Civic technology and the cities of our future: Part I

David Fine
May 31, 2016 · 8 min read

The idea of “smart cities” is beginning to tranform from buzzword to reality, but what concrete steps are governments, companies, and citizens taking to get there?

As Moore’s Law continues apace, cities will continue to blanket themselves in all sorts of cheap, reliable, and (we hope) meaningful sensors. Sensors generate data, and data will serve as the first of many building blocks to realize the pie-in-the-sky notion of a “smart city.”

People have grasped at what a “smart city” might mean for quite some time. The 1939 New York World’s Fair is a good start. Much of the best science fiction from the 20th century spends a considerable amount of time detailing how the cities of the future will look, alternating between various forms of u- and dystopia. Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, and Robert L. Heinlein all realized that cities reflect their society’s dreams and technological capabilities — and built visions of what those cities might be like.

Until now, those dreams remained just that, but today we’re witnessing the first steps in turning fiction to reality. It turns out that those steps are a far cry from sci-fi glitz — they involve a lot of data and a lot of thinking about process. What we’re witnessing now are three different groups coming together to come to bear on those basic building blocks for the cities of our future: citizen activists, enterprising governments, and private companies.

These groups knit together to form a civic technology movement building the cities of the future by getting down to the knitty gritty of collecting data about how people use cities, and then improving cities step-by-step based on that continuous data feedback to get to a smarter city.

As a part of a tech startup that situates itself within the civic technology movement, I’ve come to grasp a little bit what civic technology means for cities of our future. In a multi-part series, we’ll explore exactly what the civic technology movement means today and what it might mean for our future. Today we’ll start with how governments are changing the way they deliver services to citizens, making them more efficient, smarter, and — one hopes — better.

The traditional sequential “GovTech” relationship

When President Obama spoke at SXSW in March, the digital encryption debate overshadowed reports of his talk in the news. But the main reason he had come to Austin was to talk about, “ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that’s taking place and can help convene and catalyze folks in the private sector and the nonprofit sector to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges.” In essence, he came to SXSW to talk about civic technology.

The idea of technology companies working with governments to bring innovative solutions to citizens is nothing new. It’s how they’re doing it today that makes civic technology so different. To understand the difference, let’s explore how governments would traditionally deliver technology to citizens.

For the most part, technology providers established a sequential contractor relationship with governments, delivering “GovTech” services through a rigid waterfall process. This process is deeply entrenched in both the policy and execution sides of our federal, state, and local governments:

First you have a government, and you have citizens served by that government:

The government wants to provide a service to their citizens, but it doesn’t have the technological capacity to do so:

The government then finds a contractor, and that contractor provides the technological solution for that citizen service:

Sometimes this works well. But oftentimes the process’ sequential nature produces suboptimal results for both government and citizen. Catastrophic failures litter the graveyard of GovTech history, the most recent and notable of which was the “Obamacare” roll out.

But the execution needn’t be catastrophic for it to be a failure. More often than not the result simply produces a serviceable yet mediocre experience for the citizen, an outcome anyone familiar with the USPS might recognize.

An agile design philosophy in government

The sequential GovTech relationship doesn’t work well for a variety of reasons, but a prime one is that it precludes government services from adapting a truly agile approach to building citizen services. As one speaker at last year’s Code for America Summit put it, a government approach to building services often look like this:

Source: Jake Solomon, graphics by Alan Williams “A User-Centered Approach to Food Stamps”, CfA Summit (2015)

It’s not a coincidence that this graphic mirrors the “waterfall” model of technology development:

Source: Adapted from Paul Smith’s work at wikipedia —

Intrinsic to the concept of civic technology is pulling government services away from this non-iterative approach. An agile design approach, popularized by the likes of Eric Reis, emphasizes iterative, non-sequential process to develop user-centric products. A standard agile design process looks like this:

Source: The Lean Startup —

The key here is that the process never ends. Rather than treating citizen service technology as one-and-done solutions, the civic technology movement looks to convince governments of agile development’s role in basic services. By creating services that collect and respond to actual usage, government can improve the citizen experience with some consistency.

