Big Tech Must Help Cities Bridge The Divide

A three million square foot former New York Port Authority building, purchased by Google in 2010.

A three million square foot former New York Port Authority building, purchased by Google in 2010. Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

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COMMENTARY | The two should view each other as "co-creators, sharing tools and information," according to the head of Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities.

You only need to open any major newspaper to see the latest rounds of clashes between tech companies and local governments. Whether it is the sharing economy or tax subsidies, there are so many examples of technology leaders and their public sector counterparts failing to form meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships.

As more local governments embrace data and digital innovation, you might imagine that tech companies would be jumping in as true thought partners. After all, such “smart city” partnerships can help make government more efficient, reduce inequities, and grow local economies, in turn driving markets and making cities better places to do business.

Plus, cities are customers, too, with needs for the products and services Big Tech sells. And supporting cities is good for a company’s brand, helping to build trust among companies, consumers, and communities.

But too many tech companies continue to view cities as obstacles to growing their consumer base, rather than vital partners in helping entire communities succeed. To make this reality more troubling, a false narrative persists that cities refuse to innovate. One digital rights advocate was even quoted recently as saying that some cities are just “too stupid or too lazy” to work with experts who can help them implement technology effectively. 

Are cities too stupid to be “smart”?

Far from it. If anything, local government is on the cutting edge of innovation-driven public service. The people I work with in hundreds of local governments across the country are as whip-smart and as passionate about innovation and impact as the managing directors I worked with at Goldman Sachs. And when it comes to understanding the needs of their residents, cities are the experts. 

What they are not is tech experts—and they can’t build smart cities alone. So how do we bridge the gap between cities and Big Tech? That necessarily begins by shifting the way they see each other. Both should view themselves—and begin to act—as co-creators, sharing tools and information to benefit both the double bottom line and a bigger share of residents.

Over the last couple of decades, cities have made a lot of progress in using technology to increase both efficiency and the quality of life—whether it’s finding new ways of tracking and reducing energy use, making city services more accessible, or increasing access to transportation and opportunity. More recently, innovations like using drones to monitor trash or streetlights to measure air pollution are making cities healthier.

The public-private bikeshare programs pioneered a decade ago were revolutionary, but we need partnerships that take on bigger problems, like making housing more affordable, not more out of reach, supporting families on the precipice of financial distress, and closing disparities in access to the digital opportunities that are vital for economic mobility in the 21st century. As the Amazon fallout showed, tech companies need to start thinking beyond jobs alone when they come to the negotiating table.

Can tech companies help cities overcome such challenges, and use technology in a more strategic, powerful way? Some are. In San Jose, Facebook and Qualcomm are piloting a wireless tool called Terragraph to deliver high-quality internet to all city residents. In Seattle, Microsoft has just pledged $500 million toward affordable housing for residents left behind in the city’s technology boom. We need more partnerships like these.

Tech companies also can use their enormous capacity to help cities test promising innovations before taking the best ideas to scale. In Kansas City, Missouri, a new partnership with Bird, a scooter-share company, is helping the city collect concrete data to assess impact and develop sustainable policies. Shared mobility devices like scooters can provide last-mile mobility solutions to help residents without close access to public transportation reach jobs and services, and reduce reliance on energy-inefficient cars. It also benefits Bird by building demand for its products and trust in the community.

Tech companies and city governments also should explore ways of sharing data responsibly to improve public services. The same kinds of data that helps companies tailor their products to determine optimal pricing or grow their customer base can help cities determine how to improve access to transportation for low-income families, manage traffic congestion, and more. Through its Connected Citizens Program, GPS navigation app Waze is sharing traffic data with local governments across the country, enabling cities like Louisville to make more informed decisions about managing traffic and then assess whether interventions really work.

The concept of data sharing is not without controversy—and privacy and transparency are components of smart cities that can’t be ignored.  But Big Tech is confronting the same issues in these and other contexts. Why not tackle them together? 

The same goes for overcoming other persistent challenges, from supporting job creation to helping prepare local youth for the jobs of tomorrow, to name only two. These are goals worth working toward, together—expanding opportunity, improving economic mobility and laying a better foundation for both companies and communities to thrive and grow.

That should be good enough—and smart enough—for everyone.

Simone Brody is the Executive Director of What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative partnering with mayors and city leaders to improve the effectiveness of local government.

NEXT STORY: Sharing as a Solution in Cities with Limited Resources