Navigant Research Blog

Smart City Technology Helping Low Income Residents, Too

Ryan Citron — January 23, 2018

Particularly in the developing world, there are valid concerns that smart cities could exacerbate the digital divide and primarily benefit wealthier residents. However, a number of emerging companies and initiatives demonstrate that smart city technology can also be utilized for digital inclusion, citizen empowerment, and to increase low income residents’ access to essential city services such as transportation and healthcare.

Key Company and Project Examples

A new company called Cityblock Health was recently spun out of Alphabet’s urban innovation unit, Sidewalk Labs. Cityblock raised over $20 million from a range of investors to help low income Americans access basic health services. Through the company’s Commons platform technology, it will partner with community health centers and partner organizations across the US to reconfigure the delivery of health and social services—and make healthcare services more personalized for qualifying Medicaid or Medicare members. Specifically, the company is targeting issues with misaligned payment incentives (between payers and providers of Medicare and Medicaid), siloed medical and social service delivery, and fragmented data. Cityblock is expected to launch its first Neighborhood Health Hub in New York City in 2018. The Hub will differ from traditional siloed health clinics, using the company’s custom-built technology to merge health services with the community. Caregivers, Cityblock members, and local organizations will all engage with each other in one physical meeting space to discuss and solve local health challenges. Cityblock will be an interesting startup to follow as it aims to integrate primary care, behavioral health, and social services all under one roof.

Another significant example of the potential for smart city technology to help low income communities (and further explained in one of my previous blogs) is Columbus, Ohio’s proposal for the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. One of the primary reasons the city won the Challenge—and beat out the better-known technology centers of San Francisco, Austin, and Denver—was due to Columbus’s ability to demonstrate that its plan would result in increasing poor residents’ access to new transportation options. Additionally, Microsoft, along with its partners G3ict and World Enabled, launched the Smart Cities for All Toolkit in spring 2017 as part of its broader city engagement program. The toolkit is designed to help city officials and urban planners make more digitally inclusive and accessible smart cities. Tools developed for cities include a guide for adopting information and communication technology (ICT) accessibility standards and a guide for ICT accessible procurement policies.

Project Design and Implementation Crucial

These examples demonstrate that smart city technology can be used to the benefit of low income residents—whether it’s increasing access to crucial services such as healthcare and transport, or helping to bridge the digital divide. Policymakers must be vigilant when designing and implementing smart city programs, ensuring that technology deployments will extend to and directly benefit low income residents and neighborhoods in their city. Specific projects designed for low income communities (e.g., providing transport between high unemployment neighborhoods and nearby job centers) should be pursued as part of a city’s broader smart city strategy whenever possible.

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