Is civic tech the answer to rebuilding our cities? Is this a way to address rotting infrastructure, high unemployment and a history of failed governance? There’s probably no better case study to look at in America than Detroit. And that’s what this week’s Techonomy Detroit Conference, held at Wayne State University, was about.
There are a whole range of apps that offer the opportunity to increase civic engagement and to improve not just the perception but the actual performance of local government. One example in Detroit is an app that allows citizens to report problems to the city from their smartphones. Things like gaping potholes or dead traffic lights get routed automatically to the appropriate parties in government and the person who reports the problem gets an immediate response and follow up.
Policing is another area where technology can play a critical role. We’ve seen in recent weeks how body cams have been posed as a way to protect citizens against over-aggressive policing and to protect officers against unwarranted allegations. Apps that connect residents with the police department offer some promise in both making neighborhoods safer and in improving police-community relations.
Like many post-industrial cities in the U.S., Detroit’s downfall was loss of jobs. It was particularly acute here because of the city’s dependence on a single industry, automotive. One conference speaker, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, noted. “We aren’t going to reinvent factories with tens of thousands of jobs.” While the auto industry could indeed return to the Detroit, it will come back with robots doing what those tens of thousands of workers used to do.
One answer put forward at the conference was the growth of local, low-volume manufacturing as a replacement for giant global manufacturers. The maker movement was described by Peter Hirshberg of the Re:Imagine Group as something that is key to the reinvention of cities, “something with Franklin written all over it.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talked about Detroit’s efforts to support budding entrepreneurs and would-be manufacturers. A program called Motor City Match puts entrepreneurs in touch with professionals who can help them with business plans, real estate experts who can help them find locations and architects and contractors who can advise on build-outs.
During the conference a number of trends were identified that are encouraging the application of civic tech in urban areas.
- College graduates and young entrepreneurs have shown a preference for locating in urban areas.
- The cost of prototyping and getting started has been substantially reduced with the cloud and with 3-D printing.
- James Fallows of The Atlantic, who moderated one of the sessions, described what he called a reverse talent migration. Real estate costs in cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are pushing entrepreneurs and start ups to more affordable places, including Detroit.
- Fallows also pointed to the general “despair about national level politics” as something that is making Americans more interested in local level issues and government.
One of Duggan’s goals is to “create a city where entrepreneurs want to come.” But maybe even more important is to show this opportunity to the young people who are growing up in the city. “You can move up to be your own boss,” Duggan said. “something young people in Detroit haven’t seen as a viable alternative.”