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Innovation Can Fuel Inequality. But Can It Also Solve It?

Photo: The World in HDR /

At a time of growing inequality, can civic tech and public policy level the playing field?

That’s one of the big questions currently looming over cities all across the country. New York City, for instance, is recognized as the largest truly urban center for technological innovation, and the second-largest tech hub in the world after Silicon Valley. Supporting these claims, recent reports show that venture capital investments in New York were at $6 billion in 2015, with more than 14,500 startups located in the city.

Yet despite these initiatives, one question continues to beleaguer the city: how the next generation of civic tech and urban policy might address rampant inequality, and what role the government ought to play in that effort. Indeed, scholars for years have been discussing the correlation between urban density and inequality. As Richard Florida recently wrote for CityLab: “America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis,” he noted. “If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.”

Unsurprisingly, New York City ranks second on the inequality index. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, and Memphis round out the top-10 large metros on the New Urban Crisis index.

To address this challenge, the New York City government is tethering the abundance of investment to innovation in order to disperse opportunity, strategically using various initiatives to tackle inequality. While it is too soon to know the impact of these initiatives, they offer compelling examples at a time when cities across the globe will need to strategically think about re-distributing the winners of the tech and innovation economy.

But how did New York get here? And how can other cities get here, too?

Crucially, the city’s tech and innovation ecosystem has benefited from several core competencies in the city, and the interconnected urban nature of the city itself. As scholars have pointed out, the next wave of innovation is focused not only on developing new technology, but also on applying existing technology to new sectors. This benefits New York City, which already has a pool of creative, marketing, and business talent that’s played to the city’s advantage in the current landscape of technological growth. This economic diversity has, in turn, fueled the emergence of the city as one of the top centers of activity in various tech sub-sectors, including technology aimed at advertising, fashion, finances, digital media, and education. Mounting numbers of companies are also headquartered in New York City, including Etsy and Gilt Groupe.

Yet this transformation didn’t happen unwillfully. The city government has made a concerted, and successful, attempt to address key challenges facing its growing tech sector, challenges hardly unique to New York City: a lack of technical talents, a lack of available seed finance, limited affordable space for entrepreneurs, and a small and decentralized community.

To overcome these hurdles, the Mayor’s Office and New York’s Corporation for Economic Development, starting in 2009, catalyzed several initiatives. In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg launched a NYC Urban Technology Innovation Center. Some other developments included creating a network of coworking spaces and incubators, opening Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island after a competition, spurring seed investment funds, promoting the community, and attracting outside tech talent and companies. And take, as a more concrete example, New York City’s Big App competition, which started in 2009. It allowed multi-sector actors to use government data to solve public challenges. The city launched a “NYC Digital City Roadmap,” which channeled support to the tech startup ecosystem via development of broadband access infrastructure and incorporating “government as a platform” into its open-government agenda.

New York City has also recently pledged $250 million for a technology home base at Union Square. The goal is to create a “Silicon Alley” with a strong civic tech focus; Civic Hall is the anchoring tenet of this new effort, which has been creating an inclusive community for civic tech within New York City. And, more than that, there’s a range of civil society and community-based organizations across New York City working to address tech equity and empower traditionally marginalized communities by including them in plans for urban development.

Of course, there are many questions about how civic tech and its multi-sector actors—from city governments to firms, philanthropy, and nonprofits—can mitigate the conditions of inequality. As Steve Goldsmith wrote the other week: “Civic tech can play an important part in understanding inequality, formulating policy responses and delivering the necessary calls to action. Digital workers help to address the economic divides of our cities when they create tools that better diagnose structural inequalities and amplify the voices of the underserved.” He continued: “And in the long run, we need to bring underrepresented groups themselves into the field of civic tech so that they can have an equal hand in designing solutions.”  

Yet just like how New York City policy helped foster innovation, it’s also working to address inequality and develop initiatives that might more equitably distribute the benefits of innovation. More exactly, the city has been piloting several initiatives to leverage technology to more deeply benefit the wider community. This includes computer science for all; Link NYC, equipping old payphones with wireless service; and Internet of Things guidelines. Applying technology to public policy inevitably raises questions about equity, access, privacy, and security, particularly when data is being captured and collected on community members.

In March 2017, New York City announced the creation of the first Neighborhood Innovation Lab in Brownsville. The Lab is bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, including community residents, organizers, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs, to identify community priorities and to leverage private partners and universities so that it can address these issues with digital technology. The Brownsville Community Justice Center is the community anchor for the project. Brownsville is also the home of The Center, a technology and wellness program that targets kids between the ages of 12 and 18. The program is the first of its kind to be located at a public house site, and it includes coding and app development, health and wellness, violence prevention, performing arts, career development, and entrepreneurship among its offerings.

“Rapid technological advances hold the potential to transform our cities, driving quality of life improvements for millions of New Yorkers,” Miguel Gamiño, chief technology officer for the city of New York, noted at the launch of the Innovation Lab. “Our challenge—and responsibility—is to ensure these technologies reach and benefit all New Yorkers, not merely a select few.” Indeed, the Innovation Lab is a compelling concept not only because the local government is serving as the convener to bring different players to the table—but also because it’s incorporating community engagement from the get-go, beginning with a series of community forums through which residents can identify how technology could improve their city.

It’s too soon to know if and how the Innovation Lab will benefit the community. However, it offers an illustrative model to watch, in no small part because it’s made community engagement a key part of the process from the very start. Government isn’t only offering services, information, and data; it’s also positioning itself as a convener that brings multi-stakeholders to the table and incentivizes new approaches to thinking about applying tech for public good.

Looking to the future, it’s critical to remember that New York City isn’t unique in the challenges it faces—or in the opportunities that can arise from them. Some of the top-20 small- and medium-sized metros on the Martin Prosperity Institute’s New Urban Crisis index include Boulder, CO; Gainesville, FL; College Station-Bryan, TX; and Ann Arbor, MI. As city initiatives develop, they may serve as insightful petri dishes for how community organizers, local entrepreneurs, residents, and civic leaders, more broadly, ought to think about leveling the benefits of innovation. Or put another way, since inequality is a problem that stretches across a diverse range of cities, it’s a problem, too, that will require diverse solutions, ones mindful of geography—but ambitious in scope.


Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America. She holds a PhD from Harvard's department of government and is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor.