Columbia to Host Technology and Innovation Conference July 13-14

June 08, 2015

Columbia University’s School of International Affairs (SIPA) will hold a major international conference in July on Technology and Innovation in the Public Service, uniting leading scholars and practitioners from city government in Rio de Janeiro, New York City, Mumbai and Beijing.

Scheduled for July 13 and 14 at Columbia, the conference will feature five new audiovisual case studies, filmed on location in US, and at Columbia Global Centers in Brazil and India that were researched and developed as part of a President’s Global Innovation Fund Award project. 

Program Enters Year Two and Expands to US

The “Technology and Innovation in the Public Service” conference has been developed in conjunction with another important SIPA/Columbia Global Centers initiative: the Global Executive Masters in Public Administration, which launched its first cohort of 23 students at the Rio de Janeiro Center in January 2015.

These students will all be in New York City in July for their summer session and to present research at the conference.


The conference will coincide with the New York visit of the inaugural class of the School’s new Global Executive Masters in Public Administration program (see sidebar at right). For more details, see the conference website.

“SIPA has long been a leading of building classroom experiences around real work policy cases, and we decided to build on this tradition,” explains project Director William B. Eimicke.

“We were fortunate to receive funding to develop projects across several Global Centers, and combine a professional case research team with a PBS-quality film team. The results are spectacular, and allow us to focus discussion in a classroom made up of people from many different countries on concrete cases and issues.”

The event will feature opening remarks by Provost John Coatsworth and School Dean Merit E. Janow. The two-day conference will feature audiovisual case studies on issues that include India’s new “Digital India” campaign, school reform in Rio de Janeiro, and the creation of public private partnerships for green space in New York.

“While the cases cut across at several areas and several countries, all are united by two key themes at the School – the use of online tools to expand the scope of delivery of public services, and the creating new forms of public private partnerships for the delivery of these services” explains Arvid Lukauskas, executive director of the Picker Center for Executive Education and the Program in Economic Policy Management at the School.

The conference will feature a keynote luncheon address by Professor Saskia Sassen, director of the Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought and a leading scholar on issues surrounding global cities. Panels will also feature Al Fishlow, director of the School’s Institute of Latin American Studies, Ester Fuchs, director of the School’s Urban and Social Policy Program, and Eimicke’s co-Principal investigators Michael Sparer, chairman at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Brian Perkins, director of the Urban Education Leadership Program at Columbia’s Teacher’s College.

“SIPA has a special relationship with the Global Centers and a long history of interdisciplinary collaboration with schools across Columbia," Janow said. "This conference and the Picker Center case studies are strong examples of how SIPA's expertise and resources can add value to the entire University."

“As we looked to innovate and use new digital tools to expand the scope of SIPA’s teaching, we knew that case studies needed to be at the center of our work” explains Adam Stepan, the director of the Picker Center Digital Education Group. “Professor Eimicke’s long history of service in city and state government opened doors, and allowed us to get cameras in places that normal documentary film crews would not be able to enter.”

The Picker Center team included both student researches and professional case writers, who traveled on location with the film crew. The results are a collection of 10-minute films and traditional 15-20 page written cases, all delivered on the School’s new digital platform.

“We have used our initial cases in both online and face-to face classroom settings,” explains Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and faculty sponsor of “Public Private Partnerships for Green Space in NYC,” a case that explores the Central Park Conservancy and the Highline.

“For students who don’t know NYC, or know the history of NYC, and the degree of degradation that we had in our parks in the 1970s and 1980’s, seeing these images, and hearing directly from these players and actors has huge value” explains Cohen (see photo at left).

Another featured case is “From Compstat to Gov 2.0 – Big Data in NYC”, which goes inside the New York City police department, and explores the creation of the modern “Big Data” revolution, with interviews with Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Police Chief William Bratton.

“This was the first time a film crew had been allowed inside a Compstat meeting in 20 years,” explains Eimicke (see photo at right). “The case allows our students an unprecedented inside look at how a 50,000 person police force is run, and opens the door for all sorts of additional research and discussion."

Another related case explores the use of “Big Data” in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, both at the Rio Mayor’s own “Geek Squad,” and by the Rio de Janeiro police force, who worked with IBM and others to create a state of the art new command and control center.

