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CityLab '22: Local Leaders Explore the Future of Digital Cities

At Bloomberg CityLab 2022 this week, local leaders from around the globe came together to define the role of digital innovation for cities and how a solution-centered approach to technology can make its impact sustainable.

Screenshot: Bloomberg CityLab 2022 during a session titled "Chief Data Officers Meet the Moment."
At Bloomberg CityLab 2022, an event for city leaders to come together to discuss present challenges and solutions for localities, speakers this week discussed the current and future applications of technology within local government — and why a solution-centered approach is critical.

“I think we need a digital city for the 21st century,” said Femke Halsema, mayor of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

As she defined it, this should be a platform for networking, business and international collaboration that will lead to innovation. At its core, she said it should be a place where citizens’ data and privacy are protected through democratically chosen regulations.

Halsema cited the work of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, created by the city of Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York in 2018, as a way for cities worldwide to collaborate in the context of digital rights and policymaking.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, mayor of Mexico City, Mexico, also underlined the importance of the intersection between innovation and human rights, arguing that digital innovation is a way to ensure that all citizens’ rights are protected: to public health, education, a better environment and more.

The concern is that in some cases, local leaders are quick to adopt new technology without thinking through the possible implications.

This was the discussion between Tonantzin Carmona, David M. Rubenstein Fellow with the Brookings Institution, and Mark Foster, managing director of Strategic Advisory Management, during a session titled “Crypto and Your City.”

As government entities — like the city of Miami— explore the role of cryptocurrency in government, questions remain about regulation, or the lack thereof.

While Foster underlined the European commitment to legislate before developing new technology to ensure consumer protection, Carmona said her concern is that no such process exists in the U.S. and there is a lack of comprehensive consumer privacy protections.

“It’s really important to distinguish between the present capabilities of the technology and the potential,” Carmona said.

Carmona underlined some of the external implications of cryptocurrency, including environmental impact and increased costs for things like electricity bills, which sometimes reach those who are not participating in the cryptocurrency economy.

She argued the need for a human-centered approach when introducing new technologies that focuses on solving a specific problem to help cities to be proactive rather than reactive. And while she believes it is too soon to see whether cryptocurrency will truly bring financial inclusion to those who are un- and underbanked, as some crypto advocates have promised, it has brought the importance of the financial inclusion conversation to the forefront.

A similar conversation took place during the session titled, “Chief Data Officers Meet the Moment.” Data officials discussed the rapid rise of data dashboards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and their decrease in prominence today.

As explained by Baltimore Chief Data Officer Justin Elszasz, pandemic-related decisions were made in large part by relying on data as a “mutually agreeable truth” to create a better understanding of the world.

In England, this was accomplished through a very centralized approach to data, in which the country was able to use national data sources to forecast local impact for local leaders and hospital staff to plan, said Ming Tang, chief data and analytics officer with the National Health Services.

Tang stated that England’s approach at the beginning of the pandemic, and still today, focuses on making that information widely available, a strategy which she said will improve the data available. This approach was noted by the moderator to be in contrast to that of U.S. leaders, who, in many locations, are already taking down dashboards related to COVID-19.

Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation and technology for Louisville, Ky., explained that because there are new sources available, specifically data from the CDC, timing of data releases has created communication issues for local leaders to plan. She posed the idea that this may be evidence that the city’s dashboard has served its purpose and is no longer helpful.

Elszasz argued that perhaps instead of asking data officials to create dashboards as a solution to every problem, city leaders should instead ask data officials for guidance in making specific, data-driven decisions.

Again, taking a solution-centered approach will help cities to create sustainable solutions with data and technology that create long-term support rather than temporary guidance.

“It definitely shouldn’t be technology first, but it definitely shouldn’t be the technology last either,” Foster said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.