Government is the Greatest Impediment to the Digital City. How Do We Fix This?
AS I LOOK INTO THE FUTURE, I see our cities, states, and nation transformed by digital integration. I see a more educated, prosperous, and secure citizenry. I see law enforcement and first responders performing at levels dramatically higher because their heroism is enhanced by digital tools that help them to make smarter and quicker decisions to improve their safety and save the lives of others. I see schools and universities more capable of educating students of all ages and abilities. I see the services that municipalities provide delivered much less expensively and efficiently, lowering taxes and improving local economies. I see this all becoming a reality, yet it is up to us to compel our legislative officials to make it a reality.
First, I hate the term “smart city”, although it has become a part of our lexicon. This in spite of the fact that a city is not “smart” or “dumb” based on its use of technology. It is more appropriate to describe a city by its level of digital maturity. Automation and data intelligence is now a natural part of urban or city planning, like the digital transformation is a natural influencing factor on businesses. We’re not building a “smart city”, but a “digitally-augmented city.” It’s an important distinction. Organizations now must apply digital tools into every corner of their operations, so too must cities. The “digital city” will soon become “a city.” These processes and tools will be ubiquitous inside every city, state, county, province, and nation in the world.
It’s sobering to consider that the U.S. is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to adding digital capabilities to its cities and states compared to a centralized government. Because it has very dispersed governance and cities individually funded by a tax base, there will always be vastly different levels of resources available to add digital strength. More authoritarian governments across the globe can simply make a decision to build a digital city and the dictate is acted upon. Meanwhile the United States struggles to provide even upgraded infrastructure because of a constant battle for funding.
When I speak of a digital city, state, or nation, I mean a place where all government services are highly automated, centralized, synced, and freely exchanging data sources. We often talk despairingly about the silos in corporations, but there is currently no place more siloed than our nation’s governments. Bureaucratic governments tend to tear down data barriers only when compelled to, when they’re faced with an immediate and alarming struggle in front of them, like terrorism, violent crime, or a natural disaster. What if governments were proactive about sharing data and information technology in order to lower processing costs and improve levels of service to citizens?
For me, when I’m forced into an exchange of information with a government entity, my mood oscillates between frustration and downright anger. Digital governance holds the promise of drastically lowering the friction involved in engaging public services. Gone will be our waiting in line for hours to talk to an underpaid and overworked government employee and the dense letters we receive asking us, in language only intelligible by someone with a law degree, to take action on a subject we don’t particularly understand. No longer will we be forced to sit in a courthouse lobby for days waiting to be called for jury duty. Those little white tabs you’re asked to pull at the DMV containing a number that signifies only that you must now sit and wait until your number is called: gone. Say goodbye to epic battles over benefits with the Social Security Administration or Medicare. No more must we anxiously wait for police to show up to an emergency, only to have almost zero visibility into what they’re doing to solve the crisis. Gone too will be the arcane and impossible to understand tax filing hurdles that most of us are forced to endure only so that we have the pleasure of funding a bloated bureaucracy feeding gluttonously on red tape and fine print.
It is time for legislators, politicians, and department heads to focus efforts on solving systemic problems with the most powerful resources they now have at their disposal: technology tools. Governments must not be given a free pass to avoid adapting to change because they do not exist in a competitive environment. They must stop throwing money and people into the purpose of managing analog systems that should have been automated and updated years ago. Constituents should no longer be forced to foot the bill for government’s resistance to adoption and transformation. It is time for each city government, state government, and our federal government to implement a robust digital governance plan that works in tandem with other government entities and results in lower operating costs and improved service levels for its constituents. We demand all of this of the organizations we use to deliver us our morning cup of coffee, groceries, plane tickets, music, movies, and clothes. Should we not also demand the same level of efficiency, ease, and service that technology can provide from the people and bodies that deliver our laws and govern us?
The answer is yes. We should demand this.
As the leaders of organizations have begun doing, it is time for our legislators to take more seriously the digital transformation. I see a future where our cities will work to enhance industrial growth and the quality of life of its citizens, our states work to produce maximum constituent satisfaction, and our nation as well efforts to ensure the values of free enterprise, democracy, and equality that we hold so dear. Every one of these separate entities has the same purpose, and that is the health and happiness of its citizens and the development of a brighter tomorrow. Only when our governments embrace transformation, harness the power of technology, and work together to realize a shared vision, will this promise be fully realized.