The Disruptive Power of Civic Tech

Posted by Ben Hecht on

Our first Living Cities’ Trends in Focus on Technology for Civic Change, or ‘civic tech’ as its popularly referred to, was a pretty remarkable, three hour tutorial on the state of this emerging area, as Tracey Ross’ blog post reflects. One could minimize the importance of this work as typical technology-driven hype or a bunch of hackers trying to do good but the promise of civic tech is much more than that. The promise lies in its potential to harness the disruptive power of the Internet, accelerate the pace of innovation on multiple fronts in the usually sclerotic public sector and bring about permanent change because of pressure caused by wide-scale citizen adoption. Technology for civic change brings a totally unique set of assets together for the first time in the public sphere, including the:

  • Creative, distributive and democratizing power of the Internet;
  • Current ‘application’ writing craze that’s transformed the private sector;
  • Ability to electronically associate public information and data in an historically single-function government setting;
  • Possibility of introducing money-saving approaches in challenging economic times; and
  • Potential of viral adoption by great numbers by citizens that would drive systems and culture change in the government.

What’s also great about this work is that there are simple and effective ways, as set out by Harvard Professor Archon Fung, of evaluating success:

  • Was the application used by as many people as the off-line method? Were more people served because of additional choices;
  • Did the application perform the same task better than the off-line method, so everyone uses it? Did it become the new standard way of doing business/task.
  • Did the application allow people to accomplish their goal in ways that would have been impossible through non-digital methods? Did it create a completely new product/service that is broadly adopted?

To date, a lot of innovation in this space has focused on improving civic life generally, from real-time bus schedules to virtual land use planning. It’s not hard to imagine how civic tech, intentionally applied to the lives of low-income people and communities, could be transformational – from changing the relationship between police and neighborhoods and to enabling online appointment scheduling and enrollment for public benefits that now force people to take off work or suffer face-to-face humiliations. Kudos to organizations like Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Code for America and Civic Commons for blazing this trail for the rest of the country.