Cities are magnets for people more than ever, as they draw in those seeking new opportunities and greater access to jobs and education. Today, more than 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas, a level that observers expect will rise to 66% by 2050. In just a few decades, two out of every three people will live in cities.
The challenge for city leaders will be figuring out how to house, employ, transport, educate, and ensure access to opportunities for these growing populations.
This task has grown more complex as the rate of poverty and inequality in cities has increased along with population. Around the world, large cities are more unequal than their country’s population on average. Income inequality has increased in 94 of the United States’ 100 biggest metropolitan areas since 1994.
Technology presents perhaps one of the best tools for city innovators to help low-income citizens become more visible, empowered, and prosperous. By facilitating improved delivery of government services and increased access to opportunity, technology can offer tangible hope for the most disadvantaged. To date, most cities have not taken advantage of technology to reach low-income people. However, with their increased focus on innovation and civic tech, city governments are beginning to recognize the power of technology to improve broken systems and change lives.
A key first step for leaders looking for new (and sometimes simpler, faster, and cheaper) ways to serve their citizens is to begin thinking of innovation as a process and an essential capability they wouldn’t want to govern without. The emergence of innovation teams (i-teams) around the world has responded to this growing demand. Bloomberg Philanthropies has pioneered i-teams to improve the capacity of city government to design and implement new approaches to city challenges. After a successful five-city pilot that addressed issues including murder reduction, economic development and customer service, fourteen additional cities in the United States and Israel launched i-teams last year.
Once a city commits to building this innovation infrastructure, it needs to explore how to use technology, plus the enormous amounts of civic data on hand, to address pressing problems affecting low-income people in their city. The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, which recently launched in St. Louis and Boston, brings together civic “hackers,” data practitioners, community groups and government officials to those ends.
In St. Louis, the collaborative is working to make the local criminal justice system easier to navigate. The area’s court system uses ticketing to fund municipal operations, a practice that disproportionately affects lower-income black residents. The project aims to reduce the inconvenience for citizens to resolve tickets in order to prevent the failure to pay tickets from turning into more serious charges.
The initiative acknowledges the fact that low-income populations must commute and work longer hours in order to make ends meet, making appearing in court and visiting multiple offices to resolve tickets nearly impossible. Unlike most technology projects, it includes citizens in its redesign process. This seemingly simple online innovation could mean the difference between efficient ticket resolution and future incarceration.
Boston’s team will streamline their process for placing young people in summer jobs. As the program is currently processed manually, using updated technology will connect thousands more teens with employment opportunities. These teens will earn a paycheck and get on a meaningful career path, a key step for addressing the city’s persistent economic inequalities. Data captured from the updated process will help the team better understand the program’s clients and how to enhance the initiative over time.
In addition to these civic innovation programs, city governments are finding simple ways of incorporating technology into service delivery. San Francisco’s Human Services Agency keeps people from getting thrown off the food stamp rolls simply by reminding them to reapply via text message. In New Orleans, they’re using social media to help those who signed up for health insurance use it most effectively.
Technology’s virtual nature can free it from socioeconomic and racial biases. Its lack of geographical boundaries and its colorblindness can free the human imagination from the laws of physics, or the oftentimes more pervasive laws of society. It can transcend the modern urban theory about how people, places, and things have to interact.
But with all this optimism comes caution. The power of technology to do good is not inevitable. For example, robots have fundamentally changed the nature of work and not necessarily for the better. Maximum social benefit will only be realized if city governments champion its potential for low-income people. And without political will and capital to ensure that cities stay affordable and livable for all rungs of society, the positive benefits of technology will be limited.
Technological progress paired with making the process of innovation course-of-business has the power to turn smart cities into equitable cities–if we harness it effectively and responsibly. That is up to us. This century of cities may well be defined by how well we fuel the technology-led, innovation engine of cities for good.