Dear 2015, Re: Better Broadband

By Anne Schwieger

Anne Schwieger is a Boston based city planner working to advance digital equity in American cities through a new initiative called the Digital Equity Project. She is a member of the City of Cambridge, MA, Broadband Task Force. She tweets at @DigEquity and @AnneSchwieger.  Email her at anne@digitalequityproject.com.

Oct 6, 2015 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


 

This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

Dear 2015,

Greetings from the future! It’s been a while since we’ve been in touch, so I wanted to write you a quick note to let you know about some exciting changes in broadband and cities that are going to have a big impact on the next 35 years. Heads up: this is going to be a bigger deal than you might realize right now. Broadband is, after all, multidimensional – technological, human, and institutional – so don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense right now. To make a long story short, what you are about to do in the next five years is going to be key for setting you up for success in the decades to come.

To start with, I wanted to wish you all major kudos on the Net Neutrality ruling in February! I’m sure it’s no spoiler, but over the next few years you will find that the coalition of Internet activists built through grassroots organizing will prove immensely important in the ongoing protection of the free and open Internet.

As I recall, right about now broadband is being used as a differentiator in discussions about local and regional economic development. I remember the basic sentiment at that time was “My city has awesome broadband and yours doesn’t – good luck with your ‘economic development’ plan!” You’ll be happy to hear that though it took a while, those days are long gone! People began to see that the most amazing thing about being able to use gigabit speed Internet is not in who is drawn to a gig but in who a gig enables to grow – i.e. everyone! Cities began using data driven digital inclusion strategies to leverage their fast, affordable, and reliable broadband networks to fully support all community members in tapping into the unique human and civic potential that a gig can unleash. Gigabit speed Internet access is now treated as elemental to human and community potential rather than as a competitive advantage. Places operating on a gig opened everyone’s mind to the next level of possibilities in the ways broadband could bring together individuals and communities, and brought distant cities and people closer together than any other technology that had come before.

Another thing that I recall happening early on is that in the next few years you will witness an ongoing, spirited debate about whether or not the digital divide still exists or if smartphones have addressed it.  Where you sit right now, the digital divide is still a big deal, but this question of smartphones will end up being easier to resolve than you might anticipate. Just tell people to take a step back, a couple of deep breaths, and figure out how they each understand the digital divide. Ask them questions about what they do and don’t do on their smartphones. People will basically say that their smartphones are great when institutions, businesses, and government specifically design for them. You’ll probably get a few coders and content creators who say “Actually, I can’t do my job on a smartphone” and people with school-aged children who say that their kids require more than a smartphone and a data plan to do their homework. Other people may insist that smartphones really have addressed the digital divide because they primarily use a smartphone and they feel that it is definitely adequate for everyone else’s needs as well. They may even point to recent data which shows that community members traditionally thought to be the most adversely impacted by the digital divide, particularly low-income youth of color, are particularly reliant on smartphones for online access. And this is true! Let the conversation flow. All of this is important to discuss. Once people got on the same page, it didn’t take long for everyone to acknowledge the asset that smartphones have been in addressing some dimensions of the digital divide and ultimately embrace the opportunity to collectively own the responsibility to address the rest. Government in particular became very empowered to continue designing with mobility in mind to meet users where they are at and markedly increased efforts to support increased home broadband adoption and advance digital literacy.

It was also just about the same time that the civic tech and digital inclusion communities began working together to a much greater effect. As you’ll recall, the civic tech world was working hard at this time to transform the relationship between people and government through technology.   While many tools were launched that revolutionized how citizens and government work together, things hit a fairly hard ceiling in 2020. Broadband ecosystems in rural, suburban, and urban communities began to act as the limiting reagent, such that even the greatest design visionaries within this space found that they were maxing out on the potential of smartphone-driven solutions. In cities lacking public Wi-Fi networks, data caps hindered full online engagement. Home broadband adoption continued to lag at this time due to digital inclusion challenges such as affordability and relevancy. It became clear that the on-ramp to full participation in the transformation of the relationship between people and government was jammed. Ever the visionaries and collaborators, this was a turning point for the civic tech community – suddenly a field that was widely understood as creating tools for people to connect with and transform government became a field that was also working hand-in-hand with the digital inclusion community to advocate for government and the private sector to make full digital citizenship a funded priority. These communities became unified in the pursuit of comprehensive, equity-driven broadband progress across the United States.

Another one of the very proactive measures that will start taking hold on a much wider basis within the next five years is the integration of broadband planning with all things digging and building. As you can predict, this was not very hard to do. From government to the private sector, newcomers and old pros alike will work together at the city level to coordinate their workflows around synergistic broadband action. Even as you read this letter, several places across the country have already demonstrated the value of “dig once” policies and practices. To them, designing with broadband in mind is actually old news! Places like Santa Monica, CA have become well known for the long-term benefits of a well implemented dig once policy. Through their Connected Community Standard the City of Loma Linda, CA will inspire cities to integrate broadband into their own building codes. Next Century Cities’ 2015 policy agenda will act as a turbo-shot in creating more energy for the exploration of these and other measures that cities will employ to pave the way for a bright broadband future.

Get ready for it. Are you ready? Ok. In the next few years, you will need to devote a great deal of attention to co-evolving your broadband infrastructure vision and your smart cities vision. One of the most interesting, albeit higher stakes, pieces of this puzzle is the ownership structure of the underlying broadband network you will need to do great, life enriching things with within the realm of Internet of Things (IoT). This is an area where the principles of municipal self-determination in creating and enacting local broadband strategy will play a big role.

Thanks so much 2015 for taking a look through all of this! Couldn’t be more excited for you!

Best wishes,
2050

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.  

The Pandemic, Inequality, Housing Affordability, and Urban Land

The Pandemic, Inequality, Housing Affordability, and Urban Land

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.

What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.

Multi-modal Transit and the Public Realm

Multi-modal Transit and the Public Realm

More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.

We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This