But dazzling up Brisbane’s digital factor is not just about businesses. O’Hea is looking to improve the overall online experience for residents and visitors to Brisbane, using “state-of-the-art digital services,” which will connect them to all the information they need to enjoy the city.  

Even if other cities around the world don’t have CDOs, they are exploring ways to improve their digital infrastructure and access to information. In his role as Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Secretary of Science and Technology, Franklin Dias Coelho is working to improve the quality of life for residents in Brazil’s second-largest city via new digital infrastructure and technological resource centers. As Rio looks forward to hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, all eyes will be on the city’s ability to seamlessly connect millions of visitors and residents with the information they need.

So, whether cities are in the beginning stages of making their towns more tech-tastic or well on their way to digital bliss, it’s clear: Municipal governments are paying attention. And they’re looking for the best-of-the-best nerds to lead the way. To the geek elite: Get your resumes ready.