Urban Innovation

Urban Innovation Newsletter, August 2019

August 22, 2019  • Center for Urban Innovation Newsletters

What we’re working on & talking about:

Thanks to everyone who responded to our survey about how city governments can increase the number of “smart cities” or “civic tech” or “urban tech” procurements awarded to companies led by women and people of color.  We’re still analyzing the responses, and look forward to sharing what we’ve learned. Every day, we see more reasons why it matters who makes urban technology. For example, this piece from Axios on why women are less enthusiastic than men about autonomous vehicles notes, “One possible reason for the trust gap between men and women is that the people designing self-driving cars are mostly male and haven’t asked for female input, says Meredith Broussard, NYU professor and author of ‘Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.’”

Our series of workshops on how investors can direct more capital to startups founded by women and people of color continues!  In September, we’ll be in St. Paul for a discussion co-hosted by the Case Foundation and the Center for Economic Inclusion. Here’s my conversation with Victor Hwang of the Kaufmann Foundation on the high costs of limiting opportunities for entrepreneurship.

On September 21, I’ll be speaking at the Urban Land Institute Fall conference on how cities can strike a balance between the benefits and harms of data and technology, particularly with respect to privacy and surveillance.  Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer — CUI exists to create the space for governments, technologists, and residents to find the answer together.

One of the core principles of CUI is that innovation isn’t limited to technology.  Often, “the innovation we need is innovation in relationships,” as Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II of Michigan says.  Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation and I discussed how new distributed models of problem solving, which involve new relationships between governments, philanthropy, the private sector, civic organizations, and residents, play out in cities. 

Another core principle of CUI is that innovation needs to start with values.  Beth Blauer of Center for Civic Impact explains how Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher uses that principle to drive data-driven governance. And here is Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa describing how data-driven practices enabled deeper human connection among government staff and residents. 

What we’re thinking about: 

At the Aspen Institute we often describe our work as connecting the dots (that’s probably not unique to Aspen).  Here are some dots I’m looking at:

Local government smart cities strategies are prioritizing people over technologies and developing a richer understanding of what “smart” might mean in the urban context.  To take just a small number of examples, here’s what’s happening in Boston, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Portland.  (See also this guide from GovEx and this playbook for the Civic Smart City.) 

Local civic tech organizations are committed to a “with, not for” approach to building and evaluating civic tech, and launching critiques of the technology being placed in their neighborhoods.  Laurenellen McCann has described various practices for creating community tech, rather than civic tech.  The Digital Equity Lab and Allied Media Group inform, connect, and support neighborhood and community groups challenging conventional definitions of smart cities and insisting that technology meet community needs. 

The Tech Equity Collaborative, DataKind, Code for America brigades, and the growing calls for a public interest technology field in academia (similar to public interest law) show that practitioners themselves are interested in new relationships between what they build and the people and places it affects. 

Decades ago, community organizers, major philanthropic foundations, business leaders, and the federal government collaborated to create community development corporations (CDCs) to address the pressing physical development needs of neighborhoods and to amplify resident voice and power over local decisions.  Powerful policy levers, including tax credits and laws like the community reinvestment act, support CDC’s housing development and other work. 

When I look at these dots I wonder, do they, when connected, add up to an updated version of CDCs: a robust network of community technology intermediaries, to connect and negotiate between governments, residents, and technology companies?  These intermediaries could collaborate with and challenge governments and tech companies, while educating and training residents and lifting up technologies and innovations that residents themselves create. Within the intermediaries, public interest technologists and residents could teach and learn together about tech’s possibilities and limitations, and how to match those with community needs and aspirations.  These intermediaries could also be the home for a civic user testing group.  As I mentioned above, some communities already have organizations that serve one or more of these purposes.  Would it be useful to communities if these intermediaries became as prevalent and as much a part of the urban (and rural) policy realm as CDCs, and if philanthropies and technologists funded them and, along with local governments, engaged them regularly in decisions about technology in cities? 

What other dots fill in this picture?  Am I recreating a wheel? (I do that sometimes.)  What else should I, or anyone else, know about resident engagement in smart cities?  Do you want to work together to build out this idea? Please email me at jennifer.bradley@aspeninstitute.org or tweet @aspenurbaninnov and let us know what you think. 

All best,


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