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Digital Inclusion Officer Tackles Tech Inequity in Detroit

Detroit’s Digital Inclusion Officer Joshua Edmonds explains what his role is within city government, why it matters and the creative solutions he’s working on to bridge the digital divide for residents.

Detroit Digital Inclusion Officer Joshua Edmonds.
When Joshua Edmonds was named Detroit’s director of digital inclusion this year, he became the first local goverment employee in the country with the title. Other cities have similar roles, but Edmonds is the first with the weight of director. As such, Government Technology spoke with him about his position, what it entails and Detroit’s efforts to bridge the digital divide.

1. What does the role of director of digital inclusion entail?

It’s expanding technology to the community. In Detroit, almost a third of households don’t have Internet. We’ve got to roll that back. We have 19 percent of households mobile-only, meaning they’re only using cellphones for connectivity. This digital divide is a today problem with massive implications for tomorrow. When Amazon is on its HQ2 search, and it wants cities with a strong tech workforce, it’s hard to say you have that when a third of residents lack Internet. My role is to say, how do we start conversations and position the city to be proactive about the digital divide, rather than reactive?

2. What makes digital inclusion work so important for Detroit?

By 2030, the last baby boomer will retire from the workplace, and we’re going to have a gap. So, as Detroit is moving into the future and everyone is talking about this renaissance we’re having — money flowing into the city, amazing collaborations coming to fruition, large-scale tech organizations relocating here — that’s not good enough. We need to remain relevant as technological changes affect the ecosystem, and the best way to do that is not by displacing our residents. If we have 33 percent of our population struggling with Internet, that’s going to erode the workforce. We have to focus on this, other- wise we’re not going to be able to fill the jobs we need, or residents will be pushed out because they’re not going to be able to get jobs they need to sustain life in our city.

3. What are some challenges Detroit faces in bridging the digital divide?

We are one of the most impoverished cities in America, and people sometimes don’t understand the nuances of poverty. It literally robs you of options. We have kids who go to McDonald’s to do homework, because that’s where free Wi-Fi is. What happens when they go to McDonald’s? They eat. No ill will toward McDonald’s, but if you have kids eat there every day — what are the long-term health impacts? So, because of our lack of Internet, we’re having kids do that, and we retroactively say, how do we improve health outcomes? It’s a cycle due to poverty. What makes it more difficult is we’re a mobility-challenged city. People are finding ways technology could help, but we have an inequitable way of looking at technology. When you’re dealing with fast-moving technology and a long history of poverty, those things are incongruent. We have to acknowledge the power technology has in transforming cities, but we also have to acknowledge the history of poverty and how that has worn down willingness to try new things. We have to use vision and foresight, but empathy as well. 

4. What are some advantages Detroit has in creating innovative solutions for digital equity?

We have an ability to write a blueprint with companies as partners. Every city in America has a digital divide, and what companies work on here, they can take anywhere. That’s the baseline of partnership. There’s a certain level of boldness these companies are empowered by: bold visions, bold ideas, things that transform cities. I’ll talk to Google, and they want to make a difference in our community. They are aware they need to hire people from the community, and they’re aware of the digital divide. So, for them, it’s like, “Let’s go. Let’s get it. If you have that vision, we’re behind you, because this is our mission as well.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.