The case covers also an innovative and controversial new program to use and test body cameras on patrol in Rio’s newly pacified slums or favelas (see photo at left), as well as a project to map many of these communities.

"We were pleased to have had Mayor Eduardo Paes of Rio recently at SIPA's annual Gala and to host 40 officials from Rio's city hall at an executive training this year," Janow said. "Our connection to Rio is an important one. We feel this new case will bring a critical perspective to a timely issue that is impacting cities around the world.”

Other cases also explore digital tools used to deliver government services. “Digital India,” which features an interview with acclaimed Columbia economist Jagdish Bhagwati (pictured at below right), explores the campaign by new Indian Prime Minister Modi to collect biometric data for India’s 1.2 billion citizens, and greatly expand a series of projects aimed to include India’s rural masses in its economic mainstream.

“We were able to film inside a major Indian IT firm, as well as with top officials in the government and also private players such as Citibank and others,” explains Stepan. “There is a huge value to actually seeing these places, and seeing how these technologies are being used in a place such as rural India.  When combined with our in-depth written case, and the additional materials we make available on the course website, we deliver a comprehensive package that allows students to immerse themselves in a certain issue."

Other cases to be featured include “eDoctors,” on innovation in telemedicine in India, and “Letting Them Learn,” a study of the research of Teachers College Professor Brian Perkins on urban schools in NY, Rio and Mumbai.

For director Eimicke, the role of key faculty advisors and sponsors is key.

“Here at SIPA, and at partner schools such as Teachers College and Mailman, we have the world’s best and most diverse faculty, an amazing collection of experts. We relay on their research and scholarship, and also their on-the-ground knowledge and perspective.”

The other key ingredient to making the case studies possible has been the active involvement of the Rio, Mumbai and Beijing Global Centers. With grants from the President’s Global Innovation Fund, each has assigned local researchers and facilitators to support the on the ground research and filming efforts.

“We feel the case method has great promise, and can be a unifier across geographies” explains Safwan Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. “While not all these innovations and programs are perfect, there is much to be learned from studying these new projects, and a great desire across the Global Center network for South-South learning and exchanges. Cases like these, and conferences such as this one, deliver on that promise.”

The conference is open to the public but space is limited.

Registration information and a complete agenda of cases and speakers may be found at:


Related Links

Q&A with William B. Eimicke, director of Global EMPA program


What is driving this kind of gathering to take place now at Columbia?

Eimicke: The Columbia Global Center network formally expanded to eight centers in 2013, positioning it to offer a new level of teaching and scholarship. Our conference will be the first major conference at Columbia funded by a President’s Innovation Fund award specifically to connect Global Centers and promote this sort of exchange.

The conference will also coincide with our first cohort of 23 Brazilian students in our Global Executive Masters in Public Administration program. These students will have a chance to connect with top scholars, and visitors from India, China and other locations. Finally, we will be debuting what we feel is an important innovation in teaching – audiovisual case studies. So it’s a time of a lot of exciting firsts!

How are Columbia and the School of International and Public Affairs in the right place to host such a conference?

Eimicke: SIPA is the School of International and Public Affairs, and from our founding we have had a mission to both be international and look at governance. So it is great to be able to host a conference that combines these two key aspects of the School's mission.

Dean Janow, Provost Coatsworth and Safwan Masri have provided the leadership and support to make this event happen, and make sure that our new program fulfills this vision.

What role has the Rio de Janeiro Center and Director Tom Trebat contributed?

Eimicke: Tom Trebat has been a wonderful partner and leader in the creation of the new degree, and with his connections to both SIPA and the Global Centers network, has allowed us navigate the many challenges of launching a new program in a foreign country.

Tom and his team in Rio provided amazing support to our School staff in finding and recruiting a very distinguished cohort of high-level Brazilian public managers who make up the inaugural class of students in the new program.

What do you hope this conference will produce?

Eimicke: We feel that is important for the School to innovate in teaching, and are very excited about having a chance to share this new audiovisual case study format with the wider Columbia community. Our Digital Education Group Director Adam Stepan and his team have created powerful and thought provoking films, and also very important written cases. We look forward to having a chance to discuss and debate them with so many leading scholars. Our plans are to release these cases together with a companion academic piece that would focus on some of the big issues that run across them – how governments can use and leverage new digital technologies, structure public private partnerships, and integrate sustainability into planning.