Social and Economic Bridges: Deploying Technology in New Ways

By Jessie F. Hahn

Jessie F. Hahn is the Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds. She is an experienced urban planner, specializing in urban-regional policy with a particular focus on sustainability and clean energy. Previously, Jessie launched the successful Regional Energy Policy Program at Regional Plan Association in New York City. She has written numerous articles which have been featured in RPA’s Spotlight on the Region, The Hartford Courant, Urban Age Magazine, The Record, NPR, among others.

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

Technology is not a panacea to solve urban poverty but recent innovations are starting to offer real solutions. The potential for technology to bridge social and economic divisions in both cities and outlying areas is enormous. A few examples remind me that we are just on the cusp of developing and deploying technologies that can greatly improve the lives of the urban poor in both the United States and abroad.

Distributed energy generation

I recently visited Next Energy – a clean tech incubator – in Detroit. On my tour, I met one start-up building a stand-alone renewable energy generator that can be deployed in isolated areas with no energy grid. Imagine a big white box on military wheels with solar panels, wind turbines, a next-generation battery and electrical sockets to plug in various devices such as cell phones, computers, water sanitation systems, etc. The start-up company has a contract with the Department of Defense and the unit is being developed for remote military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I asked if they deployed the units during Superstorm Sandy, they said they did not, but that they will be ready in the event of another disaster. The next application for these units is in developing cities and countries where the grid is unreliable or non-existent.

The potential for distributed generation to change the livelihoods and lifespans of the urban poor in the developing world is not fully understood yet. Imagine this unit in the slums of Rio, Jakarta or New Delhi. Installing these units in neighborhoods to provide power for water sanitation and other uses could translate into more income, more time for school, and more opportunity to rise to the middle class.

Lyft

Lyft is a car-sharing service that allows private car owners to work like independent taxis. Drivers and their vehicles are screened through a rigorous process. If they pass, they are given a pink moustache to attach to the front of their car to designate them as a Lyft driver. When a user needs a ride, they open their app on their smart phone, their location is found through GPS and they request a “Lyft.” The app tells the user how far away the nearest driver is. Lyft drivers work part-time, for the most part, and are paid to pick up passengers. Drivers can choose when to drive and how often.

When I brought up Lyft at a conference I recently attended, it immediately sparked a dozen questions and comments. Everyone wanted to know more.  For some, it was controversial due to its encouragement of car use over transit and the pre-requisite of users needing a smart phone. Others wondered if it was adding or decreasing carbon emissions. But for most of the delegates, it was an exciting idea. One woman working on transit in Detroit was particularly excited about Lyft. She is working on solving the bus crisis in Detroit. Detroit has shrunk from 2 million residents to 7000,000. This poses a major problem for the transit agency which cannot maintain a stable revenue stream or continued service in the same way it did in the past. She is working to find a way to continue transit service in semi-abandoned neighborhoods where there are residents who still need public transit. Some of the residents are elderly and can’t drive. Others have cars and are under-employed or unemployed. She realized that Lyft could pair these unlikely neighbors and through the process, create jobs for many of the unemployed/underemployed residents in Detroit. The beauty of Lyft is that it’s part-time and the driver decides how much to participate. Perhaps the city could even subsidize these rides since it would enable them to decrease bus service and use their resources in new ways. The key would be finding a way to maintain the affordability of the service. We also brainstormed if the service could be offered through text messaging, rather than GPS-enabled smart phones, much of the digital divide could be solved among users.

Transit data and digital signage

Roadify is a software company that aggregates transit data and twitter feeds, provides a platform to organize it and then displays the information on large urban digital displays. Their service is now located in the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. After the game, fans can look up at the massive screens to see exactly when the next trains are arriving.

The potential for Roadify to bridge the digital divide is a tantalizing prospect. For Lyft, the digital smart phone divide is one of the major social and economic access issues. Roadify is a technology platform that could solve just that problem. We are already surrounded by digital signage on the freeway, at the store, and even in our homes. If Roadify digital information were displayed on bus stops, on the screens at the supermarket, and the data were even broadcast on our local TV station, those without smart phones would not be left behind. It would make transit data pervasive. Moreover, it might take away the financial burden from transit agencies, which are already cash strapped and unable to upgrade their bus stops with state-of-the-art signage. Small neighborhood stores could generate some ad revenue by displaying the data.

In conclusion

These examples provide a glimpse into some of the innovative technology solutions that are already being developed and deployed and how they could be further applied to our cities and low-income communities. The next task is to apply them to solve urban poverty and access issues in new ways. Scaling these technologies beyond their current uses requires leadership and out of the box thinking by public sector agencies and entrepreneurs. When great minds come together and begin to connect the dots, unlikely applications of innovative solutions start to emerge. For more unlikely pairings, join us at Meeting of the Minds in Toronto in September. We plan to highlight how emerging innovations can be applied in cities and build the partnerships that are necessary to make them happen.

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