Cities, technology, the next generation of urban development, and the next administration, part 2

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on cities, technology, the next generation of urban development, and the next administration. In the first, I discussed Hillary Clinton’s recent technology plan and, in particular, the significance of her endorsement of, and willingness to, invest in a “civic Internet of Things.” In this one, I lay out why the federal government should focus on how cities are likely to be the primary government jurisdictions on the leading edge of using new technology to transform the public sphere. In the third, I will suggest five specific policies for how either a Clinton or Trump administration could accelerate economic growth and social progress by helping cities use emerging technologies. (As a member of the Clinton Technology Advisory Group, I had an opportunity to propose and review some of her proposals. The ideas I present here are mine and do not reflect the views of the committee or of the Brookings Institution.)

Hillary Clinton recently laid out her technology platform and, as I noted here, endorsed support for a civic Internet of things, the next generation infrastructure project that will be largely built by cities.

Are there other ways in which the next administration can help cities adopt technology to create the next generation of urban development? I recently spoke on this topic to several conferences of city officials and while the answer is yes, the debate is still nascent. (My full remarks can be found here.)

Part of the challenge in answering is we don’t know who will be the next president. Further, the political variations of potential outcomes are great. The presidency, Congress, and the Courts could all shift, with a wide ideological delta.

Another challenge is that federal officials focus on federal policy, or, sometimes, federal-state policy, but they rarely venture into a discussion of cities.

This neglect of federal-municipal policy is a mistake for many reasons, but the primary one is that the aspirations articulated on the campaign trail cannot be achieved without thriving cities. For example, all candidates talk about improving the economy, but American cities will lead our economy, as cities do around the world. Today more than 80 percent of the population in the United States lives in metropolitan areas, generating more than 90 percent of the country’s GDP. Both those numbers are likely to rise.

Further, the cities that will lead the most are those that take the greatest advantage of the macrotrends that have the ability to stimulate economic growth and social progress. In my estimation, the biggest such trend is how information, as an input to every product and service, is increasing in importance, transformed by massive improvements in data storage, computing power, and communications.

For cities, these trends are not just about broadband networks; they are about the next generation of broadband-led urban development. Just as technology is transforming agriculture, retail, manufacturing, and every other sector of the economy, technology is also transforming the way our society, and particularly cities, address the mission of providing vibrant communities in which individuals and families can thrive.

While the current short-term, news-cycle-driven attention span and resulting dysfunction in Washington may well continue, cities continue to take long-term actions. As my Brookings colleague Bruce Katz recently wrote, “since their inception, cities have been built to invest in the future—in quality, enduring infrastructure to move people, goods, energy, and ideas; in the creation of authentic and vibrant places and destinations; and in the schooling and skilling of people to help them reach their full potential. “

We shouldn’t be Pollyannaish about this. Cities are highly constrained in terms of resources. Too often, cities use deferred maintenance on infrastructure as a budget tool. Faced with choosing to use limited dollars to plug a pothole or install new sensors, most are going to plug the hole. Still, in terms of leading governments in adopting the new tools of service delivery, cities are more likely to do more sooner than is the federal government.

Above all, cities are the key catalyst in driving improvements in the next-generation opportunity. As I noted recently in light of the courts upholding the FCC’s reclassification of internet service providers as common carriers, the federal government plays the essential role in defense of a competitive market structure and consumer rights. But the country also has an agenda I liken to offense, specifically of assuring affordable, abundant broadband everywhere, getting all Americans online, and using the platform to improve the delivery of public goods and services. For each of these three efforts, cities are best positioned to take on the challenge.

In that light, the fall campaign should set an agenda for how the next administration can move the country forward by helping the cities that want to lead in this century’s city-led, global information economy.  Some might argue that how cities use technology should not be a subject of a presidential election but rather be left to local campaigns. This argument is wrong for a number of reasons, including that the economic and social health of cities is the leading driver of the economic and social health of the nation. American leadership in many sectors requires world-class cities in which to work and live. Further, cities face a subtle economic barrier to adoption of new technologies. The history of technology cost curves predicts these investments will eventually pay for themselves in service improvements. Cities, however, unlike businesses, have a limited first-user advantage for such new infrastructure, making it more difficult to obtain the critical mass of users that lowers costs in ways that accelerate adoption. If wealthier communities like Austin can figure out how to use technology to improve how it delivers education, health, transportation, and social services, those practices can be adopted by lower-income communities like Detroit. The federal government has a vital interest in accelerating the improvement of municipal public services by all cities. The best way to drive such improvements is to seed early efforts that provide replicable examples.

In my next blog post, I will offer five ideas that come out of work I have done with the various communities. None fall neatly into a traditional red/blue divide; all are consistent with various statements of each of the presumptive nominees. Further, they reflect something I learned directing a presidential transition team. Rather than proposing an answer, one is better off aligning a mission with an institution, an inquiry, or an investment. For example, the country is currently running a complicated spectrum auction (known as the incentive auction) that will likely reallocate more low-band spectrum to the critical mobile broadband market than any other single government action. The idea first emerged in 2008 but by itself gained no traction. Subsequently, however, the National Broadband Plan publicly laid out the risks of a future spectrum crunch, and then articulated how the incentive auction was the best of all alternatives to avoid that crunch, the idea became the centerpiece of the only telecommunications legislation to pass Congress during the Obama presidency.

I will also suggest some institutions, inquiries, and investments that could lead to improved outcomes. More important, I hope these ideas accelerate a conversation that leads to both presidential teams understanding the value in supporting cities that are building, and building on, the core platform of the 21st century global information economy.