Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 125 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Susan Crawford on the Responsive City. Listen to this episode here.
Susan Crawford: Fiber has to be the bottom layer of the responsive city -- any city that wants to involve all its citizens and have a constant web of connectivity.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello there. Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Susan Crawford has been with us before, and we are thrilled to have her back again. Susan is a professor at Harvard University, and she also authored the book, "Captive Audience." She recently released another book, this time with Stephen Goldsmith, titled, "The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance." While many of our listeners may be familiar with the term "smart city," Susan and her coauthor consider a "responsive city" something quite different. In this podcast, she and Chris delve into exactly what the term means, how it differs from the term "smart city," and how publicly-owned fiber networks can help cities become more responsive. Municipal networks are tools to improve connectivity, save public dollars, and spur economic development. But they're also an important tool to encourage citizen engagement, a critical component of our democracy. Here are Susan and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Susan Crawford again, professor at Harvard University, and author of "Captive Audience." Welcome to the show.
Susan Crawford: Hey, thanks, Christopher. Glad to be here.
Chris: We're really glad to have you back. We talked with you previously, right after you'd released "Captive Audience." And I know it's been a big hit among the kinds of people that follow our site and are interested in municipal networks. Now you have a new book, that we're going to talk about today a bit, "Responsive City," a book that was coauthored with Stephen Goldsmith. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what is a "responsive city"?
Susan: Well, all my work on fiber networks and understanding the state of high-speed Internet access led me to think about the question, "fiber for what?" And I'm very interested in how city governments can use technology to be much more effective, much more efficient in how they deliver diverse services to city residents. And also the fact that government employees can have much more discretion and autonomy and pride in their work with better use of technology. And citizens can feel much more engaged in the life of their cities, using data and screens and visualizations and responsiveness between what they want and need and care about and what the city can plan and deliver. So all of this has led me to do a lot of investigative work behind the walls of City Hall, particularly in Chicago, and Boston, and New York. And I've learned that there are a bunch of real heroes inside City Hall, doing their best, against almost impossible odds, to help government function better, using digital technology; reach citizens better; and provide a civic mesh of goods -- of services, and trust, and accountability, using technology. In effect, covering a city with a layer of electronic responsiveness that makes the city much more alive and responsive, accountable to the citizens that it serves. It's been an exciting transition for me. And it gives me an answer to a lot of the question, "fiber for what?"
Chris: One of the things that I've really found interesting in the book, of -- there's many different examples -- of the way some cities have gone about this. One of the things I found interesting was, it seemed like there was a tendency to take information out of silos and to centralize it so that it could be more useful, all in the name of then decentralizing power among city staff, from perhaps even outside City Hall to citizens. And the ability of decentralized organizations to do more with that data. And I think that's pretty abstract, but I'm just -- I'm curious if there was a favorite example you had of how being a responsive city changed a process for one of these local governments.
Susan: So, sure. Here's a story that involves not just citizens but also a nonprofit intermediary and city government and databases that had been spread all over the place. And it's the story of the Southwest Organizing Project, which is a long-standing civic group in Chicago, that used to wander around with clipboards, noting where there were abandoned or blighted properties in the neighborhoods of Chicago. And TRYING to get the city government to respond to their request to fix up the property, or condemn the land and build something new. What happens with digital technology is that the city's CIO can bring together lots of databases from across the city's agencies and map them to an interface that looks like a map, you know, the WindyGrid 311 interface. And then the people who used to be -- are still -- in the Southwest Organizing Project can be collecting data about buildings that trouble them and have that go directly into the Map 311 interface, and get a response, directly from the city, on the Southwest Organizing Project's own website. So it creates this feedback loop of question-and-response and really focuses the city's energy on the places that need it most. So, this is a story about centralizing data, in a sense. The city is able to understand more about itself by pulling together data from disparate sources and putting it in a map interface so everybody can understand. And the local citizens can be out there gathering data which immediately becomes actionable, and actually becomes the focus of dialogue between citizens and government. And this story is further enriched by the presence of a group called Smart Chicago, which is a nonprofit collaborative funded by the MacArthur Foundation and others, in Chicago, that worked with both the Southwest Organizing Project and a group called LocalData, that built the software that the Southwest Organizing Project uses in order to gather the data. And then worked with the Chief Information Officer of Chicago on the other end. So serving as a kind of glue between traditional civic activist groups, software, and the CIO, all in the name of making Chicago a better place to live.
Chris: One of the concerns that I think some people have -- oftentimes people who have been working from within City Hall for a long time -- is that this might be just another one of those fads, right? And they're afraid that even if you give people the opportunity to participate more in city governance, or in decision-making, or even just in getting potholes fixed, that people aren't going to be really interested in doing it. But, time and time again, your examples suggest that when you give people an opportunity to be more involved in their governance, they're excited to do it, and they go beyond even common expectations.
Susan: We keep finding that when someone's using handheld device -- their phone -- they feel, when they're using that app and that device as if they're helping. Not complaining. They're helping. They're part of the city's team. And they also feel a sense of agency and autonomy, especially when their requests get responded to, and they can see it getting responded to -- instead of this -- City Hall being a faceless, you know, castle, with little, slitty windows. It becomes an entity with a purpose and a reason to be trusted of its own. And it's something about the connection between people's great familiarity with their phones and apps, that they see as helping them, combined with the fact that most people love their cities -- they live there for a reason, and they want the city to be a better place to live -- that actually increases a sense of agency, democracy, participation.
