Can Technology Be The Great Equalizer In Cities?

By Ben Hecht • April 2, 2013

This article originally appeared on Living Cities. This post is a response to a group blogging event organized by Meeting of the Minds and Tumml.

At their best, cities are the engine for national prosperity and individual economic opportunity for all people. However, increasingly, the systems designed to make this so are failing as they were built in a different era on now outdated assumptions. The failure of these systems to adapt to changing social, technological, economic, and political forces has led to unprecedented growth in economic disparity. Now, digital technologies and social networks seem to be transforming every aspect of our lives—profoundly reshaping notions of connection and community. These developments have boundless promise for addressing inequality. But, fulfilling this promise will require an intentional and sustained focus on ensuring that transformational technology is applied to address our seemingly intractable social and economic problems.

Here are three ways that, if harnessed effectively, technology can be the great equalizer in cities:

Connecting People to Opportunity and Services. Today, there is a new ‘social operating system’ that is in stark contrast to the one that was built on geography and small tight-knit groups. People—connected by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and online discussion forums are now part of broad, loose and complex networks that readily share information and mobilize. And, as the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project states, because of the mobile phone, information is increasingly portable, participatory and personal. Scores of businesses are innovating on mobile technology. Over 600,000 apps have been developed in the last three years alone. Similarly, the proliferation of the online economy is creating new marketplaces that connect people to everything from transportation (Zipcar) to accommodation (AirBnB). We have seen how these technologies can be used to drive social movements and democratize the creation and dissemination of information, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. But, much work remains in terms of leaders adopting them to drive large scale social change. The vast majority of apps have little to no overt social impact, yet one can imagine myriad ways that social and mobile technologies can be used to better connect people to child care, social services, and jobs in new ways.

There are, to be sure, some promising examples of how this could work. Txt2Wrk helps connect disadvantaged jobseekers with timely employment opportunities via SMS. The project emerged from a participatory design process at an Oakland hackathon in which a formerly incarcerated participant described the challenges of job search for those with limited resources and no home computer or broadband connection. And, Castlight Health works like the popular travel site Kayak to compare healthcare costs at different facilities, taking your insurance coverage into account. However, in order to meet the immense promise inherent in these technologies, innovations such as these must become the norm rather than the exception.

Transforming Education. Every day we are confronted with more evidence of the grand-scale failings of the US education system in preparing our citizens to meet the opportunity of the future. And, for low-income students, the outlook is especially grim. With poverty on the rise, these realities have potentially devastating consequences for our nation’s ability to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. But, now, there is a hunger to re-think education beyond brick and mortar schools, towards a focus on lifetime learning. In addition, disruptive technology-driven education trends like distance learning, and MOOCs, interactive and game-based learning, personalized education software, instructional games, and creative techniques to blend technology with traditional teaching can combine to create a system that will better prepare our young people for the future while leveling the socioeconomic playing field. Indeed, if these tools are driven to do so, we might finally be able to create a system that is more open, distributed, adaptable, and equitable.

With the rise of distance learning, any internet-enabled device can become a classroom on demand. This can be especially transformative for students in underserved communities. In “flipped classrooms,” for example, passive activities like lectures are reserved for homework, while in-class time is used for collaborative and personal interactions between teachers and students. Teachers can post their own lectures online and direct students to other online resources, such as those provided by Khan Academy, which offers more than 2800 educational videos covering a multitude of disciplines. This model greatly benefits children of lower socio-economic backgrounds as students in flipped classrooms don't have to miss lectures when they can't physically attend school, a problem that disproportionately correlates with low-income families.

In terms of higher education, the trend towards MOOCs means that online higher education is no longer being dismissed as being low-quality. In fact, the movement was launched when two Stanford professors made their popular Artificial Intelligence class open to the public. And, although students learning through MOOCs often don’t receive credit, this is starting to change, opening up a path from MOOCs to a degree program.

Investors and innovators are paying attention and taking bets on the technologies driving these trends, and we must seize this moment to produce ‘equalizing’ outcomes in terms of educational attainment.

Revolutionizing the Relationship between Government and Citizen. The future of decision-making is all about data. Today, all levels of government, from small cities to the White House, are sharing, communicating, and co-producing with citizens in new ways through technology. These are all steps towards Government 2.0-- a fundamental change in the relationship between government and citizen, making information and services more broadly available and replacing the expertise of bureaucracy with that of the citizen.

By opening up information historically kept under lock and key, the public sector is making a commitment to transparency, which is extremely important in a democracy where citizens should know both what a government is doing and how they are doing. Information about school test scores and crime reports, available online, increase understanding of how education and law enforcement policies are working. This can help people to make more informed personal decisions about what neighborhood they choose to move to, and who they vote for in the next election.

As people have become accustomed to the user-centric experiences of commercial online platforms, from Facebook to Amazon, it is no surprise that many are advocating for the idea of ‘government as platform’—a democratization of the exchange of information and services. This model has ‘self-service’ elements that streamline engagement and make it more cost-effective. Cities, such as Boston are empowering residents to be their ‘eyes and ears’ by enabling people to report potholes and graffiti via text message, twitter, or through a mobile app that detects potholes without the user having to do anything at all. And, New York’s comprehensive 311 platform has become the nerve center for this new relationship. 311 enables residents to efficiently connect with city agencies, receive information, file complaints, and resolve issues. Where people might previously have had to make 10 calls or more before reaching the appropriate agency, now 85% of 311 customers have their inquiry resolved over one call. In addition, analysis of 311 call patterns allows the City to respond proactively to issues, such as dispatching extra workers to fix roads, to appropriately concentrate resources, and to get a clear picture of city agency performance measures.

Technology alone cannot fundamentally change the relationship between government and citizen, but as the possibilities become more apparent, it is fair to expect people to use it to do so.

We cannot continue to build services on outdated paradigms, and the advances in technology that are bringing enormous benefits to the lives of many are signs of great progress. But, given the pace of change, we will have to ensure that the digital divide that is largely drawn across socioeconomic lines is effectively addressed so that all citizens can access the opportunities and services created. And, we must continue to seek ways to harness technology for good.

About the Author

Ben Hecht

Mr. Hecht was appointed President & CEO of Living Cities in July, 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live. Living Cities deploys a unique blend of more than $140 million in grants, loans and influence to re-engineer obsolete public systems and connect low-income people and underinvested places to opportunity.