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Voices in Gov Tech: It’s Time for an UrbanOS (Opinion)

Technology should be used to connect and empower a modern, equitable citizen experience.

Editor's note: This piece is part of Voices in Gov Tech, featuring the unique perspectives of leaders in the market. Read the full series here.

Just a decade ago, gov tech was an industry dominated by large, legacy vendors. Many of the “solutions” at that time were still being delivered by CD through the mail and downloaded onto a local machine. The cloud and software as a service were foreign concepts. Most important, the very best talent had little to no interest in working in an industry that was seen as boring, slow and unwilling to evolve. Times have changed.

Today, dare I say it, gov tech is kind of sexy. It’s become both admirable and cool to build products that improve government operations, increase civic awareness, and attempt to solve some of society’s biggest problems. The last decade has produced a number of great SaaS companies, significant investment, federal support (United States Digital Service, 18F), and an ever-growing volunteer/hacking community. Government has officially joined the 21st century.

All of this progress has been great and should be recognized. There’s much more work to be done. In fact, the most tantalizing prospect in this industry lies mostly untouched: an UrbanOS.

The core responsibility of any city is to facilitate diverse and rewarding interactions between people and the physical environment. When we think about the places we love — the places we want to live and visit — we never cite the formal governing body as a primary reason. I surely wouldn’t say, “Wow, I really want to live in New York because the city and its wonderful workers are so great.” It’s more likely I would say, “SoHo is such a great neighborhood, the shops and architecture and people are amazing.” Of course we know that the city and its wonderful workers do in fact play a key role in delivering a great experience. Cities are the mechanisms by which we deliver memorable experiences through stimulating physical and social environments.

The memorable experiences we have in cities are a manifestation of every city operation working well together. The efficient movement of people and goods, thoughtful public spaces, the right scale and density, quality urban design, and a sustaining economic environment are all contributing factors. Done well, these attract and retain diverse people, who further enhance and improve the physical environment. This positively reinforcing flywheel propels more growth, thus leading to more and better experiences.

The formal governing body (“The City”) is the operating system through which all of this is possible. It determines, through laws and regulations, what is permitted in any given place. In the pre-digital era, the efficiency of the operating system was highly dependent on a number of people being in constant collaboration. Government is no longer in the pre-digital era. The explosion of new apps and products to service the specific needs of the system will continue to be important; however, at this moment, these technologies operate independently at best and in conflict at worst. Each of these products might be improving an isolated workflow, but the sum of the disconnected parts is likely making the whole operate much less efficiently.

It’s time for an UrbanOS. A modern, digital version of the human operating system that enables a sum greater than the parts. The goal for this industry shouldn’t be simply to build technology for government and its citizens. The goal should be to use technology to facilitate more memorable moments. To make the interactions between the physical and social worlds even better. To enable and empower a citizen experience that is modern and equitable. In order for this to occur, someone, some organization must thoughtfully pursue the idea that these technologies can and should work together to make the places we live the best they can possibly be.

Nick Bowden founded mySidewalk in 2010 under the name MindMixer. In 2016 he founded Better Planning.