Gwyneth Borden: How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?

by Apr 2, 2013Smart Cities

Gwyneth Borden

Gwyneth Borden is the manager of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM and a San Francisco Planning Commissioner.


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

Cities around the globe are discovering the benefits of technology in engaging citizens, delivering better services, managing things like traffic congestion, pollution, and water, in addition to cutting out waste, fraud and inefficiencies to reinvest money into much needed services. IBM in its Smarter Cities work has seen cities take on a myriad of traditional city challenges using technology as a tool in tackling them. But, at the same time, there’s an economic divide – both from an access and opportunity standpoint.

Cities often have grand ideas about what they’d like to accomplish with technology, but in our still challenging economic climate, they find it difficult to make the necessary financial investments needed. This is not a new challenge for cities – getting support for things that can be deemed infrastructure are never as attractive as the shiny new train/park/social services facility, etc. In some cases technology enhances the ease of use, or allows cities to monitor or track information, but the financial benefit may be nominal – in those cases it can be difficult to find funding. Those cities that are fortunate enough to have a talented base of digital natives benefit from innovators or entrepreneurs who create solutions that tackle these challenges – think sensors of all kinds, cell phone applications related to transit and parking, etc.

But in those less fortunate places where broadband infrastructure is lacking or there isn’t the talent pool to develop and create early adopters around new ideas, those cities must look for ways to fund technology initiatives. Even in cases where there are demonstrative cost savings, the upfront expense can be a deterrent; particularly if the savings are perceived to be more long term. Cities live in the realities of election cycles and what doesn’t instantly improve quality of life for residents can be overlooked, which is why it’s important for cities to have and encourage innovators to create solutions that are easily adaptable and can come from the bottom (citizens) upward; like hackathons, which San Francisco and other cities are doing.

But there’s a secondary economic division between individuals who have multiple technology devices versus those who consider their non-data plan cell phone to be their technology tool. The lack of broadband infrastructure, the cost of smart phones and needed data plans, as well as the cost of computers, make it difficult for those in challenged economic situations to be connected. At the behest of cities, some private sector service providers are creating universal access (wireless infrastructure) or are severely reducing the cost of services to broaden technology inclusion. Some organizations like Voto Latino, which focuses on educating, registering and turning out Latino voters have found using cell phone text messaging as an effective tool to connect those who might not otherwise be connected. The San Francisco Department of Public Health’s SEXINFO, a sexual health text messaging service, is great example of how a city can devise a program to meet people across the digital divide.

But economic division goes farther then just device access; cities like San Francisco are grappling with the rapid growth in the tech community with lots of jobs, but having citizens in need of jobs unable to fill them. The skills gap is a huge challenge in the United States – with the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation — there will simply not be enough workers to fill available technology jobs. And with our educational institutions, particularly in those communities that are underserved, still educating students for the 20th Century, the gap will only widen. Cities like New York and Chicago are working with companies like where I work, IBM, to create 9-14 schools that give students the necessary training and educational credentials to get jobs in the technology field. Some technology jobs, such as writing code, could be the vocational jobs of this Century. Writing code is not particularly difficult, it just takes training, practice and attention to detail – organizations like Code Now and Black Girls that Code are focusing on training underserved students in coding with great results; and smart cities will be encouraging such initiatives.

But the practical challenge that I see as a San Francisco Planning Commissioner, is how to balance a burgeoning technology community that provides great jobs and opportunities for some, but still deal with the reality of escalating rents – commercial and residential – that make it difficult for those at the bottom to survive. You cannot legislate economics, and things like land value and costs are something the city does not control. In places like San Francisco and New York, which have limited land, the competitive nature of real estate favors those who can pay the most and restrictions only exacerbate the problem.

The great economic challenge and opportunities for cities will be how to innovate and attract new technologies and the talent they bring, while ensuring that all their residents are able to participate in the innovations that technology has to offer. Some cities are in need of innovators and those places will need to figure out how to build the infrastructure base — schools, universities, jobs – that attract them. The opportunity for the future is using technology to unite voices and communities so that everyone can be at the table. Together – cities, nonprofits, neighborhood groups and the business community must all come together to creatively find ways to deal with these realities.

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1 Comment

  1. I like both Gwyneth’s and Scott Paterson’s posts – I think they get to an issue that we would do well to understand further. We all know that technological innovation drives society, and has done from the industrial revolution onwards. But the exact manner in which that technology is mediated by each society, and the specific behaviors it drives, are still in my mind very inadequately understood. Take mobile computing as an example: the impact of the mobile revolution in Kenya is very different than in San Francisco, though no less profound. Partly that;s a function of technology and cost – there are fewer smart phones in Kenya; partly it’s a function of how the banking system and phone companies work together – as in, they do in Kenya and they don’t really in the US; and partly it seems to be a function of social structures, attitudes, needs and so on. But what’s the exact mix, and what could we learn from that mix that would allow us to predict the outcome in other places or with other technologies? Likewise – applications of technology to running things like water or transportation infrastructures seem to be different in different parts of the world. Why, specifically in each place, is that? What general principles can we derive that we can use for the future?

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