Reflecting on The Responsive City

Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith's new book highlights many interesting case studies and raises new questions around the ecosystem of people, place and technology.
Blog Post
Oct. 28, 2014

New America’s Open Technology Institute and Civic Innovation project hosted Harvard professors Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith to discuss their new book The Responsive City. This book, a collection of case studies, serves as a guide to understand where municipal leaders are using emerging technologies and data analytics to help local governments better serve their constituents and address systemic problems ranging from budget limitations to aging bureaucracies. The text places particular emphasis on the role of strong executive leadership in municipal governance, regardless of the technologies involved.

In the post-Gov2.0 era, more and more academics, policy professionals, private sector actors, and government officials themselves have turned their focus to the creation of “transparent, accountable, and open” governments -- governing systems that, thanks to integrated technology and increasingly available data, can better represent public interest due to greater collaboration with the public.

But from town hall, USA to the White House, we’ve found that as different jurisdictions have acted on this vision of a redefined democracy through technology, we are still left with many questions. While data can provide visibility into complex issues, it may not always present the whole picture, obscuring demographics already underserved or supporting short term changes without long term social benefit. Further, data analysis and technology can be costly, creating concerns over equitable resource distribution. How can less resourced cities and municipalities follow these models? And should they? Does a tool that works “at scale” in urban centers support the creation of the same efficiencies, accountability measures, and benefits in small, rural communities?

Often cities are highlighted as the unit of future social progress and development in the United States, the impact of their decisions made enormous by current and projected changes in population, commerce, and agency in the decades to come. But as discussed during the event, even as we explore the “responsive city” of 2014, we must be mindful of whether (and how) the new tools and data-driven processes we adopt today will affect the governing systems that define our tomorrow. How do we ensure that long term public servants can learn and adapt to the rapid pace of technology production? How do we build in the critical thinking necessary to evaluate a trend from a necessity? How can communities be active participants in creating and understanding the data about their neighborhoods? What are the necessary safeguards to protect privacy and ensure accountability?

The Responsive City is a great look at the heroes of the current movement in government technology and a teaser of the road ahead. As hubs of creativity, experimentation, and social sector entrepreneurship (“laboratories of democracy,” if you will), local governments have much to teach us about the impact of digital governance on many scales. We all want city hall -- and town hall, for that matter -- to do better. And we know that the story we’ve told ourselves about how democracy works no longer keeps up with the reality of what it means to govern. What happens next, and what lessons we draw from our heroes’ successes, failures, and challenges, will define what governance means going forward. But this development has to be mindful, and more research is needed to understand precisely how this will take shape: the challenges, consequences, and long-term impacts.

We look forward to continuing our research into this work’s present and future at OTI and New America in the weeks and months ahead, and welcome your feedback, as well.

You can catch a bit of our discussion into these themes from the recorded video of our event with Professors Crawford and Goldsmith here.