People are remarkable. You know, when they serve on juries, they do their best to serve their fellow citizens. Given an opportunity, and given a chance to feel as if their voice matters, Americans at their best are NEVER cynical. They're always helpful, and feeling as if they have a role to play. And technology can really help make that much more approachable, more real, for more Americans.
Chris: When I was reading your book, I -- when I sort of started at page 1, I think, I was thinking in my head, all right, this is another smart city kind of approach, the idea of just, you know, applying better information technology to common problems. And as I finished the last page, I had the sense that that's not what you're driving at. You're looking at fundamentally changing the way cities operate, to be more nimble, and to be more responsive. And the ways that you're just noting, in terms of empowering citizens. And so I'm a bit curious, you know, is that the reason that you chose "responsive city," as opposed to "smart city" or "intelligent community" or some of these other buzzwords that we've heard?
Susan: I reject the use of the word "smart" in conjunction with all of this, because it suggests that some cities are "dumb," and I don't think cities are dumb if they're not adopting technologies the way IBM or Siemens wants to. And it also -- "smart," historically, has been associated with very large, very fancy, instrumented systems -- almost a mechanical running of a system, and a city. And running a city to be a system. You know, purchasing some gigantic package from Oracle or IBM or Siemens, that then takes over prudence and judgment and human intervention. And that's not what we're getting at in the book.
Chris: That so resonated! My wife worked for city government. And one of the things she's found in working with those sorts of packages is that nobody in the city really understands them, and they remain dependent on the companies that built them, forever.
Susan: [laughs] That's right. You end up having to pay Oracle -- or whoever the company is -- in order to ask a question about your own city. They're full of so many bells and whistles, these systems. I mean -- And they're wonderful, but they're hard to understand, and often they become so elaborate that people work around the systems, instead of using them. So, what I'm more interested in is Open Source technologies, lightweight tools -- that are widely available now -- that will allow you to take existing transactional databases and then run over them a layer of predictive analytics to look for correlations,and leading indicators, and figure out where your services could be better targeted -- all in a way that fits what the city is interested in, the mission of the city, what the citizens really care about. For me, "responsive" is a really important word. It implies that the city may sometimes make mistakes, that it's going to iterate, it's going to test things, it's going to reach out as often as possible and involve citizens in decision-making. It's going to both listen and speak, and react, in an ongoing flow of relationships. Because the real risk to democracy is that it just ceases to function -- that nobody believes in it, because they see City Hall as faceless and unresponsive. And to open up the gates, maybe admit mistakes once in a while, and use technology as a way to reach more people and understand their concerns, seems to me a very lively, enriching, and democracy-enhancing direction.
And I'm glad to say that a bunch of cities see it that way too. They're not trying to simply instrument the city to make it run mechanically. They understand that policy has a really important role to play, and that all those humans and leadership make that policy possible. But they want to use technology to make -- help the city know what it knows and do its job better, so that democracy works.
Chris: One of the things that we're most interested in here, with our audience, is how a community that owns its own fiber, whether that's just down main corridors of the community or whether it's touching every last resident and business, you know, how does owning the network allow a city to be more responsive than if it was just leasing components from an existing provider?
Susan: Fiber has to be the bottom layer of the responsive city -- ANY city that wants to involve all its citizens and have a constant web of connectivity making democracy richer. And the best way to ensure that everyone has inexpensive fiber access is for the city to be deeply involved in either owning or, at the very least, controlling, through its own policies, where infrastructure is and the terms on which it's opened to as many citizens as possible.
So that's why I was so excited at the launch of Next Century Cities, a few weeks ago in Santa Monica. To see so many mayors really invested in spreading the stories about their ownership or control of fiber, and how that was going to help their government do a better job, and provide services to every citizen, not just to the wealthy citizens. I think these two topics tie beautifully together -- the idea of the city doing its job better and having fiber as the essential infrastructure for that. That's the reason that I wrote "Responsive Cities" -- to explore the story of data and connect it to the story of fiber. And I think it's a winning combination.
Chris: Well, I'm really glad that you did that, too, because I think, you know, a lot of us that really see cities building these networks, we also want to make sure that they're open to both citizens and developers and that sort of thing. We really don't want the city to turn into just a nicer, friendlier cable monopoly, right?
Chris: We really want to decentralize power. That's the end goal.
Susan: Yeah. Yeah. That's right. And that -- I think by treating fiber as just like the street grid, or the tree canopy, or electricity, or clean water, it's part of what the city provides, in order for the free market to flourish above it. I mean, the only way to do that is for the city to be deeply involved in the control and ownership of that infrastructure.
Chris: Excellent! Well, thank you so much for coming back on the show and sharing [with] us some of these new insights you've had.
Susan: Well, thank you so much, Christopher. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.
Lisa: Remember to stop by your local bookseller and pick up Susan's newest book, "The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance." Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This week we want to thank Jessie Evans for the song, "Is it Fire?" licensed through Creative Commons. And thank you again for listening.