Dave Zelenok has gotten the green light to find new ideas for efficiency in Centennial. The city’s chief innovation officer is forging ahead in the realms of technology, partnerships and overall strategies for the city of 100,000. Photo by Peter Jones
By Peter Jones
Dave Zelenok’s job is to think out of the box – sometimes way out.
Leave it to the City of Centennial’s chief innovation officer to tie traffic-signal technology to the speedy dissemination of X-rays. As Zelenok reasons, a radiologist can spend thousands of dollars to transmit his medical images from one clinic to another – and that, he says, raises questions.
“What if it were only $55?” he asked with a gleam in his eye. “How many other radiologists would move to Centennial?”
That query is more than hypothetical for the city’s first CIO – or CINO, as the emerging position is sometimes abbreviated. Last year, Zelenok was instrumental in the placement of issue 2G on Centennial’s ballot. The successful question, which passed by a 3-to-1 margin, will essentially allow the city to lease its 48 miles of publicly owned fiber-optic lines to the private sector.
So far, those cables have been used only for traffic-signal operations and for connecting public facilities, but the city is expected to develop as-yet-undefined deals with cable and Internet companies on a noncompetitive basis.
“We may end up someday as the nation’s 19th gigabit city if that’s where City Council wants to take us,” Zelenok said.
Such brainchildren are the planned offspring of the Centennial CIO and his targeted chin scratching. As director of innovation, Zelenok is an idea man by practice and job description. A wide-ranging conversation about his position can cover everything from the theory of relativity to Google glasses.
While other city staff members get caught up in the habits of workaday lives, it is Zelenok’s job to sift through that morass of municipal government in search of new ideas and efficiencies, especially in today’s high-tech world.
“I’m out of the woods and kind of into the big-picture stuff,” Zelenok said.
The notion of a chief innovation officer – a term first coined in the late 1990s – was born out of the idea that the “innovation process” within an organization should be proactive in such realms as technology, partnerships and overall strategies.
The job title is still in its infancy, but is growing in popularity, especially in municipal government. Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., are among the other 20-plus U.S. cities that have introduced some variation on the position.
Zelenok, an admitted techie, took a circuitous route to CIO. The civil engineer and Air Force reservist is the former public works director for Colorado Springs, where he oversaw the city’s airport, bus system and toll roads, in addition to its snow removal, street maintenance and traffic-engineering programs.
He joined Centennial as a public works consultant in 2007, overseeing the young city’s transition from county public works to a private contract with CH2M Hill.
“If I did my job correctly, I’d written myself out of a job,” he said.
When his position was effectively eliminated, Zelenok served briefly as Centennial’s interim city manager before permanent City Manager John Danielson tapped him for the newly created innovation post.
“My heart is in the technical side and looking to arrange partnerships and create crazy new ideas in technology and apply them,” Zelenok said. “John comes in and says, ‘You know, Dave. You have all these crazy ideas. Let’s make you CIO.’ The common theme seems to be looking for ways to cut through the organization.”
One of Zelenok’s first functions was obvious enough to be “innovative.”
“I was amazed we hadn’t synchronized the red lights. It seems like such an easy thing,” he said. “While we were doing that, we made sure we put enough fiber-optic cable in so we could use it for other purposes.”
Zelenok later successfully lobbied to get GPS devices on the city’s snowplows, increasing efficiency by as much as 93 miles at no additional cost, he says.
More recently, Zelenok has been mulling ways to renegotiate Centennial’s arrangement with Xcel Energy to power streetlights. The city currently pays the power supplier $1 million annually – or $20 per streetlight every month. By Zelenok’s math, only about $2 of that bill actually pays for energy.
“What happens if we buy out the asset?” he asked. “We are a city government. We can condemn if want to. We can also cut that bill from $20 down to less than $1 if we change out the [less efficient] bulbs and incentivize a restructure with Xcel.”
Meanwhile, Zelenok has also been studying less expensive ways to facilitate left turns with what will likely be Colorado’s second-ever “displaced left turn.”
“Basically, you’re making the left turn way before you get to the intersection, so when you get to the intersection, you’ve already made your left turn. It triples the capacity and you don’t need to build bridges and have all these millions of dollars in infrastructure,” Zelenok said.
Although Centennial’s CIO has gotten the innovation ball rolling in his familiar stomping grounds of public works, he hopes to eventually take his thinking cap to other areas of city government, from animal control to public relations, though he admits not all of his ideas will make it past the drawing board.
“We chase down so many rabbit holes, and maybe nine or 10 are just dry holes,” he said. “What it all really boils down to in my brain is the benefits have to outweigh the costs.”
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