This can be a tough sell for governments. Citizen services aspire to be reliable — a difficult thing to achieve within the standard agile startup mindset of “fail fast, fail often.” Agile development’s emphasis on quick iterations poses a problem for governments that must serve every single one of their citizens.

Proponents of the civic technology movement aim to bridge the gap between the minimum viable lean philosophy and the minimum reliable government philosophy. A variety of agencies within and without government attempt to bring agile development to governments in a sustainable manner. Their process melds the citizen-centered view of government with the user-centric view of agile:

Source: Jake Solomon, graphics by Alan Williams “A User-Centered Approach to Food Stamps”, CfA Summit (2015)

Two organizations making it happen

We began this post talking about cities of the future, and there are many examples of local city governments (like ours here in New York) making the plunge toward agile development and the civic technology movement, but we can find the most radical change at a national and federal level. How the federal government operates oftentimes bears more importance than any single city or state. In the United States at least, the federal government controls massive purse strings and establishes models for how state and city governments should operate. Unintuitive as it may be, the road to “smart cities” begins at the federal and national level.

At the forefront of this national effort sits Code for America, a non-profit non-governmental organization, “that believes government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.” Founded in 2009, it partners with city and state governments to build agile-based technology solutions for their citizens, pairing technologist “fellows” with agencies that need benefit from their expertise.

Besides its fellowships, Code for America boasts a broad grassroots movement of “civic hackers” and an advocacy arm. Though only a few years old, Code for America has built a major movement that bridges the government and tech worlds. The state of California recently entrusted them with a major overhaul of its child welfare services.

We think of federal government services as slow and dysfunctional, often because they are. Federal government suffers from the entrenchment of outdated technology and thinking. So, it’s interesting that some of the biggest government-related civic technology change is happening at the federal level. During his first term, President Obama recruited a slew of silicon valley veterans to reform the way government approaches technology services, creating the office of White House CTO, and using Code for America’s success as a model for the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

But it wasn’t until the high-profile failure of the rollout, that the need for more radical change became clear. Many things arose from that failure, but one organization in particular stands out as emblematic of the civic technology movement in government: 18F.

Relying on top-tier tech talent taking pay cuts to “serve a tour of duty,” 18F fashions itself as a consultancy within the federal government that helps different government agencies reform how they procure and develop technology.

Only two years old, 18F has already created a profound impact on the way the federal government builds technology by showing that it could be done in an agile manner. Starting with fixing, 18F and its parent organization the US Digital Service created user-centric design guidelines for US government websites. They’ve helped many federal agencies reform their tech implementation strategies, including the perennial broken Veteran Affairs department.

Lest you think these efforts amount to small potatoes, think about how much we depend on technology and websites to deliver services to us today. Speaking about the failure, the US Digital Service’s Haley Van Dyck observed, “this was the first time in the history of our [federal] government that a website was actually potentially getting in the way of American lives being saved.” Politico summed up the financial stakes in a piece on the federal civic tech movement: “The government spends $80 billion a year getting the Internet wrong. Here’s how to fix it.” Indeed, you can begin to understand the bredth of the US government’s web presence with an analytics dashboard created by the US Digital Service and 18F.

The move from sequential to iterative design thinking in government is only one part of the broader civic technology movement. Organizations like 18F and Code for America create powerful change from within large governmental organization — change that will trickle down to cities and citizens — but they’re just one piece in the wider civic technology movement reshaping our cities.

On a more local level, profit-driven companies and willing governmental partners are rethinking how they relate to build a more responsive city. Powerful decentralized technologies are creating an ecosystem where government, private enterprise, and citizens all contribute to building a smarter city. Understanding just how cities are using data to become more responsive, how this ecosystem works, and how private companies in particular act as catalysts within that ecosystem is what we’ll cover in Part II.

This post originally appeared on the Placemeter blog.

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

David Fine

Written by

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

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