Digital Cities: Your ‘Digital Awareness’ Is Worthless

This is the sixth 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: Hybrid Placemaking in the City


Yeah, it might be a little bit of an “aggressive” title — here’s the thing, if you don’t understand the stakeholders who control your digital initiatives, then it simply doesn’t matter how clear your vision is or how great your product might be. In my travels I’ve seen too many civic technology products left unpolished, half-assed, or plagued with feature creep. Going forward I’ll outline a few examples built from personal interviews with product builders, citizens, and reviews of the very products themselves.

Civic Innovation in Flux

Every city has its own unique governance architecture, but an entrenched tendency of “business as usual” will turn honest attempts at innovation into a staging ground for political jockeying — a nightmare where progress is defined by political buzzwords and wilts with each passing administration.

A pretty sweet sign though — Portland, Oregon

Lesson 1: Bureaucracy Kills Innovation (duh…)

Widely known for its dedication to progressive view of technology’s role alongside urban planning, the City of Portland has carved out an entire city bureau to support development efforts. At first glance the digital team has done everything right:

  • Mobile-first design and development
  • Crowdsourced ideas for new applications from the citizens
  • Agile (iterative) development
  • Talented and creative technologists hired to create these products
…civic tech product viability is entirely dependent on political sponsorship…treated as “pet projects” of bureau commissioners…

So another happy ending right? Well, it’s complicated. When I asked the team what blocking tasks stood in their way their answer was clear — civic tech product viability is entirely dependent on political sponsorship. This carries the unfortunate side-effect as they are treated as “pet projects” of political commissioners, relegating their lifecycles to the sentiment of the moment and not their long-term value creation.

This reality has dire repercussions on the development lifecycle of digital products as it pollutes the commitment from the development team and increases relationship decay within the urban (citizen-city) network. Take PDX CitySync (trapped in beta), the City of Portland’s civic dashboard, a highly customizable portal of often requested city data made available for citizens. The product was born from a hackathon project called Civic Apps (also trapped in beta), comprising two rounds of development producing 45 civic applications. Following a successful launch, executive sponsorship began to fade, and thus the product (along with many others) remains in a purgatory of beta development as attention is redirected elsewhere.

Lesson 2: Avoid Half-Baked & Duplicative Products

This myopic strategy of tacking new digital initiatives produces another unfortunate side-effect: duplication. Before becoming defunct, PDX Planning offered nearly identical features and functionality to PDX CitySync. Each were developed within distinct bureaus to meet each commissioner’s idealized vision, their “pet project,” instead of recognizing the opportunity to collaborate across city mandates.

The separation of these applications caused an increase in development risk with each subject to their own sponsorship concerns, development capacity, and citizen outreach capability. Instead the bureaus could have co-developed an application relevant to both, forming a coalition between the bureaus to synergize product development efforts — decreasing development time and securing an alliance of executive sponsorship.

Oh, an HDR and Slow Shutter Speed shot…nice — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Lesson 3: Innovation != Technology

While even the most digitally aware cities like Portland can suffer from the effects of intra-governmental silos of operation, some urban centers have taken strategic steps towards knocking down artificial barriers of municipal collaboration. The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology is tasked with establishing systems of cross-departmental collaboration — breaking down communication barriers between some 25,000 civil servants. The team has taken a skeptical approach to adding new layers of technology onto civic services, instead positioning a smart combination of collaboration and technology to break down old processes.

…take a skeptical approach to adding new layers of technology onto civic services…

They’ve established a “Works Group” project for outreach to city agencies to educate and systematize communication throughout the municipal system. One output from this group is the creation of the Innovation Fund, a municipal grant program ($100,000 annual capacity) funding new and innovative ideas from entrepreneurial city employees looking to spark new methods of civic service delivery. Application to the program doesn’t limit city employees to their job title, encouraging them to seek out cross-departmental partnerships to earn one of the ten program grants awarded each year ($1,000–15,000 per grant).

Lesson 4: Let Citizens Direct Your Efforts

Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology expanded its collaboration beyond the government and into the urban network broadly. With technical personnel working to update legacy backend systems, the innovation team established human-centered design workshops at public libraries and community centers across the city. Through multiple outreach sprints the team constructed a “needs” list to address concerns held by the people of the community. Two prominent, and previously unrecognized, pain points brought to light in these meetings was the search for opportunities for the general public to help innovation efforts within the city and a much needed revamp of city procurement initiatives for city public works projects.

Led by strong executive sponsorship the innovation team immediately reprioritized their digital efforts, leveraged the newly established culture of internal collaboration, and develop stabilized solutions to address each problem. Their response was quick:

  • Launched Contracts Hub as a dashboard of all city procurement opportunities available to the public
  • Deployed a transparent evaluation toolkit for citizen innovation ideas
  • Streamlined the internal clearance procedures for establishing city partnerships with small business owners

Excited by the strong public demand to help with the internal innovation process, the team went a step further and established BigIdeasPHL as an ongoing forum for citizen-led civic innovation.

Innovation is Fleeting without Collaboration

The City of Portland is one of the most technologically advanced cities in the country, and yet they continue to struggle in producing longevity for many of their digital products. We’ve identified three core contributing factors to collaborative city barriers preventing stable civic technology innovation:

  1. Lack of executive sponsorship (i.e. “pet projects”)
  2. Bureaucratic turnover prevents commitment by innovation personnel
  3. Unpolished and abandoned applications drive down motivation for engagement by citizens and city officials

In contrast, the City of Philadelphia’s recent resurgence of innovative thinking is powered by a young and engaged staff knocking down arcane procedures blocking communication and collaboration. Working beyond political influence, and with the people of the city, the Office of Innovation & Technology has made agile innovation a core principle of civic technology development going forward. However, a question remains — can it survive the future city administrations to come?

End of Excerpt

Next Topic: The City Upon a Hill


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 Portland and Philadelphia. A roster of these interviews is available at request.