Sunday, August 5, 2012

Can They Hear You At City Hall? Communication Technology for Civic Engagement

Part one of a four-part series

The connected city—it’s a vision with buzzy new tools like Wifi and iPhones leveraged for civic engagement.  Yet thinking about the role of communication technology in urban planning should go deeper than a downloadable app.  It is time to recognize these communications technologies as the infrastructure they really are, with their potential to spur innovation, business, and jobs.  These technologies are not a panacea--there is no new tool that will solve long standing social problems, but they do have the power to radically reshape communities if access to these tools is rethought.  When Aristotle asserts that man is a political animal, what he fundamentally means is that human beings cannot help but connect and communicate, and it is these interactions that give rise to the communities in which we live.  It is time to recognize the role that the network can and will play in creating a social fabric that can sustain us.  

Urban planners have long recognized the ways in which the built environment can create a space for people and activity.  Store fronts and shopping districts can be optimized for commerce, sidewalks can be built to speed along walkers or encourage someone to linger.   Christopher Alexander recognized the ability of built space to bring people into contact with one another, and the value to society of “…the people around us, and the most common ways we have of meeting them, or being with them.” The ability of infrastructure in the form of buildings to shape these interactions and provide a space for interaction served as a form of “pattern language.”
Communication technologies represent a new type of pattern, with the ability to order and sustain our lives in important ways, but one that planners haven’t yet addressed in an integral way.  Just like space can support patterns of action, so can technology.  All of this suggests that we need to more closely examine the ways in which communication technologies can structure the physical as well as the communication space of the modern city.   The public sphere is no longer limited to its physical space.
For this reason, there needs to be more cross pollination between urban planning and communication studies.  Just as smart growth proponents have recognized the civic importance of connecting people to community assets such as grocery stores, employment, business and medical services closer to home via policy initiatives like complete streets, we need to recognize the other great infrastructure needs that the next generation cities will find equally important.   Communication technology needs to be addressed at the level of municipal and state level planning. 

Some organizations are already doing this.  New America Foundation and Code for America both recognize the importance of civic innovation projects.  Google addresses the demand for communication infrastructure for business and innovation through their Google Fiber project, which attempts to spur the type of network growth that the next generation of applications will require and tired monopolistic providers have failed to supply.  Of course, those same businesses also recognize the need for state and local level consideration of communication technology infrastructure, but rather than address it they have sought to block its development by pushing bills at the state level that block municipal wifi efforts.  Currently, AT&T is pushing SB1161 in California, which makes the legislature and the federal government the sole sources of authority.  The fact is that SB1161 is overly broad, and makes it so that local elected officials can’t have any say regarding provisions of access as part of their investment in local infrastructure.  This is a pattern that clearly needs to change.

No comments:

Post a Comment