In Cincinnati Public Schools, at least 50% of families live beneath the poverty line and at least 41% of students experience digital divided limitations. As the digital transformation continues its rapid pace, we must ensure everyone has access to devices, networks, and digital literacy training where needed. Not just for k-12 students, but for learners of all ages across the city and region. As we connect and digitize our public services, education systems, facilities, campuses, and roadways with high speed connectivity, we must not leave otherwise disconnected residents (or neighborhoods) behind.
At the 16th Annual Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit I spoke about Smart Cincy, Defeating the Digital Divide, and connecting Cincinnati's people, places, things, and information. This session was timely. At our conference in October we announced goals to defeat the digital divide in its entirety before 2021. That effort cannot happen on its own. We are working closely with leaders at The City of Cincinnati, the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools, and local internet service providers to address the startling digital divide issues that hinder social mobility and economic development. (And we have an open door policy. If you want to help or learn more, get in touch via smartcincy.org.)
Normally I speak to elected and public officials as an advisor to the United States Congress’ Smart Cities Caucus, or to leaders in the technology industry at topic specific conferences, but events like the Neighborhood Summit are much more important as I get to hear directly from residents and community leaders about the specific problems faced in each of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods. I realized that there is growing frustration from residents that don’t feel as if their voices are heard as the poverty gap continues to grow, and I couldn’t help but realize a drastic divide between many smart city conversations at the top level versus community expectations. I can confidently say that Smart Cincy and the Regional Smart Cities Initiative will make an even more concerted effort to engage and interface with communities from each of the 52 neighborhoods across Cincinnati with these understandings in mind, and that is something that recent initiatives in Cincinnati’s Office of Data and Performance Analytics have focused on led by Leigh Tami and her team.
Here are five key takeaways from the Smart Cincy session during the Neighborhood Summit:
1. Smart Cities are about people, not technology. Technology is simply the tool that allows us to optimize or altogether replace outdated and failing systems to improve people’s lives - to make Cincinnati a better place to live, work, and visit. Closing the digital gap will ensure equitable access to city services, opportunities, and resources regardless of socioeconomic or physical barriers. Other smart city solutions in transportation will bridge the mobility gap, ensuring people have equitable access to jobs, education, healthcare, and leisure, while also mitigating environmental impact. If successful, we will see the 20 year difference in life expectancy (correlated with air quality, crime, and poverty) disappear as you move from neighborhood to neighborhood.
2. The poverty gap is crippling. We must use technology as a tool to close the gap, not widen it. (I also spoke about this at the 9th Annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit in Washington DC a few weeks ago.) This means that a sharp focus on access and equity must be layered into each of our planning decisions. As we improve neighborhoods, we have to give residents the tools to succeed in the 21st Century.
3. Residents are growing impatient. “We don’t need to be surveyed anymore. We know what our problems are. We need help addressing them,” affirmed one audience member. And she is right. Smart Cities efforts should start from the community level, and work their way up. We need to work together on crafting project visions, prioritizations, and planning frameworks reflective of the wants and needs of residents and businesses - from defeating the digital divide to closing the mobility gap - it requires a collaborative effort that isn’t bound by party lines or siloed political agendas. Another attendee questioned how projects are prioritized and funded, fearing that his neighborhood will once again be left out of the conversation. To that, I would say that more transparent, data-driven government will help clarify and expedite these efforts city-wide, with no neighborhood left behind.
4. We must define performance markers, and put in place benchmarks to stay on track. How will we track and measure outcomes of our smart city efforts? For people? Communities? Businesses? Government agencies? (This will be a focal point of the second annual Smart Cincy Summit this spring.)
5. The City of Cincinnati isn’t starting from scratch building a smart city that puts people first. Already the city has launched a massive effort to use data, IoT, and other advanced technologies to make Cincinnati a more responsive city, addressing the needs of all of its residents. These efforts won’t happen overnight, but are well underway at City Hall.
Smart Cincy is a community effort. Anyone can get involved, ask to learn more, or explore ways to support the organizational efforts. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org -or- learn a bit more at smartcincy.org. Alternatively, you can join an upcoming monthly meeting (free to the public) or attend the Second Annual Smart Cincy Summit on April 26th at Union Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
Written by: Zack Huhn