3 Consumer Technologies that Will Make a Difference in Cities

As more advanced consumer tech comes online, how can cities take advantage of it?

by / April/May 2018

Walking the showroom floor at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, it was hard not to get excited about the future of consumer technology. From robots that can beat you in ping pong to phones with built-in projectors to a self-driving store on wheels, exhibitors showed off the manifold possibilities offered by emerging tech.

Throughout the event, however, my mind wandered back to one question: How can cities take advantage of these advances? Many of these technologies could have a massive influence on the way government operates, and it would be a waste if they were relegated only to the homes of the wealthy and tech-savvy. With this in mind, here are a few trendy consumer technologies that could prove transformative in cities.

Augmented and Virtual Reality. Digital tools that either superimpose images on the real world (augmented reality or AR) or bring users into an artificial digital experience (virtual reality or VR) have allowed for immersive experiences like Pokemon Go, Snapchat lenses and headset gaming. And, with the ability to provide data in real time, engage users and simulate real-life experiences in extreme detail, AR and VR have massive potential to transform government operations. Equipped with

AR systems that provide relevant details on their environment, police officers and emergency responders will be better prepared to navigate dangerous situations. By creating AR and VR models of new construction projects, cities can get a better sense of how new work will fit within the existing urban landscape and increase interest from potential investors. And by allowing city employees to simulate workplace tasks, VR can greatly enhance the realistic feel of city training programs.

Chatbots. When they think of chatbots, most people likely picture Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri — voice recognition software that can respond to user questions about local restaurants or the weather. However, governments have also begun to use text-based chatbots to guide citizens through services and handle simpler resident requests. Los Angeles’ chatbot Chip (short for “City Hall Internet Personality”) can respond to queries from city businesses about how to find contracts and register for notifications, as well as answer more than 1,000 questions from potential police recruits. Cities like Kansas City, Mo., and Chattanooga, Tenn., have used chatbots to help users navigate their open data portals — allowing them to ask for specific data sets or themes to explore. And North Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta have deployed chatbots to respond to 311 requests from residents, answer citizen complaints and provide information like how to apply for a business license.

Blockchain. As the technology supporting bitcoin, blockchain has held a fickle place in the public imagination, both as a source of fantastical predictions and an object of cynical scorn. However, as a distributed ledger that tracks every transaction within a network, blockchain offers a potential cybersecurity safeguard for the troves of data cities now gather. Whether used to secure data gathered by Internet of Things (IoT) devices or to create unique identifiers that help cities serve homeless residents, blockchain could allow cities to build their data-driven capacity with fewer security concerns.

At the moment, all of these technologies are in the early stages of government adoption. However, by showing their interest in leveraging these tools and actively working with the private sector to tailor consumer technologies for government use, cities can ensure that the flashy tech displayed at CES translates to better results for residents.

Chris Bousquet, a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authored this column.

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.