To build truly inclusive cities, we need to include all citizens in the innovation process

May 12, 2014

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities  group blogging event,  which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?” Check out the other responses at http://cityminded.org/urban-opportunity

When we heard about this question, our minds immediately went to the word “all” – how do we ensure that civic innovation benefits the full spectrum of city residents and not just the ones who are most vocal or most connected to the process of civic governance?

At the heart of our work here at Significance Labs – where we’re helping technologists build new products for underserved communities – is a belief that effective innovation must include the voices of users. There are three reasons this is crucial: First, it’s always tempting to come to problem-solving with the bias of our own perspective. We tend to hone in on problems that feel familiar and design solutions that make sense based on our own experience. But often civic innovation – whether new technology, policy, or programs – is being led by people who aren’t fully representative of the intended beneficiaries. How then can we feel confident we’re focused in the right place? We think the answer is to ask the people we’re trying to help.

Second, you need to understand the tools users will have at their disposal. This is a non-trivial issue when we talk about inclusion in civic solutions, particularly if those solutions are web-based. 20% of Americans don’t have broadband access at home, and another 10% use their mobile phones as their sole home access point; in both cases, lack of access is concentrated in groups most in need of civic services: lower-income, less educated, and often elderly.  An online system for booking appointments in government offices might make visits quicker and less frustrating for tech-savvy, higher-income residents, while unintentionally making the experience even worse for those residents without easy access to the booking site (though we should note that if online systems could instead be used to prevent the need for in-person visits in the first place, even a not fully inclusive solution would likely improve the experience of all citizens).

Finally, if you can identify the right problem and build a solution that can be accessed by all of your residents, you still need to build a product they actually want to use, which means something that’s easy (and maybe even fun!) to use and provides them with some sort of benefit that matters to them. The only way to know if you’re doing this right is to put products in your users’ hands and get their feedback.  Here’s where inclusion can actually be a disadvantage – at least in the short-term. It’s hard to build something from scratch that’s perfectly suited for a widely diverse group of people – and sometimes this actually discourages innovation by making it overwhelmingly complex or expensive. We believe it makes sense to start by designing great solutions for a small group of people with relatively similar needs. Once there’s a proven concept, then it’s time to talk about how to add features that will expand the target population (new platforms, additional language options, an expanded feature set, etc.).  

As we reimagine opportunity in our cities, one of the most important things urban innovators can do is to find ways to bring all citizens into the innovation process – not just at the end, but at the beginning when problems are being defined, and in the middle when critical choices like delivery channels and feature sets are made. If we’re going to reshape the urban fabric, we need to make sure we’re designing with and for all of our residents to ensure we’re creating a truly inclusive future.

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