Brett Hudson: How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?

By Brett Hudson

Brett Hudson is a consultant to the Knight Foundation’s Tech for Engagement initiative.  This post reflects solely his views.

This post is a response to a group blogging event organized by Meeting of the Minds and Tumml.

Ubiquitous information and communication technology (ICT) holds overwhelmingly positive promise to bridge social and economic divides within cities.

How?

The rise of ICTs has diminished the role that long-standing institutions play in many parts of society.  Institutions have traditionally provided a structured and cost-effective way for individuals to meet their needs and goals.

As ICTs became pervasive, they inspired a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) culture that encourages people to tap into their own innate potential and immediate networks rather than relying on institutions to accomplish those same goals.  DIY culture is a natural result of ubiquitous ICTs; these technologies have dramatically lowered the cost for individuals to accomplish far more of their respective goals using far less time and resources, which rewards the individual with an unprecedented power that can exist entirely outside of any institution.

Many traditional institutional structures simply cannot compete with the DIY culture, which forces them to adapt, become irrelevant or simply be supplanted through disruptive innovation.  Consequently, the modern economy’s DIY culture is pulling power away from embedded institutions and delegating it to individuals—particularly networks of individuals—leading to an inevitable transition from an institution-based society to a network-based society.

Why is this transition so important?

A network-based economy provides a fundamentally new power structure that rests outside of the traditional institutional structure.  Tapping into the DIY culture has become increasingly commonplace, even essential, for forward-thinking business models.  In recent years, ICTs have dramatically expanded the potential of network-based tools like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and crowdspeaking (crowd-anything, really).  The pervasiveness of these models indicates the potential power that an individual can exercise when tapping into a broad network versus going through a confined institutional structure.  Why raise capital through institutional finance to seed your idea when you can engage an entire network of individuals with a greater likelihood of success?

This transition to a network-based economy also creates a challenge.  While private sector institutions are built to adapt or be innovatively disrupted, many public sector institutions are not.  This obstinate institutional structure could indicate why the public is becoming increasingly disaffected with government, particularly among Millennials that tend to be entrenched in DIY culture.  Government is slow to adapt to technological changes and fundamental shifts in society, but given its nature, cannot be innovatively disrupted or supplanted with more effective ideas.  When government loses its ability to solve problems, the public becomes disengaged, angry or both.

There is hope.

While the rise of ICTs are making it difficult for governments’ institutional structures to stay relevant in the DIY economy, embracing technology and DIY culture at the local level of government may also be its savior.  The tech-driven DIY culture is forcing private sector institutions to identify business models that cede or share power with individuals.  City governments can do the same to re-engage and unleash a latent creative potential in their citizenry.

For example, new network-based civic organizations are coming to fruition, like civic crowdfunding platforms neighbor.ly and citizinvestor, which could expand the role in which citizens play in their city’s financial decisions.  As more of these kinds of platforms come online, it will continue to shift the influence away from the institution and into the hands of the individual, which expands the influence that she can exert over her community.

A transition away from institutional-based governance into network-based governance holds promise to overcome economic and social divisions within our communities.  When cities embrace ICT and DIY culture, it opens up the potential to engage and empower new voices that have not participated in government’s traditional institutional structure.  A shift in the power structure can equip underserved communities, which have not traditionally had the voice, power or resources to influence the institutional structure of government, with the necessary tools to create change.  Over time, citizens that are closest to their community’s challenges could ideally overcome persistent social and economic structural problems that traditional institutions of government simply could not solve.

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