What is citizenship in the digital age? Policy experts Susan Crawford of Harvard University and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution discuss themes from Crawford’s new book about civic engagement, innovation, and the role of tech and the Internet for Detroit and other major cities.
Bradley: I’ll be even more shameless because it’s not my book. This is “The Responsive City.” I read a lot of books about the ‘fill in the blank’ city. This is one of the best books I’ve read so, after this you should all read it. It’s just out. Please take advantage of all of the great stuff that Susan and her co-author say. This is sort of a preview session. I hope to kind of whet your appetite for the ideas that are in the book.
A lot of the things that we’ve talked about today have been at the intersection of how technology can feed an economic revival in an urban setting. But what Susan and her co-author, Steven Goldsmith, have done is talk about how technology can work in and around government to create an urban revival in the public or municipal setting. Susan has been at the intersection of policy and technology for several years, first as a lawyer in private practice, as a special assistant to the President for science technology and innovation policy, and most recently as co-director of the Berkman Center at Harvard, and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. So start by asking you about some of the examples in the book. You talk about how city governments are using technology to set the baseline conditions for revival, and I think that’s really important in Detroit where, for a long time, there weren’t the kind of baseline conditions for a functioning civic life. What are the ways that governments are using technology to do their job of safe streets, good services, better?
Crawford: What’s great about writing about cities is that mayors have sovereign power and affection coming towards them, and are in the business of delivering services, making people’s lives better, and see the impact of their work constantly. Today with ever-increasing available data, the ability to visualize that data, to use cloud forms of technology, and handsets in order to let citizens interact with the data. Here’s a story about a city reviving itself using all of these tools and real leadership.
Buffalo has a lot of 3-1-1 data coming in towards it these days: Citizen complaints, “Things I’m worried about in my city.” Today they can take that data and put it up on a map and say to themselves, and say to the public, “Here are areas where there are, say a neighborhood where there’s a lot going on. There seems to be a lot of problems.” Looking at a shared screen we find the technology often lowers emotional temperature, gets people to cooperate with each other. So, the citizens of Buffalo and the mayor’s office can look at that map and say, “We’re going to focus our energies, target our resources, our scarce resources, on a particular few neighborhoods.” They call this Operation Clean Sweep. Data powers that. It’s actually a pretty simple idea, but I want to raise it because it uses the power of the screen, lowering emotional temperature; the availability of many different kinds of data that can be looked at in layers, where buildings are on a map, where either 3-1-1 or 9-1-1 complaints have come in; and then use that data to really allocate your resources in a way that focuses attention on a neighborhood, makes life in that neighborhood better, raising the quality of life. Because cities, they have some efficiency problems, but mostly they have participation and democracy problems as well. And using a shared map to engage more people in the provision of services can make a big difference. Now there’s a very small story coming out of tiny town, in Jun, it’s in Spain, not America, where every police officer has a Twitter handle on his uniform, where citizens tweet to the mayor’s office about the services they’d like to see happening. The mayor actually not only manages his public employees, but responds to requests using Twitter. A very visionary mayor. Turns out the role of the mayor is essential in this entire story, in the responsive story, the responsive city, making sure that the resources are made available for people to use technology to make people’s lives better. So, in Jun, when you want reserve a room in City Hall, as a citizen you send a direct message to the room. The room itself unlocks in response to a tweet when you arrive. Imagine this. It’s a very primitive example of what could be possible using data, screens, hand-held devices, ubiquitous connectivity, which is part of the story, and technically able citizenry empowered by a strong mayor.
Bradley: When you were giving your Buffalo example I had an unfortunate flashback to the era of redlining, where people also looked at maps and they described areas as problem areas and rather than putting more resources there, they decided to starve them of resources. So, we have a very complicated history in Detroit and around the country about the way that technology and governments have come together, technology at the time, right, mapping and red ink at one point, to marginalize neighborhoods. What makes this moment different? What makes this moment one that we should embrace rather than be quite skeptical or concerned about?
