Trends In Focus: Understanding Technology & Civic Change

Posted by Tracey Ross on

Over the past few years there has been a significant amount of energy and technical expertise focused on identifying and solving urban problems within the technology community. According to Jennifer Pahlka, Founder & Executive Director of Code for America, nearly 550 people applied for one of their 26 fellowships to help cities create web-based solutions to civic problems. With hundreds of civic-minded web developers interested in improving cities, there is a growing sense of the untapped potential to use technology to drive civic change. On Thursday, January 19, Living Cities hosted its first Trends in Focus forum to better understand how technology can increase the capacity for civic engagement, collective problem-solving and improved service delivery in cities for the benefit of low-income people.

At Thursday’s event, Harvard Professor Archon Fung presented a frame for understanding innovations in civic technology, focusing on two questions: Why are we doing this work, and how well are we doing it? (To access our version of the frame, click here.) According to Fung, the following categories capture the ways in which technological innovations are transforming cities:

  • E-services – Efforts to use digital technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban services
  • Transparency - Use of digital technology to make information available that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible
  • Co-production – Technology creates opportunities for city residents to participate in the production of public services
  • E-Democracy – Technology enables citizens to shape public policies and public actions that affect people’s lives

However, not all technology is created equal. Fung explained that some innovations can appeal only to a niche group, while others are fully transformative. Most civic technologies are somewhere in the middle where their use is beginning to change how people relate to one another and their local government.

We got a preview of some of these technologies from five civic entrepreneurs and technologists working to bring this transformative potential to cities (for a list of some of these innovations, click here). The presenters included:

  • Nick Grossman, Executive Director, Civic Commons
  • Jennifer Pahlka, Founder/Executive Director, Code for America
  • Nigel Jacob & Chris Osgood, Co-Chairs, Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston
  • Rachel Sterne, Chief Digital Officer, City of New York
  • Dan O’Neil, Executive Director, Smart Chicago Collaborative

What follows are four of the central ideas articulated during the presentation and subsequent discussion. As technology and social networks are seemingly disrupting every aspect of how we live, work, and play, we believe these five ideas and the questions they raise will help civic leaders consider how technology can play a role in addressing some of their most pressing challenges.

1. The innovation to date in this space has often been driven by the perspectives of technologists, and not yet fully informed by a clearly articulated agenda from city officials. Work that is weighted toward a “technology down” approach rather than a “community up” approach means that the power of technology to meet a city’s most challenges issues is not yet fully being explored. There is an opportunity for urban leaders and technologists to engage in a more sustained dialogue around challenges at the systems level that impact low-income people.

2. Innovations in Civic Technology are mostly transactional rather than transformational. Government officials often think about technology from a functional perspective – permitting, GIS, etc – but there’s less thought on how to develop cross-silo approaches, or how these innovations are scalable. In addition, there are many new technologies that collect and aggregate data, such as real-time transit information, but there is a greater opportunity to turn this data into information that could transform how a city works (ex: transportation planning).

3. Information technology is spurring a renegotiation of responsibilities between citizens and government. In a time of constrained public resources and mistrust of government, technologies that enable citizens to play an active role in shaping their community can help address both challenges. Users of the mobile app “Citizens Connect,” which enables Boston residents to alert the city to neighborhood issues such as potholes, have remarked that they no longer feel like they are complaining, but solving problems.

4. More concerted attention has to be paid to how these trends can be harnessed for the benefit of low-income people. This has to be done both from the supply side or developer-driven side – tracking changes in technology and imagining applications that improve the way low-income people experience government and democracy -- and from the demand side – starting by identifying the needs of low-income people and then imagining technological applications that address their challenges.