Just as engineers need to build buildings that don't fall down, we need to construct public institutions that won't crumble.

This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Last week, the UN reported that more than half of humanity now lives in cities; by 2050 two-thirds of people will, up from just 30% in 1950. Given the grave challenges facing the world’s booming urban areas—including global warming, economic dislocation, and crumbling basic infrastructure, among other torments—tomorrow’s mayors will need to take bold steps to ensure their constituents live in dignity and safety. But public distrust of dysfunctional, faceless government is profound, resources are limited, gaps between groups are widening, and many are unaware of the role of government in their lives—which makes citizens less likely to support major initiatives.

Population Living in Cities

2/3 of the world population will be living in cities by the year 2050.

One way to fill the drained reservoir of public trust in municipal government is to make city hall more visibly—and continuously—responsive. Digital technology can help: by using data to optimize the use of limited city resources and communicate clearly (with a friendly voice) across a range of platforms, a city can make life noticeably better for its citizens. The hard question is whether cities will use data to make genuine citizen and neighborhood engagement—affecting policy decisions and the allocation of resources, and potentially solving some problems altogether—possible. So far, cities in America are being cautious. There is much more that could be done.

A few weekends ago, at a “Civic Academy” put on by the City of Boston’s Department of Information Technology aimed at training neighborhood groups to use social media tools, Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the microphone in a short-sleeved shirt to provide some energetic cheerleading: “We want to make sure we’re using every channel available” to reach constituents, he said—including every flavor of social platform, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram. (This is a link to a list of every social channel maintained by Boston.) What’s great about Boston’s training sessions, taking plac in the city’s new District Hall innovation space in South Boston, is that their goal is to help neighborhoods help themselves–not just publicity for city initiatives.

Communicating by way of social media is both easy and helpful. Boston’s tireless tweeting following the Marathon bombing of last year and during the endless snowstorms of this past winter unquestionably made an enormous difference to Bostonians and others anxious for news. Boston is not alone in its creative use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. New York City has more than 300 social media channels, and the City of Chicago is not far behind. Many cities collect and analyze geolocated public tweets to help them get ahead of urban issues; when people Tweet about train delays or noises, the city can listen.

Social Media

300 Number of social media channels run by New York City in 2014.

When it comes to policy decisions, however, digital technology is mostly being used to announce rather than construct. The City of Palo Alto lets anyone access, visualize, and share its budget and financial information by way of its OpenGov Platform. Houston hosts an online Budget Bootcamp that decodes city budget lingo, and many cities ensure that their budget figures are easily available online.

Participatory budgeting, in which citizens have a hand in allocating resources, has both a long history in Brazil and the support of the White House but has been slow to emerge in U.S. cities. In New York City, residents of ten participating city council districts voted earlier this year on how to spend about $14 million of capital funds. Similarly small experiments in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as a recent youth-oriented effort in Boston, have not had a significant effect on policy.

Just as engineers need to build buildings that don’t fall down, we need to construct public institutions that won’t crumble. It is now possible for cities to use screens, data, and handheld devices to help neighborhoods be visible to themselves—what are the issues? where are the resources?—and allow citizens to organize in ways that will provide dignified, useful assistance to one another and, in partnership, to the city as a whole. (See, for example, Micah Sifry’s recent story here on techPresident on the work that SeeClickFix is enabling in concert with the city of New Haven.) All the best-intentioned tweets in the world won’t substitute for finding a way to authentically harness and respond to civic energy. Governments are part of neighborhoods and aren’t moving; getting people used to working together this way is essential.