When one thinks of the typical organisational structure of a city – be it Paris or Timbuktu – the hierarchy looks similar, with the mayor at the top, deputy mayors below and heads of departments reporting to them. Yet the CityAge conference in San Francisco, set up to discuss the resilience of cities in the face of climate change, welcomed numerous officials with titles more reminiscent of a hot tech company than a city hall, from chief innovation officers to chief operating officers.

According to Tytus Cytowski, managing partner at Cytowski & Partners, a law firm that specialises in working with start-ups, this proves more than just that city halls now speak the language of technology companies. “The shift from ‘government to Googlement’ is taking place as we speak,” says Mr Cytowski, who splits his time between the tech hotbeds of New York and San Francisco and closely follows start-up city interactions.


“It is not a trend, it is the new political reality, as there are already apps on the market that track local government spending and allow citizens to access very complicated data sets on their phone.”

San Diego deputy chief operating officer David Graham agrees that new titles in city hall go beyond mere marketing. “It would be really nice to do a publicity stunt and say ‘here is the new cool, because we have new titles’. But we do not believe that this is going to really be what is necessary,” he says.

A national trend

In the case of San Diego, the city began appointing not only chief operating officers, but also a chief sustainability officer and, since 2014, a chief data officer. “We believe that innovation in approaching the problems cities face nowadays, such as climate change, should be across all departments and not be connected with one specialty position,” says Mr Graham. “That is why people working with me are employed regardless of who the mayor is, focusing on organisational change, not political winds.”

In addition to San Diego, officials with trendy-sounding titles can be found in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago, which have all appointed chief innovation officers in the past three years.

But Marek Banczyk, visiting scholar at Columbia University and CEO of Cityglobe, a start-up aiming to link cities seeking investments with companies seeking expansion, says that when embracing new titles and structures there is a level playing field for large and small locations. “The very top global cities, even in the most developed economies, constantly look for innovation to safeguard their lead,” says Mr Banczyk. “But cities that are big enough to claim global potential but are not [considered tier one] tend to try harder, especially if on top of it they represent the emerging economies.”