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Tech Innovation and Equity Challenges

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
November 3, 2023

With cities under rising pressure since the pandemic—financial, social unrest and political polarization among them—there is growing demand for technological and innovative solutions. Smart tech tools are increasingly attractive options for cities, with artificial intelligence (AI) the latest flashy new technology. Yet as observed with “smart cities”, and likely now with AI, costs and benefits are not equally distributed, with low-income and Black, Indigenous and People of Color often disproportionately burdened. This reality underscores the need for cities to create multi-year action plans that maximize the benefits for the entire public. Unfortunately, most cities lack the readiness to respond because they have not yet addressed the essential first step—to realign the mission of information technology (IT) departments and most likely, a change in leadership approach.

Hard-working city IT departments are inundated with the day-to-day grind of keeping cities operational, making it imperative that medium-to-large size cities build the internal capacity of these departments so that the mission is focused on innovation. Yet, to fully meet this challenge and deliver equitable services and programs that “eliminate disparities” and promote “initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society”, the values of ethics, accountability and social equity and justice must be centered at the core of the department. Efficiency and effectiveness are already well-established values within most city IT departments. The proposed changes go beyond mere cosmetic—like a name change from IT to technology and innovation department—to address a more fundamental shift in department operations that are governed by a mission statement clearly driving equitable innovation city-wide.

A change in leadership approach will likely be necessary for substantive and sustainable improvements to occur. Adopting a combined approach of transformational and adaptive leadership style is advised because of the complex and evolving challenges to be faced. As shown in Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, the director will need to establish a compelling why and build outwards with the how and the what in a way that inspires staff to want to be part of the initiative. It may be a gut check moment for the director and other city management leaders to decide whether the technology and innovation director has these innate transformational leadership skills or the ability to learn them quickly. The director may want to use the National Equity Project’s Leading for Equity Framework, which “enables leaders to navigate the complex territory of equity challenges and develop the capacity to engage in purposeful leadership action.”

Cultivating enthusiasm and openness for large-scale change is necessary to create sufficient momentum to counteract any resistance within a department or city government to an innovative approach that delivers more equitable and impactful services. According to Norman Johnson and James Svara in their book, Justice for All, public servants must advance equity in processes, distribution of services, quality of services and program outcomes. To assure success the director would be wise to employ an adaptive leadership style that focuses on building the internal capabilities of staff—such as critical thinking, problem solving skills, empathy and ethical judgement—to navigate and withstand negative pressure or opposition.

Additionally, principles outlined in Everett Rogers’ book, Diffusion of Innovations, may provide helpful guidance to innovators on how to win over the early adopters within their setting and then more broadly within their system. However, there may be limitations to the effectiveness of this approach in persuading departmental colleagues, city managers, mayors and other stakeholders, particularly if the city has a command-style structure and a blinded “follow orders” environment. In this case, focusing first on building capacity and consensus within the director’s own department is paramount, while working simultaneously one-to-one to build consensus with the city manager on the big, bold why of the proposed changes.

Once the director has secured superior level acceptance of the envisioned change to departmental mission, the next important step is to create a multi-year smart tech and AI “road map” or action plan that includes appropriate budgeting and resourcing. At minimum, the action plan should include the vision, guiding principles and short- and long-term objectives in clear, accessible language. Engaging with community stakeholders early in the process following equity/inclusion best practices and offering meaningful channels is vital. Doing so not only secures trust from the public but builds credibility and support for the project.

Unfortunately, substantive and early public engagement is often an afterthought for smart city and AI projects. For example, it is notable that when New York City released its Artificial Intelligence Action Plan in October 2023, direct engagement with New York residents was left for “future efforts.” In contrast, the City of Long Beach engaged directly with community members, community organizations and industry stakeholders to create the guiding principles for its Smart City Initiative—design for equity, earn public trust, cultivate local expertise and build civic resilience—that guide the city’s growing project portfolio.

No one approach is perfect when it comes to emerging smart technologies, especially controversial ones like AI, but changing the mission of cities’ IT departments to be innovation-oriented is a necessary step to prepare for a highly fluid and uncertain future. Rather than designing for that future with frustrated residents on the outside looking in—an approach that tends to create problems that later take time, money and considerable public complaint to address—city leaders must take the sensible approach of inviting them into the process early on.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, works as a private and public sector strategist and equity/inclusion consultant. She served as a technology and innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies an intersectional equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. All views are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected].

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