Crawford: Because technology—the way things are developing these days actually is democratizing access to data and devices in a way that wasn’t true in the past. There were crushing asymmetries of information in the past in the era of redlining and isolating neighborhoods. Now you can actually form a group that persists online and virtually march on City Hall. You can make your voices heard in ways that were really impossible before the advent of the internet. Voices are much more level than they were in the past. And also there’s an increased sense of accountability and visibility on the part of government that didn’t exist in the past, driven often by technology.
Bradley: So, what are some places that you see that are going the farthest, do you think, to redefine the relationship between governments and citizens using a technology platform? What governments do you think are most transparent, most responsive, that could be used as models elsewhere?
Crawford: Well, things are still in a pretty primitive stage, but I think Chicago is making some very significant advances. Starting several years ago when they made all of their crime data available online, they are now making it possible for many cities across the country, powered by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, to use a standard mapping interface and sort of open data, smart data platform, they’re calling it, so that lots of smaller cities following Chicago’s lead will be able to understand their city, know what their city knows, in a way that isn’t possible unless today you have the resources that Chicago has. So, Chicago is very advanced in the use of predictive analytics using data to target the resources of the city based on leading indicators for things like inspections. Chicago also thinks of itself as a platform. They’ve got deep relationships between the civic tech community, and the activist community, and the people inside City Hall. They’ve got lots of people working together in community foundations, the MacArthur foundation, to use technology in ways that will open up the city and make its affordances more available to everyone. A great story coming from Chicago right now is called the Array of Things. You can follow the Array of Things on Twitter. It’s a set of sensors being set up around the Loop in Chicago and the sensors are measuring things like noise, humidity, and light. They’re not picking up personal identifiable information, and that data is then going directly into an open data platform so that any researcher can use it. Chicago can swap out those sensors whenever it wants to, based on community input, so this is the first time we’re seeing a city trying to measure itself for ways that are useful for research and for citizens in a completely transparent fashion. That’s quite unusual and only possible because of a very special community we’re seeing in Chicago right now.
Bradley: From this it sounds like that smart cities, because that’s the kind of catch-all phrase for these kind of sensor driven and data driven work, demands smart citizens. The data being open and transparent only matters if we as the citizenry have ways to engage with it and have the time to think about it, to do our electronic march on City Hall, to understand how our data is being used. I read your book and a few days later I read an essay on Medium by Anthea Watson Strong who is the head of Google’s Civic Innovation Team. One of her bottom lines when she thinks about this new civic technology, which is a variety of ways to get people more engaged with public life, is the hurdle that, as she puts it, people still have to make dinner, that there is a limit to the amount of time and energy we can give to civic engagement. So, how do these two things play into each other, that there is a requirement that we be smart citizens and yet we’ve talked today about the changing nature of work and other demands on our time that digital requires, a kind of exhausting, it’s always on, it puts so much more information in front of us. How do you marry those two things, of civic responsibility and time constraints to create a notion of citizenship in the digital age?
Crawford: Responsiveness online can require just shards of attention rather than entire evenings. A person can insert themselves if they want to with a very little amount of effort. That’s the point of the digital revolution. You don’t have to spend four hours, you can spend a little tiny bit of time and feel a sense of agency and autonomy and impact that’s very different and difficult in a world without screens that are responding. One response is: compared to what? Actually the responsive city is an easier place in which to engage as a citizen. The second answer is that all of this is about something much more than being smart. This is about cities increasing the number of touch points they have with citizens. Cities do so much for us. They provide basic infrastructure, safety, and are really present in our lives in a way that many people don’t acknowledge. The digital presence in our lives gives us a sense of a thick mesh of democracy all around us rather than being something alien from us, something to which we pay taxes and that arrests us later. This is a much richer relationship. It actually enhances the participatory democratic nature of life in cities. People love their cities and their cities also love them, but the reciprocal nature of that relationship isn’t as visible without digital technology. This is what makes this thicker world possible and that’s why smart isn’t my favorite word. I really like responsive.
