Digital thread links Meeting of the Minds 2016

“The technology is there,” observed conference founder Gordon Feller, framing a question for panelists at Meeting of the Minds 2016, this year’s installment of thought leadership on urban sustainability held at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, California last week. This notion that the technology foundation for enabling smart, sustainable urban development is now readily available is well founded: high speed connectivity is near ubiquitous, in the developed world at least, and multiple vendors have hunkered down to build the sensors, actuators and ICT platforms needed to feed smart analytics machines aimed at delivering the insights to power a better future for inhabitants of the built environment. But if the tools are there, smart deployment for many communities languishes in the realm of ‘I’d like to do it; just not sure how.’ To address this gap, conference organizers focussed this year’s Meeting of the Minds event on exploring the ‘how to’ – on “identifying the replicable, scalable solutions” that can accelerate broad transformation. “Scalability is vital,” Feller urged in his welcome address.

‘How to’ invariably involves project funding, and a number of the conference sessions detailed unique approaches adopted in several US jurisdictions to develop the financial support needed to advance on the creation of smart community infrastructure. But scalability is perhaps even more accessible in technology solutions that can be replicated, independent of US rules of funding engagement. Interestingly, the kick off conference panel combined the two – outlining a circle of virtue where technology can be used to monitor the fiscal health of cities, but also to demonstrate in financial terms, the benefits of smart innovation.

Adam Hecktman, Dana Chisnell, Lourdes German
Adam Hecktman, Dana Chisnell, Lourdes German

In Civic Innovation and Urban Fiscal Health, Transparency and Accountability, Lourdes German, director of International & Institute-wide Initiatives for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy showcased The Civic Innovation Project’s latest innovation, a municipal fiscal dashboard aimed at helping civic leaders better understand the costs of many city services. Built on open data and with the help of multiple organizations, the dashboard allows administrators to monitor debt and liabilities as well as costs, slicing and dicing on a per capita or aggregate basis in historical or current views to establish a city profile that can in turn be used to benchmark against other municipalities, or to characterize spending and compare this against state levels or national trends. According to German, through patterning, the dashboard can be an invaluable tool that shows “how you are making ends meet as a community,” how spending is changing and what are the results of this shift. This final point is key: the dashboard is founded on access to open data, which is shared by agencies only when it clear that the data will be put to good uses (it can be an indictment!), when civic leaders understand the value of the tool and linkages to other data sets, and how this might support their own initiatives.

Connecting the day-to-day in city operation with technology innovation can be elusive target, a fact that has given rise to new roles in the smart community ecosystem, personified at the event by moderator of the Civic Innovation panel, Adam Hecktman. Defining himself as a “civic technologist” “embedded in a social movement” Hecktman is a Microsoft employee who collaborates with government leaders, civic leaders, community organizers and activists “to figure out how we involve technology in solving some of the more intractable problems or social challenges in a city.” Working with this group to create solutions for the urban environment can offer its own challenges: as the last service resort for citizens – “you can’t go to another government like you can go to another vendor” – Hecktman argued that cities must develop solutions that are reliable and that work for a diverse constituency, a first principle discussed in the panel by Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design and consultant for the US Digital Service at The White House.  Working at the national level, Chisnell’s team has recently been engaged with the development of voting technology that ensures voter intent is properly registered, and which makes citizenship “better, easier and equitable.” Through research in the field to understand people’s information needs, and through testing in an iterative development process, Chisnell has designed “The Anywhere Ballot,” which features accessible access for voting from anywhere and to all voters through a browser or device, which also addresses the needs of people with cognitive issues.

In some cases, the technology foundations for smart city deployment can prove their own stumbling block. Hecktman cited the case of the CIO for the State of Illinois, who on taking up his new position a year or so ago found legacy infrastructure in serious need of update: “his goal is to go from 1974 to 2019 in three years. Think about what a challenge that is and think about what an existential challenge it is to service multiple constituencies, and to serve each of them equitably. He has 694 separate internal state systems to rationalize, and in terms of community members, he has 10 million or so citizens to support. Can you do that with technology from 1974?” The state’s success in building modern infrastructure will depend to a large extent on finance – budgets are currently deadlocked in a political stalemate – but also on local city leadership and inspiration that may be found in what Hecktman called the “civic technology community,” which in Chicago consists of “an extended family of 200 – 300 people who are interested in solving city problems with the government.” These technologists, who have developed perspective working from the ground up and in local neighbourhoods, he argued, may be in a better position to articulate city priorities than state functionaries. “Capitalize on the momentum of this movement,” is Hecktman’s advice to administrators, as it works on and socializes successes in a broad set of smart city projects that depend on the needs of local constituencies.

