Read the white paper here on the Tow Center website and here on gitbook
“What fiber is going to do is augment our human capabilities. It will give us an additional layer of life. Online life is not separate from offline life. Fiber will become increasingly relevant to how we live our life–and our lives increasingly will be lived in cities.”
In the fall of 2014, Tow Fellow Susan Crawford convened three workshops aimed at answering the question: What could a university center do to advance policymaking and planning for 21st century cities, focused on facilitating the growth of fiber-optic networks, improving local governance through use of data (transported by fiber), and supporting data-fueled journalism?
Crawford, who will be teaching telecommunications and information law at Harvard Law School beginning in July 2015 and recently co-authored the book The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data Smart Governance (with former Mayor of Indianapolis Stephen Goldsmith) has travelled widely, researching the public policy dimensions of fiber-optic networks around the world and gathering stories.
The push for fiber is not just about speed, but also about increased connectivity. “What fiber makes possible is limitless interaction, when needed, as needed. The deepest human desire is for presence, for connection — and fiber is essentially a pane of glass between you and the rest of the world,” says Crawford.
The workshops also aimed to develop pathways for bringing the best digitally-talented grad students into careers in local governance. Currently, 40%-50% of government employees are ready to retire, but Millennials may not be aware how satisfying and interesting these jobs are. And local governments need digitally-savvy employees to be effective.
We recently spoke with Crawford to learn more about the Responsive Cities Initiative.
Tow: The Responsive Cities Initiative brought together individuals from the civic data movement and journalists. Has this ever happened before?
Crawford: As far as I know, this hasn’t happened before in an intentional way. Many people can see the connections between data and journalism, and many people can see the connections between data and more effective governance, and many people can see the connections between fiber infrastructure and improved quality of life. But bringing all three of those camps together was the unique contribution of the Tow Responsive Cities Initiative.
Tow: What came out of this? Anything unexpected?
Crawford: These meetings were extraordinarily exciting and uplifting. Everybody involved felt that they were seeing new things in a new way. For example, chief data officers of cities had not been thinking about the centrality of fiber infrastructure to their ability to offer 21st century city services to everyone. And journalists had not been thinking about the excitement of the fiber story. At the same time, journalists are coming around to the idea of seeing themselves as part of the civic infrastructure of a city. They’re learning about surprising possibilities for collaboration between city officials and journalists in getting stories out about what’s changing in cities. It was thrilling to see the connections being made across the table among these highly experienced but equally highly isolated groups of people.
Tow: Do you see any of these connections persisting over time?
Crawford: I know the connections are persisting because I can see it. Data officers are thinking about ways to drive fiber into their cities. Journalists are writing more stories about fiber. At the same time, the moment involving journalists who understand data and can write about it effectively is accelerating. These meetings are indicative of a movement afoot in cities around the world. We just put a name to it.
Tow: Why the focus on cities instead of states?
Crawford: The US is one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Eighty percent of us already live in cities, and more will as the years go by. The point of The Responsive City is that cities are the places where democracy still works. Mayors are largely bipartisan, focused on making lives better for their citizens, and have power within their footprint that exceeds what a president can do. At the same time, people love their cities. They identify with them. The idea is that by having cities be visible to themselves, both inside the walls of city hall and on the street and neighborhoods, you end up with a thick mesh of democratic engagement that in turn makes democracy work better. It wouldn’t be possible without all three of these things–data, fiber, and journalism.
Tow: There has been a lot of discussion about rising inequality in cities in the past decade. I’m wondering how much digital literacy is part of the Responsive Cities Initiative. Is there concern about enabling all citizens to access fiber? How do you make sure everybody knows how to use the resources?
Crawford: The book is very intentionally entitled The Responsive City rather than the “smart city.” The idea is that the city is there for its people and needs to be responsive to their needs — listening to them, experimenting, ensuring that everyone is included, and that everyone is part of the story.
Digital literacy in general is an essential part of that inclusion narrative. The idea is that treating people with respect and dignity includes ensuring that they have the tools and abilities and insight necessary to have a thriving life. More effective governance, more widespread and cheaper high-speed Internet access, and access to actionable information about where they live are all part of that inclusion process.
Tow: The third session brought the Danish Fiber Network to the Tow Center. Can you tell us about this?
Crawford: That was an extraordinary session. We had 45 people involved —- from members of Parliament and regulators, to people who build fiber systems in Denmark,–come and talk to a group of similarly-situated Americans. The conversation was electric. Danes in rural areas have far better Internet access than Americans. At the same time, they had not been thinking about the possibilities of data use in cities to make citizens’ lives better.
Tow: And what were the reactions?
Crawford: The Americans were astonished at the Danish attitude towards high-speed Internet access. The Danes were astonished that cities get a cut of cable video revenue and so have a built-in conflict of interest favoring the pay TV industry. We learned that the two groups had a lot to work on together. Some of these people have been working in isolation, so pulling them together is magical.
Tow: Why fiber?
Crawford: What everybody needs is unlimited cheap information sharing capacity. That’s the substrate that will make everything else possible. I think of fiber Internet access as the street grid for the responsive city.
Tow: It seems like a part of Responsive Cities Initiative is creating communication channels in order to talk about communication channels.
Crawford: Yes, that’s true! These universities really need to be platforms today, bringing together disparate groups to make progress on important issues and research. I’m looking forward to continuing to pull these groups together to work on cross-cutting projects of mutual interest.
Tow: The university as an institution has come under a lot of criticism in the past decade. Yet, you seem to have faith in this institution and its ability to address policy issues. Can the university really push forward new ideas — not just ideas that are cloistered in texts and research journals?
Crawford: There is a dramatic shift, particularly at the top level of law and policy schools, to move from theory to practice, from writing articles for other academics to getting hands on experience in a real world context. The Responsive Cities Initiative is part of that. My plan is to work with as many students as I can to get them into a pipeline of projects and interactions with people inside city hall.
Tow: So, is a big part of this project to develop connections with young people and encourage them to enter local government?
Crawford: One of the most important directions is student engagement and student mentoring —facilitating entry of enormously talented students who understand both project management and data to go into government as a career.
Tow: Is there a more specific form this will take?
Crawford: I’m very concrete about this. This is called clinical learning, experiential learning, placements that are supervised jointly by the city. Having that kind of experience in graduate school can be a ramp to understanding that local government can be a career, and can open up the eyes of government officials too.
Tow: What’s next for this project?
Crawford: I will be a professor at Harvard Law School starting in July. I’m going to be doing what I’m talking about. I’ll be working with cities to place students. I’ll be helping groups like Next Century Cities with research for mayors about fiber networks, I’ll be working with city data officers on new projects to make local governance more effective, and I will continue collaborating with the Tow Center to see what’s possible using data journalism.
Crawford will be moderating a panel at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation on Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 at 6:30 about the Responsive Cities Initiative.
The panelists will be:
- Lev Gonick, Chief Executive, OneCommunity
- Brett Goldstein, Fellow in Urban Science, U. of Chicago, Board Member of CFA
- Elin Katz, Consumer Council, State of Connecticut
- Oliver Wise, Director, Office of Performance and Accountability, City of New Orleans
The event is free and open to the public.