Bradley: Some of the examples you’ve talked about: I have my screen in my pocket. If we are interacting with this responsive city, is it so easy for us to interact with the city as individuals that we lose a sense of neighborhood or collective efficacy, that we are citizens among other citizens and that there is a sense of community? If I’m just tweeting back and forth that’s a very individual isolating thing even though it’s public. Is there something lost when we can do this through a kind of digital shortcut as opposed to more traditional gathering, organizing? Talk a little about how that plays out.
Crawford: There’s a beautiful tension here which I really enjoy–that depersonalization is possible using technology at the same time that genuine collective action is also enabled using technology. We don’t lose anything. We’re amplifying our abilities along both of those vectors. That yes, you could just talk to your precinct captain using Twitter, but you could also see, finally see your city in a way that’s very difficult without digital technology. With more screens, with more ways of visualizing information, actually our ability to understand our city will be deeper rather than narrower using technology. But at the same time things can be deeply personalized. So, both things at once are possible using screens.
Bradley: And have you seen a comparable response in the civic sector? In your book are there examples of this kind of communal engagement with the city?
Crawford: Absolutely. The book provides lots of examples of people learning more about their city using technology. For example, in Chicago members of the Southwest Collective there in Chicago were able to walk around there city, much the same thing happened in Detroit, taking pictures of properties that were falling into blight. Those pictures then went directly into the open data portal, into the 3-1-1 system, there was response coming back from the city saying, “Yes we’re going to deal with this, we’re going to help you, we’re all on the same team.” And the collective nature of the group working on that question, walking around, was made visible to them by the site that they were cooperating in. So yes, lots of mapping related collective activity going on outside the walls of City Hall and much increase in responsiveness on the part of the heroes inside City Hall who are trying their best with scarce resources to respond and to make life better for the people in their cities.
Bradley: You mentioned the importance of the mayor. I’m going to take you now a little into the speculation realm. There is a model of a mayor that is very on top of things and we have this notion of governments as protective, as only wanting to be a little bit open, so the mayor’s Twitter feed is sort of a public relations thing, but not an open or engaged dialogue. Are there particular characteristics of what you would consider a new model mayor or a mayor who’s ready to be a leader of a responsive city that may challenge our old ideas about what political leadership really looks like?
Crawford: Absolutely. There’s a kind of sense of humor and almost gallows humor about, “All right, if these things are going to happen, things might go wrong, but we’re going to do our best.” Government is trusted when it shows its work, and mayors who are more willing to show their work, his or her work, and help enlist other people in the effort of running a gigantic city will do better. Mayors are beginning to learn that one by one. It’s not easy. Mayor Menino in Boston, who just retired, was very engaged. He met half the people in Boston, shaking their hands, and he was not a tech guy, but he saw the power of this set of tools to bring him into contact with even more people. He was a very open guy. So it’s like a Mayor Menino younger that is going to show up who sees this engagement possibility and also is willing to take risks and to show his or her work and shake things up, break some glass inside the hierarchy. Because government has to change. We’ve got a lot of departments that don’t communicate with each other, don’t share data, operate in very hierarchical, almost military ways of doing business and get stuck. A mayor can do a lot to make that relationship become much more horizontal because after all, a citizen faces government as one picture, not as a series of departments, and it is baffling you have to fill out the same form a hundred times, or deal with people over and over again. So, mayors that understand the business theory and understand technology are going to come flooding into office, and I hope my students will be among them.
Bradley: One of the things that Jean Case was talking about just a few minutes ago was a “fail fast, fail forward,” which is incredibly popular to say in the technology industry, but I imagine gives people in government nightmares that leave them sort of sweating and screaming in the middle of the night. How do you think technology and the showing your work ethos will be incorporated into government and make it safer for government to fail? Certainly living in Washington, as I do, failure is something that every effort is made to suppress it, not talk about it, or it becomes the subject of a big hearing and a spectacle. How does technology and transparency make government and the people who run it more comfortable with failure?
