Digital Cities: The City as a Platform

Brian Rollison
Jun 27, 2017 · 5 min read

This is the ninth post in a series of excerpts from my graduate research at Cornell University; each has been adapted for the purposes of this format. To read the full report, in all its technical glory, please visit my website.

Previous Topic: Civic Engagement isn’t a Checkbox


Civic platform courtesy of Living Cities

As technology continues to progress our city-to-citizen relationship will continue to evolve through an age of hyper-connected virtual environments — the built environment will be shaped by the real-time information delivery through intelligent devices, cloud-based databases, and highly customized participatory crowdsourcing. A battle has already begun between the top-down corporate initiatives of today and the bottom-up collaborative systems of the cities and citizens themselves; the question of who wins the war hasn’t been decided, and will likely be decided in the next 10 years.

311: The Digital Frontline

While the City of Boston was one of the first providers of a digital 311-service delivery conduit, today the largest (traffic volume) belongs to the City of New York’s NYC311. Walking through NYC311 HQ in downtown Manhattan you’ll find yourself experiencing what can only be described as mission control — a combination of a Wall Street trading floor and city hall. The energy in the two-story auditorium is electric as personnel serve thousands of inbound citizen requests each day.

NYC311 HQ in FiDi (Manhattan, NY)

In speaking with Chenda Frutcher, NYC311 Strategy & Development Director, I discovered the agency’s evolving mission is a city search engine — over 90% of all inbound volume consists of information requests, not incident reports. In the past few years the agency has taken steps to diversify their product offerings to position themselves as a network of urban information.

Technology Integration in Toronto

This forward-facing vision was echoed by Gary Yorke, Director of 311 Toronto, when we spoke last year. Gary believes the 311 non-emergency product is ripe for transformation from a city-as-a-service model that of a city-as-a-platform model. To be successful he believes the system must be technologically scalable, but cannot rest of the underlying technology alone. His team is prioritizing compassion and accountability as they reach out to citizens in designing a new system “from the outside in.”

Toronto 311’s massive operations center, the epicenter of the city’s new platform model.

Gary’s team is seeking to install systems that cater to a citizen’s state of mind during city interaction, a similar sentiment to Boston’s design principles. Recently they’ve begun testing new voice technology enabling them to analyze voice inflections and predict inbound emotional sentiment to reprioritize service delivery based on accelerated parameters — a strategy to streamline processing capacity without sacrificing customer service quality and efficiency.

Another recent initiative was the department’s deployment of a dedicated group of community engagement personnel to ensure technology isn’t serving as a blockage between the city and citizen. To Gary, there is no purpose of a scalable city if it becomes cold to it’s citizens. If successful, the Toronto 311 technology platform could extend its service fulfillment flexibility and scalability to all 22 divisions of the city, making increasing citizen-to-city interaction “like water.”

Connectivity as a Utility

Imagine a city platform that’s scalable and efficient enough to serve the needs of its citizens — its amazing — but what about those citizens not yet connected. Consider the internet today, a wealth of information at your fingertips; now image you have no smartphone, computer, data connection, ethernet cable, or landline. What good is a digital city if it’s own citizens can’t access it? While somewhat improbable on the surface, this is a very real problem in some of our greatest cities (including advanced economies).

One of Connect.DC’s Mobile Tech Labs.

Connect.DC was launched 3 years ago as part of the Digital Inclusion Initiative in Washington DC to address the digital divide still prevalent within many of the city wards. The program has repurposed a fleet of rusty delivery trucks in internet connected “Mobile Tech Labs” to bring the internet directly to their citizens. Partnering with ByteBack the Connect.DC team delivers computer (Microsoft Office certifications included) and financial training education at no cost to citizens directly in their own neighborhoods. Consider the three distinct characteristics of the urban digital divide:

  1. Content Usage
  2. Access
  3. Skillset

Content usage intrigues programs like Connect.DC — it’s the idea that simply having access and knowing how to use digital tools doesn’t mean a citizen is “digitally connected.” If a citizen is only watching cat videos on YouTube all day, then are they truly digitally aware? Connect.DC doesn’t think so, and they make a good case in my opinion.

The Internet as a Public Good

Of course the very existence of DC’s Digital Inclusion Initiative suggests a larger discussion needs to take place. Should internet access be considered a public good?

Public Good — a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of society, either by the government or a private individual or organizations.

You are likely thinking one of three things right now:

  • SOCIALISM!!!! (or some variant of this)
  • About time…
  • 🤔 I’m not quite sure about that

The concept of viewing internet access on the same level of a utility is highly subjective socio-economic discussion and beyond the scope of this analysis. However, consider the following thoughts from a pro-market individual:

  • Enabling ubiquitous internet access may enable an accelerated scaling of government services, decreasing public expenditures and lowering taxes
  • Internet access is directly correlated with increased P2P interaction, which is the engine or superlinear productivity scaling within a network

Just something to consider. One question remains the same, long-term platform providers must consider what the purpose of a digital city is if not for everyone.

End Excerpt

Next Topic: A Digitally Social Overture


I welcome your feedback; keep in mind this is only a part of a series in which we’ll fully vet the concepts proposed here. Opinions are my own.

I’ve attached links to the subjects/actors of this article; periphery content was collected from a series of interviews with city employees and citizens in the City of New York and the City of Toronto. A roster of these interviews is available at request.

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