The past two pandemic-laden years have brought to light the harsh realities about inequity in our communities. Ignoring the disparity in access between well-resourced and under-resourced neighborhoods is both obvious and unethical. Many in the smart cities and govtech communities agree that we must do better while also struggling with how to put that intention into action.
The Human Action Lab (HAL), launched in 2021, showcases how three global cities are addressing urban challenges and inequity with technology, data and cross-sector collaboration. Through a series of virtual salons in Kyiv, Ukraine; Hamburg, Germany, and Austin, Texas, leaders across four key sectors – government, industry, academia, social sector – shared their approaches, their challenges and their efforts. HAL is supported financially by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and implemented by Chelsea Collier and Igor Goncharenko, who are alumni of its leadership programs.
The discussion revealed some common themes as well as several unique elements. Common amongst all three cities was the notion that while digital tools and data are foundational to identifying and understanding local challenges, cross-sector collaboration is critical in order to implement solutions. Here are some key takeaways from each city event.
Many in Austin’s tech sector are thriving, while others in the community are struggling. “Austin is a city that is reducing its level of poverty, but not because we found a unique and dynamic way to get people out of poverty, but because we are literally pushing people who are in poverty outside of the city limits,” said GMF Fellow Sly Majid. According to Michael Ward Jr., an activist and representative of Austin’s social sector agreed, “Income disparity exists in the tech industry; Blacks and Hispanics earn about $30,000 less than their counterparts.”
The Austin panelists agreed that these challenges can be mitigated by looking for intersections between existing initiatives. “We innovate by connecting to communities and bring that community voice front and center, not only for the beginnings of ideation of the project, but really as a core element throughout the entire project,” said Jason JonMichael representing the City of Austin. “Digitalization reduces the frictions in between the stove pipes,”
One of the solutions that Austin is embarking upon is to digitally map the downtown core and use software to identify ways to address inequities. Private sector representative Dr. Mariela Alfonzo with startup State of Place explained, “Visualizing the data spatially and graphically helps communities identify these racial inequities that are tied to marginalized communities.” Other key projects include a collaboration between the City of Austin and the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Sherri Greenberg expounded, “We are using big data (along with other qualitative and quantitative methods) to help connect people experiencing homelessness with the services they need.” Finally, a National Science Fund supported project involves a smart mobility hub in an underserved Austin neighborhood that emphasizes community engagement.
In Kyiv, digitization efforts support transparency and further build public trust. The Kyiv Development Strategy was adopted in 2011. Event organizer Igor Goncharenko was on the team that created the strategy and implementation plan which incorporated public comment as well as expert perspectives. He stated, “The plan provided for the city’s commitment to encouraging innovation and establishing a transparent system of governance. Digital tools and data-driven technologies were key components of that plan.”
This and other policy-making decisions of the Kyiv city administration inspired many digital and data-enabled initiatives, including a participatory budgeting process led by SocialBoost, the NGO led by panelist Viktor Gurskyi which now has more than 1 million users and is working in more than 100 Ukrainian cities. They have also launched a consolidated communities program to co-design government digital tools. “Key features were designed by communities. We conducted design thinking sessions with them and now these participatory tools can be used on their local level.”
Other key initiatives taking place include a four-year Open Data Challenge, a project conducted by SocialBoost along with The Ministry of Digital Transformation, the Eastern Europe Foundation and the Waka Huia Foundation that is creating new business models and opportunities. The university sector, which supports talent building at the local level, is also active in engaging young professionals to provide their perspectives and data skills to serve the community. Natalia Shapoval with the KSE Institute said, “Fresh ideas come from the younger generations who are well equipped to do data work.”
Mykhailo Kornieiev with the Ministry of Digital Transformation Ukraine shared that one of the roles of the central government is to provide support at the local level, set policy and to help scale successful projects. “We always hold public discussions in the field of open data and ask for proposals from businesses and stakeholders to expand the least of data sets. We try to reach consensus on all issues by assessing the real potential of local authorities.”
