How do we create cities of the future? How can we strengthen the American economy at a grassroots level? How do we make government services work more effectively to better serve citizens?
Big questions, all of them. And on any given day, they form the intellectual landscape for Washington, D.C., policymaker Peter Smith ’06, JD ’09.
He’s a lawyer and an economic analyst helping to lead a U.S. Social Security Administration project examining labor market changes over the past 30 years and setting federal policy on how skills and education prepare individuals for the modern economy. The chair of the FIU Law Alumni Association DC Chapter, he founded a nonprofit law firm in Baltimore that helps startup businesses. And in 2014, Smith was selected by the Next City organization as one of the nation’s 40 Under 40 emerging urban leaders working to improve cities.
“I’m a big believer in the value of broad experiences,” says Smith. “When you’re working on a problem that no one has cracked before, you never know from where your inspiration may come. The more clearly that you see relationships that aren’t so apparent on the surface, the more effective of a problem-solver you’ll become.”
Smith landed in the Beltway in 2009 after earning double bachelor’s degrees in sociology/anthropology and international relations, followed by a law degree. At the Social Security Administration, he’s involved with several large-scale, multi-agency, data sharing projects. In examining labor markets to set policy, Smith’s work affects dozens of federal and state programs, from access to healthcare, eligibility for welfare and return-to-work/vocational rehab programs to financial aid/student loan repayment waivers, transportation and housing services.
He’s also part of the White House initiative to push for more interactive collaboration and data exchange between agencies, and more data-driven policy.
Turns out the Social Security Administration—the federal social insurance program for retirement, disability and survivors’ benefits—holds a great deal of social, economic and demographic data that can be useful to public policy researchers. One problem they are looking at in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health involves individuals suffering from schizophrenia.
“We are using the data and reaching out to experts and saying, ‘This is our problem what do you suggest to fix it?’ ” he says. “These are huge issues that touch every single American.”
Of course, Smith notes, cities matter when you are tackling such issues. He thinks a lot about Miami and, in particular, how his alma mater can shape the city’s future.
“We have this sweet spot now where Miami is this hip spot in the world,” he says. “History tells us that won’t last. Miami has some substantial hurdles to get over, and FIU has a role to play in that.”
Miami needs a strong public research university to support the expansion of an educated workforce, Smith says, and it ranks near the bottom of educational attainment among American cities.
Along with an educated workforce, cities also need infrastructure to spur entrepreneurship. Smith decided to see if he could help create that infrastructure in his home city of Baltimore. The city, though smaller than Miami, is full of young, motivated entrepreneurs, many of them coming from Johns Hopkins University, says Smith.
He founded Condesa Union, a nonprofit law firm that gives no-cost legal advice to entrepreneurs trying to get their business off the ground. “We are working with people who have the ideas,” he says. “They see opportunities but they don’t know how to take that opportunity and make it real.”
His work with Condesa Union helped earn him selection for the prestigious Vanguard Conference held by Next City. The 40 under 40 “changemakers” come together to exchange ideas on how to improve cities across sectors, including urban planning, community development, entrepreneurship, government, transportation, sustainability, design, art and media.
What Smith realized from the conference is that it can be easy to come up with big sweeping ideas, but “it’s harder to come up with small ideas that you can do, for instance, building pedestrian infrastructure.”
For now, Smith is working in both realms — big sweeping ideas, like better managing and sharing the data of the world’s largest social security system, and also grassroots ideas, like giving a startup business a shot at making it in his local community. Where his career will go next, he isn’t quite sure.
“My plan has always been to remain as flexible as possible and keep myself as open as possible to as many potential opportunities as I can,” he says. “You get out there and take in all these ideas. That’s what makes being here so exciting.” ♦