We recently kicked off in earnest a project in Louisville to develop a piece of technology aimed at engaging low-income Millennials (young adults ages 18-30) in city planning processes. This project comes as part of a broader Living Cities effort to better understand the potential for tech to deepen civic engagement and improve the lives of low-income people, and to help us explore roles we might play in maximizing this potential in the future. Part one of this piece explored issues related to Millennials and civic engagement. Part two focuses on issues related to the “Digital Divide” and designing effective civic tech solutions.

Digital Divide ≠ Civic Divide

Young African-American men are among those likely to face a digital divide in urban cities, but are also among the leading mobile device users in the country.

In our research on civic tech, we heard a lot of criticism that civic app developers are designing apps in ways that ignore the “digital divide,” which runs the risk of undercutting civic tech’s potential equalizing power. Some have advised us to design our tech solution for “least common denominator” technologies – namely “feature phones,” which have calling and text capabilities but no internet access. But a review of existing research by OpenPlans and discussions at our kickoff suggest that the situation is more complex. In short, the digital divide does not in and of itself create a civic divide.

OpenPlans’ research review suggests that young adults, at a rate almost unaffected by income, use mobile devices including smartphones in their daily lives. In fact, OpenPlans found that, nationally, low-income young adults actually use mobile devices at a higher rate than higher-income older adults _. However, participants at our kickoff weren’t so sure that these statistics play out the same way in Louisville as they do elsewhere, and pointed out that mobile devices aren’t necessarily used by everyone under the same conditions. We heard that many young people use public parks and other “hotspots” to access the internet in lieu of paying for data plans, while others use feature phones instead of smartphones. These differences both present potential challenges to reaching a broader audience, but also present new opportunities for engagement – for example, are there ways to promote engagement at existing Wi-Fi hotspots like parks or coffee shops? Could we find a way to get feature phone users to partner with smartphone users as they use our tech solution?

More concerning for our purposes is research that suggests that low-income Millennials are far less likely to engage in civic life than their higher-income counterparts for reasons including mistrust of government, smaller networks, and a feeling that they lack opportunities to put their skills to use. It will be critical for us to find ways to build potential users’ trust and address other such “soft” barriers.

We will be engaging directly with young adults in Louisville and the organizations that serve them in order to reality-test our assumptions and to find the “right” ways to design and deploy our tech solution.

Awesome Technology for the Problems behind the Problem

To some critics, leading with technology without at least a hypothesis about factors underlying the problem you’re trying to solve is like…well, you get the idea.

We went into this project determined to lead with a focus on the problem we are trying to solve before deciding on the form a tech solution might take. This approach came in response to a common criticism of civic tech tools, which we and OpenPlans reported in our Field Scan late last year: that they focus on “awesome technology” ahead of the outcomes cities and their residents seek to achieve. There are a lot of great civic tech tools out there, and it can be valuable to take these platforms and look for as many ways as possible to apply their capabilities to civic issues. And yet, leading with technology can at times obscure deeper, systemic issues that inhibit civic engagement.

We are still in the process of defining the barriers that inhibit engagement between city governments and low-income young adults, and I expect problem definition to be an iterative process. But one potential dimension of the problem is a “vicious cycle” feedback loop between long-term planning and engagement in which:

  • Organizations engage with communities around “grand visions” or ambitious long-term plans
  • These plans generate few visible, near-term results, undermining community trust in planning processes
  • Future planning efforts start with a “credibility deficit” before engagement even begins, further disconnecting planning efforts from community needs and priorities

A visual representation of the “Cycle of Disengagement” in neighborhood and city planning

This cycle makes it important to build meaningful and motivating near-term rewards into an engagement process focused on a long-term vision.We’re currently developing “straw dog” product concepts to help get us there.

Now the key question for us is: will this approach lead us to materially different results than the “typical” approach? We’ll find out in the coming months.

This blog post is part of our ongoing commitment to “open source” our work on this project. Stay tuned for more, and let us know what you think below, via email ( tnovotny@livingcities.org) or via Twitter ( @tamirnovotny, @living_cities).

Photo Credits: _ The Grio; The ‘__ Daly’ Planet Blog_