One of the innovative ideas from the discussion was to put the resources from the private sector to work for the public interest. Petro Ivanov with Noosphere Ventures specializes in collecting and using satellite data for problem solving. “We know how to collect data, how to collect imagery and what to do with this information, how to present this properly, how to analyze and deliver the end result to decision makers.” He explained that this could be used to reduce negative impacts of urban heat islands. “Data can help you change your decision making process from the beginning to the very end.”
Hamburg has a long history of govtech leadership with their Digital Strategy which was set in 2000, quite ahead of its time. The city, like Austin and Kyiv, has a creative edge that inspires innovative solutions which helps to overcome municipal challenges like affordable housing and transportation inefficiencies.
The HAL speakers from Hamburg outlined four key efforts that are taking place in a partnership between the City of Hamburg and City Science Lab at HafenCity University (HCU): Digital Participation System (DIPAS), Cockpit Social Infrastructure (COSI), Connected Urban Twin (CUT) and Participation, Collaboration & Multimedia (PaKOMM). Each of these programs is unique but with a shared goal of using digital tools and data to engage all stakeholders in civic decision making.
Mateusz Lendzinski with the City of Hamburg is working on the DIPAS Project, an effort that includes a digital touch table. “The key is that we use mixed methodologies… All of the information that we have as planners is being made accessible to citizens through this web interface where they can also submit geo reference feedback in order to make the planning procedure a bit better.” Johanna Fischer and Daniel Schulz with the City Science Lab lead the COSI project that “enables users to iteratively try out different setups… to build and compare different solutions and record all the data in all sorts of compatible formats.”
Rico Herzog and Rosa Thoneick explain that the digital twin project CUT and its research activities, set out to explore new ways to foster integrated urban development by placing the common good and social processes upfront. One way of doing that could be “ modeling a simulation that seeks to turn urban planning problems into games so that we can explore the complexity with actual players.” Imanuel Schipper with HCU expands on PaKOMM which uses a variety of digital tools including VR headsets. “We aim to enable people to experience, discuss and alter their own co-creation results. We want to work with multi stakeholder and multi users to really try to design together.”
Hamburg is truly a leader in using digital tools and data to encourage participation from new stakeholders. Moving beyond the academic and city government sectors to also include private partners can lead to additional technological development and scale.
SHARED CHALLENGES & FUTURE SOLUTIONS
There were many common challenges shared by all three cities including the need for greater Internet connectivity infrastructure, more data collected at the local level, capacity building and technical training for government staff and increased access to digital tools for all citizens and residents. Budgets are also a consistent issue as often short-term projects are supported instead of systemic funding for systemic issues. Prof Greenberg wisely asserted, “The budget is the essence of public policy.”
As a solution, each community also noted the opportunity to collaborate and coordinate better with national and international organizations which can result in additional resources, project support and global expertise. Each city agreed that even though collaboration is often strongest between the government and university sectors, that these initiatives benefit from better engagement with the private sector, the social sector and with citizens and residents themselves.
“We can work together to find specific solutions to community issues,” shared Natalia Shapoval, KSE Institute, Kyiv. Each sector representative in all three cities supported the idea of categorizing what has already been done so that they can support existing efforts and not duplicate. This can also help to look at shared objectives and define KPIs in order to prioritize and, where possible, streamline to save resources.
Keynote speaker Dr. Adrian Fiedler, deputy head of the Digital Strategies Department for the City of Hamburg stated, “Technology is a tool to make the life of our citizens better. That’s the main idea… To do this, cooperation is the key for us. We try to cooperate in as many different settings as we can – with academia, with the private sector and with social organizations.”
The Human Action Lab proves that even though these leaders are all coming from different sectors, in very different cities around the world, there is still shared overlap. By examining a shared perspective and common approaches, we can better engage more people and use technology and data to inform better approaches. Even with the daunting challenges before us in our local and global communities, we can craft a better way going forward. The answer lies in collaboration. When we connect a diversity of perspectives, agendas and motivations with a common vision, we are better able to share resources and maximize impact. Access videos, speaker information and more at www.HumanActionLab.com