THE LACK OF diversity at tech companies is well-established: Less than 10 percent of workers at Google and LinkedIn are non-Asian minorities, for example, and only 31 percent of employees at Google are women. But the technology industry is guilty of another serious blunder that hasn’t spurred the same volume of national conversation: a lack of interest, and failure to invest, in the capacity of small and mid-sized cities to shape technology’s evolution.
Many of the best-known tech companies were launched and remain headquartered in Silicon Valley, a region that’s home to 3 million people. Tomorrow’s tech ideas are also being tested in larger cities: witness AmazonFresh Pickup(Seattle) and Uber’s autonomous vehicle trials (San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Tempe, Arizona); although smart city initiatives are taking off in smaller cities, the larger cities still have more than their share of smart city projects, not to mention the media coverage that perpetuates larger cities’ market advantage.
But beta-testing new technologies and products in smaller cities could benefit communities across the US. After all, the success of Massachusetts’ universal healthcare plan served as the blueprint for the (now imperiled) Affordable Care Act. And as with universal health care, small and mid-sized cities can be incubators for tech policy, allowing lawmakers to test programs on a small scale before taking them nationwide.
It’s true for companies as well as governments: Startups can implement and market concepts to a city of 100,000 much faster and more cheaply than to cities with 1 million residents. What’s more, smaller cities’ lower housing costs and, often, taxes allow tech companies to set up shop less expensively. The citizens of these cities bring diverse points of view to the tech conversation, just as minorities and women do, and their outlooks can improve tech planning and products.
I used to think that bringing the broad technological innovations common in large metropolitan areas to smaller cities was impractical, given the disparities in cultures, populations, budgets, and infrastructure.
But three experiences changed my mind. First, learning from one of the leading minds in tech policy, Susan Crawford, who showed me that data-driven policy could and should be leveraged to help all cities. Second, lobbying leaders and citizens in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, to pursue city-wide broadband access and founding a tech company that focuses on marketing black- and Latino/a-owned businesses. Third, discovering that smaller cities have legitimate price, scale, and knowhow barriers, but many of these obstacles have been broken down by a proliferation of tools that are affordable, scalable, and user-friendly.
Still, smaller cities struggle to compete against big cities in attracting resources or private enterprise. They sometimes cannot afford grant writers or lobbyists, and they must rely on a smaller base of innovative and strategic thinkers. By contrast, cities like Chicago and Los Angeles have armies of grant writers and need only spend a fraction of each tax dollar to funnel millions to lobbyists at the state and federal level.
While technological investments in big cities can seem financially insignificant, the same ventures in smaller cities have the potential to radically transform their citizens’ quality of life. After Chattanooga, Tennessee installed its own broadband network, for example, its unemployment rate fell from 7.8 percent to 4.1 percent, and wages climbed to the third highest of all mid-sized US cities.
When smaller cities invest in smart technology projects, they profit in the long run by optimizing their use of resources and delivering services more efficiently. Inspired by the millions that Louisville, Kentucky’s Office of Performance Improvement saved by optimizing its use of data, I recently pitched the benefits of data collection and a city-owned broadband network to the mayor and city council in Shreveport, Louisiana. While my proposal has been well-received, funding is not ensured. Budget constraints force many smaller localities to choose between fixing potholes and investing in long-term tech initiatives. And without investment from outside sources, the potholes usually win.
Tech-based grants that focus on smaller cities, such as the Knight Foundation’s Community Foundations Program or Bloomberg’s What Works Cities, can help with the funding challenges. Currently 78 percent of venture capital is given to only three states: California, New York, and Massachusetts. The Obama administration announced $80 million of funding for local governments. If President Trump’s promised trillion-dollar infrastructure plan passes, hopefully some of that funding can help smaller cities pursue projects at the intersection of infrastructure and smart city tech.
As an African-American law student studying innovation, I wish speakers who looked like me visited my classes to talk about technology. And I’ve felt similarly isolated when reading thousands of pages about innovative cities that do not look like my hometown. Various forces in the tech world are denying minorities and smaller cities the chance to influence the direction of technology’s march into the future. Just as minorities deserve equal opportunities in the tech world, Shreveport and other cities like it need technology just as much as New York and San Francisco.
Credit: Adrian Perkins @ Wired.com
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