The Other Digital Divide

Will small cities be able to exploit technology the way bigger cities have?
May 2015
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By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Much has been written about the so-called “digital divide,” the technology availability gap between the richer and the poorer. But as digitally enabled government comes to the fore, we may be risking the emergence of a new kind of digital divide, between the largest, most richly resourced cities and smaller communities with less capability to exploit new technologies.

There’s certainly plenty of activity on the digital front in big cities. New York City is using technology to help building inspectors and fire officials prioritize the riskiest buildings for complaint investigations. Chicago is using predictive analytics to target rat infestations before they happen. Washington, D.C., has rolled out digital tools to let citizens grade the quality of their government services. Boston has a mobile phone app called Street Bump that detects when a car runs over a pothole and alerts city officials to get it repaired.

Titles such as chief innovation officer and chief data officer have proliferated, with many cities hiring dedicated staff in analytics and establishing technology innovation groups like Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which was set up under the late mayor Thomas Menino.

As these examples show, most of the press and excitement about urban technology and innovation has come out of larger cities. That’s not to say that smaller cities are completely absent from the discussion, but larger ones have certainly dominated it.

It’s clear why big cities are at an advantage. Larger governments with bigger budgets are more easily able to find the resources to hire dedicated staff for innovation, data and emerging technology. Bigger cities have deeper talent pools of technical expertise. They also are often home to significant startup scenes that create buzz and to new companies designed to exploit these urban-focused technologies. There is symbiosis between a city’s tech community and its government tech initiatives.

Smaller cities, by contrast, may be more cash-strapped, have shallower talent pools, and have fewer local companies and assets to bring to bear on problems. This brings us back to whether these circumstances will lead to a new digital divide between the larger “have” tech cities and the smaller “have not” ones.

Harvard professor Stephen Goldsmith co-wrote a book titled The Responsive City to highlight the promise of data- and tech-enabled innovation to improve government service delivery and citizen engagement. He sees the potential for new tech to actually reduce the large-small city digital divide. “There definitely was a danger just a few years ago where cities with resources could buy expensive technology and then use their scale to rationalize the purchase,” he says. “I think in the next few years that will shift dramatically. Cloud computing allows mid-sized and small cities to purchase the best computing with a new pricing system.”

Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer of the mid-sized city of South Bend, Ind. (population around 100,000), agrees on the potential of cloud computing. “Tech is being commoditized,” he says. With today’s cloud offerings, there’s less need for cities to roll out their own in many areas.

What he worries about, however, is talent. “It’s a ‘who,’ not a ‘what’ issue,” Garces says. Small cities have to work hard to ensure they get access to the talent to implement this technology. South Bend has focused on that through programs like its enFocus fellowships. Garces is from Colombia and came to the United States to study at the University of Notre Dame. After a year in an enFocus fellowship, he signed on with the city full time. “We want to be the ‘beta city’ in showing how smaller cities can make use of technology,” he says.

Garces believes the key to attracting talent is leveraging the unique attributes of smaller cities, such as being able to offer their workers more responsibility more quickly than bigger ones, and hitting the key areas of mentorship and leadership.

As with many aspects of technology, civic data and tech can cut in multiple directions. The cloud and declining tech costs generally make it more available than ever, yet the expertise around creating and deploying civic tech could become more clustered.

One way that larger cities can help their smaller brethren is by open-sourcing their applications. For example, Chicago is planning to open-source its SmartData platform. As with other emerging technology areas, it also seems likely that standards will emerge that reduce the amount of bespoke design and engineering required for deployments and allow cloud-enabled solutions across a wider range of functions.

This is one area where states might also play a role. They could partner with their larger cities to create approaches for local governments that address their own particular legal and regulatory characteristics in a way that helps smaller cities take advantage of technology at a price they can afford. And states could facilitate the diffusion of best practices and expertise on civic tech to their communities.

It’s important to think about creating an infrastructure that enables technological change to be rapidly dispersed through the urban hierarchy. As with the more familiar digital divide among economic groups, this one may never go away completely because technology isn’t static. Technology is always changing, so cities and states will need to be in a constant posture of absorbing technological change. The ability to adapt to and assimilate new technologies is a core competency that both bigger and smaller governments need to acquire.