How cities can bridge the digital divide by going analog

There is no doubt that we’re in the midst of a technological revolution. Growing up in the 90’s, I recall first booking a flight for my family in 1999 (at the age of 8); my parents (who are amazing!) were shocked that this was even possible, but I somehow figured out how to find a cheap flight on ATA (“you’re on vacation”) from Chicago to Las Vegas. By walking them through the process and showing them that all they need to do is pay (I did the rest), they were convinced! 21 years later, it seems that cities are acting like my parents did in 1999 when it comes to implementing new technologies. Taking this analogy one step further — cities need someone to guide them (private sector) and walk them through the process of tech implementation, so all they have to do is “pay” or sign the dotted line.

This challenge, however, lies in what comes next – whereas my parents needed me to continue to remind them that they should book their plane tickets online and then continue to walk them through the process (eventually they got it, but it indeed took a while), cities need the private sector to continue to train and guide them, especially once the technology has been implemented and is operational.

Cities, like my parents, are mainly digital immigrants, whereas I am a digital native. With that being said, there is hope; like my parents becoming Zoom experts during the pandemic, cities were forced to adapt and reshape the boundaries of civic engagement.

Digital natives and digital immigrants — how are they different | by  Martina Čut | Digital Reflections | Medium

There is undoubtedly an opportunity now to leverage cities’ newfound technological savviness due to the effects of the pandemic. There is also an enormous opportunity for cities to leverage their residents’ newfound technological savviness to create innovative, decentralized ways to promote civic engagement and participation, far beyond having to attend a council meeting at 7pm once a month (for example) or emailing a public official and hoping to get an answer. This is the time for B2G2C to go mainstream!

So what is B2G2C? 

There is a euphoric notion that technology will solve all problems. Cities today are inundated with technological solutions for pretty much anything that we can think of: HR processing, form filling, taxes, licensing, waste management, 311 — and more. 

When we look at the advent of technological solutions, it seems like there are two main types of technologies that the private sector can offer to local governments:

  • B2G (Business-to-Government): platforms that help facilitate the digital transformation within government. The target audience is government officials.The best example of this would be a platform that helps cities with their HR needs or a platform that offers insights to government officials. 
  • B2G2C (Business-to-Government-to-Consumer): platforms that enable local government to offer services to residents. These platforms are designed by the private sector to be utilized by the public sector; the target audience is local residents. Examples are:

B2G2C Challenges 

When it comes to B2G2C services (resident facing apps) which can add value to both residents and the city, we see that one of the biggest challenges is the implementation of the technology within cities. B2G companies don’t have this particular issue (they may have many others), as they don’t have to be the intermediary between the city and its residents. 

Even the most simplified and user-friendly resident-facing technology for cities will require substantial handholding and managing of app users. Handling technical issues is a new concept to cities (have you seen City Council meetings on Zoom in 2020?).

There are countless inherent challenges cities face — one of them is figuring out how to make sure that the technology is accessible to all residents, and bridge the digital divide. For example, 70% of Black respondents and 60% of Hispanic respondents say that they are not adequately prepared with digital skills, which impacts their employability. Thus, an app trying to encourage civic engagement should not solely limit itself to those who are digital natives and an app supporting local businesses should not limit itself to merchants that are tech savvy. 

From a mission-driven tech startup perspective, it’s a conundrum; on one hand, there is a mission to promote equity and civic engagement in cities all over the country, but on the other hand, the adaptation of technology in the areas that need it most requires operational efforts that typically could make the business case not viable. Net net, some tech projects are not implemented in areas that need it most because of the digital divide.

Where digital meets physical

When it comes to B2G2C in cities, there may be an easy fix to help implement technological solutions — take a boots-on-the-ground approach. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, new apps have brand ambassadors and booths and reps standing outside subway stations. I contend that cities need the private sector’s tech companies who are creating apps for them to provide them with the framework for a boots-on-the-ground approach. 

The approach should be simple and easy for government officials to implement, like signing the dotted line. 

Government officials, as well as their digital-immigrant constituents, need to feel safe and secure to use technology – whether it’s a 311 app, civic engagement app, or anything else. The private sector can help cities find and manage an intermediary to implement the boots-on-the-ground approach — City Ambassadors. Ambassadors can help bridge the digital and the physical by engaging with the public and training them

To be successful, ambassadors need training, guidance, and incentives. This is where the private sector can come in, the technology companies focused on tech should also focus on building a scalable framework to create the bridge between the technology and those who likely need it most. 

December 19th, 2021