The Future of the Urban Internet Environment

Providing essential goods and services to an urban environment has long been the task of government. Yet, over time, as technologies have become increasingly sophisticated and modern life has become more complicated, the ability of governments to provide technological services has become limited.

Governments have consistently fallen behind the private sector in delivering the goods and services that citizen-taxpayers consistently demand. There is no better illustration of this shortfall in product delivery than in the field of wireless technology deployed by major American cities today. With the exception of a handful of cities that are taking the lead in wireless technology, the urban internet environment is a vast desert with little room for city managers and citizens alike to maneuver.

The urban internet environment is a natural successor to the urban telephone environment made available by the installation of public phone booths in the 1970s and the construction of some publicly funded cellular phone towers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, as mobile technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated and demand for wireless services is increasingly omnipresent, cities have been noticeably absent from the development and deployment of wide-scale wireless technology plans.

The once desolate urban internet environment is ripe for change though, and America’s leading cities are thankfully taking advantage of the opportunity. Unlike days past when public technology efforts were spearheaded entirely by city managers and bogged down in city bureaucracy, governments are now increasingly fashioning sophisticated efforts to hold development competitions in order to offset the costs of developing and deploying technology that a hungry public demands. The once sluggish urban internet environment refreshingly now holds the potential to expand to large cities at a much quicker pace than ever before realized.

The remaking of the urban internet landscape via joint public and private projects is especially appropriate for cities that are tightening their budgets, because it is a unique, cost-effective approach. New York City, for example, has taken the lead by hosting development competitions in conjunction with high profile tech companies, start-ups, and entrepreneurs to cut through government bureaucracy and shorten the amount of time it takes for a technological process to go from development to deployment.

Initiatives of this sort are a good idea not only for consumers, but also for cities looking to cut costs in difficult economic times. The success of these joint initiatives has proven overwhelming, as development competitions and mash-ups often shorten the timeframe for delivering essential services, especially the most recent and challenging technologies like mobile applications. Mash-ups and design competitions all too often reveal the importance of the private sector in the crafting of a workable urban internet environment.

Contests are a good idea for consumers too because they increase users' access to information and proximity to services that are becoming not only increasingly commonplace but are expected in major cities, where wireless services are required for myriad aspects of daily life, from ensuring stoplights function correctly to delivering emergency news updates to citizens on mobile phones.

New York’s embrace of a long-term plan to expand its already existing wireless network to ordinary citizens has not only paid off as a public relations success, but is also beginning to pay off major dividends as a cost-cutting measure as well. Other American cities would be wise to take note.

New York currently has 750,000 devices connected to an "enterprise-grade" wireless network and has plans to grow that figure in the coming year. The wireless network was originally deployed in 2009 and is now accessible to 300,000 city employees and 45 agencies. It has a coverage area of 300 square miles and carries tens of thousands of transactions a day. Expanding the wireless network to the public will make New York not only a leader in the long-term remaking of the urban internet environment, but also a model for success that other American cities, small and large are apt to follow.

While private sector participants may be new to providing goods and services to city governments, they are not new to development, and recent competitions have drawn developers with more technology expertise than city governments can otherwise acquire on their own.

This approach serves as a model for low-cost civic innovation and a rare example of a private–public partnership that yields quality public products. Innovators in the private sector can produce low-cost public benefits through government-sponsored competitions, and if these efforts continue to succeed, the critique that government and the private sector often fail together may soon evaporate.

While the deployment of wireless network services in New York, along with the introduction of mash-ups and competitions, modeling private-public product deployment for metropolitan locales, has been anything but perfect, it has been just the needed spark to ensure that the future of the urban internet environment portends not a wasteland but rather a launching pad for civic success.

Photo Credit: Wayda Dreamscape