Craneway Pavillion, Richmond, California
Craneway Pavillion, Richmond, California

This focus on technology-enabled community development was repeated in other event panels, which emphasized bottom up innovation – with a twist. Noting that the population is at least 50 percent diverse in Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans, Pamela Lewis, director of Detroit’s New Economy Initiative, set the agenda in Driving Inclusive Innovation in America’s Cities with the statement that economic sustainability can only be achieved if its inclusive. However, research into the funding of entrepreneurs has shown a different trajectory. As Deborah Hoover, president and CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation explained, researching “What Matters to Metros” in support grant activities, her organization found the strongest economic growth in Ohio in areas that were least inclusive. To address this issue, the organization shifted focus from funding startups to funding spaces that would engage the entire community. Similarly, co-founder and executive director of the social incubator Propeller, Andrea Chen, argued that “innovation” has been a gatekeeper word that has excluded some people; businesses run by young white males alone are deemed innovative, but these are not representative of the community in New Orleans. To ensure it uses its grant making capability to drive greater inclusion, Propeller has applied a race and equity lens across its own organization, and in its recruitment of entrepreneurs. To date, Propeller’s accelerator programs for startups have supported 130 ventures, which have created 270 jobs, and its co-working facility provides space for 80 companies.

And from the perspective of training the talent needed to power these organizations and established businesses that appear chronically short of technology skills, panelists in the New Urban Tech Talent Pipelines session outlined initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in the notoriously closed technology field. The mission of The Hidden Genius Project, for example, is to train and mentor black youth, to help these use tech to improve their own lives and that of their families. According to founding executive director, Brandon Nicholson, youth learn how to create software, but also train in entrepreneurship, and to access their networks to create opportunities for themselves in case the corporate job does not materialize. A St. Louis-based organization, CoderGirl and LaunchCode, has taken a slightly different tack, working with girls and women to create work opportunities through development of their coding skills. As program director Crystal Martin explained, the goal in curriculum planning is to “demystify the software development process by breaking it into pieces” to make tech training less overwhelming. The organization also runs a 90 day apprenticeship program designed to help people who know how to code, but may not have a degree. To help these overcome the “credential gap” the program provides self-paced learning for upskilling, and helps with the job search through partnerships with 300 companies, such as Boeing, and MasterCard, who act as employers.

 Sandhya Anantharaman, Universal Income Project
Sandhya Anantharaman, Universal Income Project

So what kinds of innovation is emerging from this perfect storm of civic mindedness, concern for inclusion and justice and tech development? Meeting of the Minds offered several examples, including a presentation from Sandhya Anantharaman, co-director of The Universal Income Project, which is using web and social technologies (Create-A-Thons) to build awareness around the need for “a new social contract” based on a government funded, minimum basic income for citizens. Ironically, need for this kind of program can be attributed at least in part to technology – to the displacement of jobs through process automation. According to Anantharaman, the result of this and other broad macro trends is a “great decoupling of income and productivity, GDP per capita and the number of jobs” that are available, and acceleration of the income divide. But with a “basic income” guaranteed, entrepreneurship and access to education are improved, and opportunity is democratized. Currently, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Scotland, England, and Iceland, India, Namibia, and the Province of Ontario are experimenting with Basic Income programs.

For Komal Ahmad, founder and CEO of Copia, technology is also the smart means to “solving the dumbest problem” – hunger that blights the urban landscape. In Tracking Hunger in the Cities, Ahmad described hunger’s root as the gap between “excess” and “access”:  while 1 in 6 adults in US don’t know where their next meals is (the ration is 1 in 3 in the San Francisco Bay area), approximately 40 percent of the food that is produced in America is thrown away. Hunger, then, is a distribution challenge rather than an issue of scarcity, and technology the tool Ahmad has used to connect edible, unused food with the people who need it. While non-profit organizations are helping, in her view they are not equipped to “think in scale” – this requires capital and a technology platform that can automate the process of matching the hungry with excess. The Copia platform works through a mobile application that enables the user to takes a photo of excess food, geolocates the resource with GPS, uses an algorithm to locate an eater, and delivers the food through a massive driver fleet. Copia’s business is funded by businesses who receive a tax deduction for food contributions as well as data that can be used to reduce waste – a win-win for donors and recipients. Is it working? During its most recent championship game, Copia partnered with the NFL’s Super Bowl, and recovered 14 tonnes of food that were delivered to the needy. Ahmad concluded: “There’s never been a better time to change the world – and we have the technology to do it.”

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