Technology is now ubiquitous in daily life, from the devices that almost everyone owns, to the software and apps that aid productivity in just about every industry. Yet, some gaps remain in the access to and availability of technology in parts of U.S. cities, and ULI’s recent J.C. Nichols Forum highlighted some newer and emerging tech applications to bridge the digital divide.
ULI panelists from Midwest and West Coast cities presented case studies on the following: software for regional scenario planning that builds community coalitions for more sustainable decision-making; high-speed internet service made available at low or no cost to low-income public housing residents; and an online platform that links low-income renters with an available place to live.
The common thread across all these innovations is how they are using technology to drive more equitable community connectivity and inclusion.
“The connectivity offered can be life changing,” declared Rick Usher, the broadband facilitator for the Kansas City, Missouri, government as its assistant city manager for entrepreneurship and small business.
Rachel Hack Merlo, who manages the Google Fiber high-speed fiber-optic rollout in the Kansas City metro area, added: “Now we understand how important it is to get more people to the table [of tech use], and we actually have best practices that we can share with one another.”
ULI’s first-ever Nichols Forum—named for the visionary early-20th-century developer—was held September 29 in Nichols’s hometown of Kansas City. The forum presented panel discussions on real estate lessons and opportunities from perspectives ranging from mayors to development executives who have won ULI’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
The technology panel, with a theme of “leveraging technology for change,” included Google’s Merlo; K.C. government’s Usher; Peter Calthorpe, an award-winning San Francisco–based architect and pioneer of sustainable urban design who was awarded the Nichols Prize in 2006; and Tyrone Poole, a housing advocate–turned–technology entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon. They were guided in their discussion by moderator Calvin Gladney, an urban development consultant as managing partner of Washington, D.C.–based Urban Mosaic Partners.
The panelists each took time to explain their unique products and services.
Calthorpe introduced an evolving analytical software platform, called Urban Footprint, that his company has developed for sustainable decision making at the metropolitan level. It is basically a scenario-planning tool for regional planning. It incorporates detailed data on existing buildings, land uses, and other details of the built environment, then allows a user to test what happens based on land use or policy changes. The software, used so far only on the West Coast and in Mexico, produces impact analyses on a wide range of community issues and policies, such as transportation congestion, public health, land consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The intent, Calthorpe said, is for planners to use Urban Footprint in public meetings to build community coalitions toward sound decision making, even among special interests that might not always agree, such as developers and environmentalists.
“People can get a sense of the whole challenge, of having to solve all the issues simultaneously,” he said. “People can actually meet in a neighborhood and say, ‘This project, if it’s shaped this way, [is] going to have these impacts, and if it’s shaped that way, it’s going to have those impacts.’ The real heart of it is that it builds coalitions.”
In Kansas City, both Usher and Merlo have been involved in Google Fiber’s deployment, which placed a priority on digital inclusion. Usher recalled that on the first day of neighborhood signups for Google Fiber in 2011, respondents were predominantly from higher-income areas. That’s because signups had to be done online, requiring internet access. So Google went so far as to drive wi-fi-enabled vans resembling ice cream trucks into low-income neighborhoods to rally signups. By the last day of the sign-up period, neighborhoods were represented all across the city.
“This is an effort, I think, that’s uniting the city,” Usher said.
In addition, Google Fiber in Kansas City began a partnership last year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome initiative to accelerate internet adoption by families with school-age children in public housing. Google has been working to wire nine public housing properties and provide free gigabit internet services for some 1,300 low-income families in the metro area.
“For us, this is an opportunity to think about not only how do we push forward with [internet] speed, but how do we encourage new users to join us online,” Merlo said. These new users, she added, now have “a pathway to education” as well as to more job opportunities and community connections.
Meanwhile, Poole in Portland developed an online housing tool based on his own frustrating experiences. At a low point in his life, he faced health issues and a long recovery. During that time, he lost his job and his home and he ended up homeless at a YWCA shelter. But when he received a government housing rental voucher, he still couldn’t find a place to live that would accept him. He then became a housing advocate for the YWCA and worked with families facing the same problem.
That led Poole and a technology team to develop a website where someone can fill out one screening application and background check—supplying information such as rental and credit histories—and then view every property where the applicant would be accepted. No more calling around to apartment complexes. The website launched last fall.
“The issue was the matching problem,” Poole said. “The government could financially assist them, but it stopped there. There was no tool that once they had the money, how do they get into a place?”
In the end, even with these highlighted innovations—and the abundance of other programs helping to connect communities, from the federal government’s Smart Cities Initiative to free public wi-fi hotspots established on city streets—ULI’s panelists noted that digital access is merely one means to enrich lives in urban America. As Usher observed, “Technology is a tool, not a problem solver.”
Jeffrey Spivak, a market research director in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, is an award-winning writer specializing in real estate development, infrastructure, and demographic trends.