After Amazon cancelled its plans to build a new campus in New York City, famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson told the New York Times, “To really be a success in New York, the benefits of the tech sector have to extend to every borough and every neighborhood.”

He’s right – not just about New York and Amazon – but about the relationship between cities and technology companies across the country. Technology presents cities with an equity challenge because access to and the benefits of technology are not equally shared by all. That’s difficult enough. But technology also presents cities with a capacity challenge because city governments are not organized to handle the rapid development of new products, platforms and business models. And both of these challenges threaten the legitimacy of local government.

But some cities are using a local government kind of jujitsu and finding ways to use technology and technology companies to solve the problems that tech creates. They don’t really have a choice: The infrastructure of the 21st century will be digital. Cities can’t block technology. What they can and must do is forge new relationships between local government, residents and technology companies.

Innovating Toward Equity

Until recently, city leaders declared their aim of being “the next Silicon Valley” without thinking much about what new technology might mean for the daily lives of residents. Now that rideshare vehicles are blamed for congestion increases and pedestrians are “disrupted” by scooters strewn in their paths, city leaders understand that technology is best used to further specific city priorities, especially around equity goals. As Justin Entzminger, director of Innovate Memphis, explains, “Innovation should be about how you make sure new programs or process improvements improve the lives of residents who need it most.”

To make this real, cities should not only state a commitment to equity, but also embed it in the design and implementation of new technology, programs and services, including robust measurement. For example, when Philadelphia started its bike-share program, the city worked with residents to crowdsource the decision of where docking stations should be located. Once the bikes were up and running, the city’s data analysis revealed that the docking stations in low-income neighborhoods were underused compared to stations in more affluent neighborhoods. City officials checked with residents and learned that some people in low-income neighborhoods could not rent bikes because they didn’t have credit cards. So the city revamped the payment system. Innovating toward equity is never a one-and-done process. It depends on regular review and course correction.

Building Capacity by Partnering Differently With Tech Companies

To build their own capacity and address complex challenges, cities should smartly leverage the ingenuity of the private sector by partnering in new ways. According to Shalini Vajjhala, the Founder and CEO of Re:focus Partners, which structures public-private partnerships in cities, “Procurement in cities is often product-specific and not problem-specific. The key is to flip procurement around so it can be an entry point to identify new partners and resources.”

And, technology companies are starting to realize that, to be successful, they also have to be good partners, which means abandoning a brash, “ask forgiveness, not permission” attitude and getting really interested in problems from a city’s perspective.

In Detroit, the city government and nine other public and private partners created the Mobility Innovation Initiative to address the city’s transportation pain points. The consortium approach was critical because neither the city nor the private sector had all the information needed to start addressing the city’s mobility challenges, from getting around neighborhoods to getting into downtown. As Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the city of Detroit, told us, “You need to make sure you’re not just driving technology to problems that don’t exist. We need to make sure we are tackling the most important problems that residents have.”

Bolstering Legitimacy

Finally, to increase their legitimacy, cities should invite residents to be co-drivers of innovation and be willing to embrace new approaches to citizen engagement. Local government legitimacy is the broad reservoir of support that allows government to deliver positive outcomes for all. That’s hard enough to deliver, depending as it does on a mind-bendingly complex series of balancing acts, trade-offs, compromises and big decisions based on incomplete information. But again and again, cities are showing that they can bolster their legitimacy and solve important problems by engaging residents differently, especially in new and innovative ways that harness technology smartly.

For example, in Chicago, the city government has turned directly to residents, recognizing them as problem-solvers in their own right. Since 2016, the city has used a new statistical model, created by the local civic tech community using public data to help predict hazardous levels of E. coli on city beaches. This model results in a huge drop in false positive predictions, meaning that Chicagoans can safely enjoy their beaches more often.

Tech and tech companies can create challenges for cities by raising expectations for efficiency, by radically increasing the volume of opinions, data and aspirations that cities have to sort through, and, sometimes, by not respecting the role of city governments as guardians of the public interest. But we think that local governments can meet the challenge. As these examples and others in a recently released report show, they can use technology and carefully considered partnerships to make more efficient, more responsive, more respectful and even more delightful cities. That’s the real promise of what technology can deliver, and city governments and residents shouldn’t settle for anything less.


This article was originally published in U.S. News and World Report following the release of CPI’s handbook for city problem solvers: “The Future of U.S. Cities: How cities are innovating with intention to achieve impact.” Learn more and download the handbook here.