Crawford: Well, this is really about culture. This is not about technology. This is, and many mayors’ offices found a way to instill an aura of innovation in their business by actually calling people the heads of innovation. Giving a title and saying, “Here’s your department and you’re in charge of helping everybody else be more innovative.” There’s a lot of that going on in the United States and what that does is give the imprimatur of the mayor on a slightly more playful, less risk averse, more willing to experiment ethos across the departments. It’s happening. It just takes a little time and leadership and a certain amount of fearlessness to make it work.
Bradley: One of the things that—the ways that technology and government often are out of harmony comes in regulation. Do you think that as government starts to appreciate the role of technology and the things that technology makes possible that it will have a different approach to regulating some of these new technology platforms, that it can kind of lower the temperature on some of the clashes between these new industries like Uber, Airbnb, that it will itself be more friendly to technology, or do you think that there’s not necessarily going to be an overlap between an internal openness and then a regulatory approach?
Crawford: Technology could mean many things. Government has a very important role to play when it comes to infrastructure. Remember our conversation we just had about light rail. That’s not possible absent the involvement, at least, of government to have a big system like that put in place. The United States is going to require much better internet access than it has now. There is a role for government in both regulating that, to make sure that it’s available to everyone at a reasonable price, and making sure that it spreads across the country. There always has been for big large scale infrastructure. When it comes to competing things above that infrastructure, like an Airbnb, or somebody that’s riding on the streets, I think we’re already seeing lots of mayors become much more comfortable with those competing applications. Regulation should not be a bad word. Regulation’s not an imprecation. It actually should be empowering people to reach their full potential and where we’ve got dumb rules that are like kudzu, you have to cut through with a machete, they should be eliminated, but there are some rules that make sense and the role of policy has not gone away. Government still has a very important role to play in keeping people safe and keeping necessary ingredients of a thriving life available to everyone.
Bradley: Talk a little about how those ingredients for a thriving life include access to technology for communities that are finding it hard to get to educational options, finding it hard to have the rich life that technology promises. What’s government’s role in creating the conditions that allow citizens to be responsive, whether that’s through education infrastructure, or free broadband, how do you see government help create the conditions in which it can be the best and its citizens can be their best?
Crawford: For the responsive city, my vision of all this is that it’s a multilayered system with fiber everywhere so we can take conductivity for granted and it’s cheap and everybody’s got hand-held devices, we’re able to communicate without thinking about the cost of communication. There will be sensors, there’ll be algorithms, there will be open data platforms, and then a lot of that being made available to the public. That’s the point. The role of government is to make sure those platforms are in place. But really, government mostly provides the basics and then lets the free market provide everything else. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, but once we decide as a country what’s basic to a thriving life: electricity, clean water, a good education, and a safe place to live–above that, it’s up to the market and people that are engaged in it to thrive by selling us other services. But the role of government in setting policies for things like privacy and access to infrastructure, that hasn’t gone away and it is part of a responsive city.
Bradley: I have one more question and then people can themselves ask questions in the last minute. Look ten years out. I don’t think ten years ago most people would have appreciated the potential of chief innovation officers and chief technology officers, and offices of urban mechanics. Where do you see the trend line going? What’s the trajectory for the responsive city? Where should we be thinking that this will go in 20 years for both cities and the people who live there?
Crawford: Well, first of all by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be in cities. We’re seeing a mass migration to cities. Cities will be much more responsive in their use of technology. They’ll have screens in more places that tell you about the well-being of a neighborhood and will allow you to engage in it. Look, all of this is just another layer to life. It’s not instead of the way we live. It just amplifies and accentuates the life of the city using technology. I’m confident that, particularly in the mega-cities that we’re seeing spring up in Africa and in Asia, there will be a seamless relationship between digital life and real life in the provision of city services, in the personalization of those services, and in the feeling of people about their cities, their city’s relationship to them. Because ultimately, cities are just for people. That’s the point. It’s not as if the city’s distant from its inhabitants and the possibility here is that technology in ten years will make that relationship much closer than it is today.