In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.
Except among a small class of vanguard cities, however, the far-reaching implications of the “networked city” for economic development, urban planning, social life and democracy, have not been explored in depth. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program thus convened an eclectic group of thirty experts to explore how networking technologies are rapidly changing the urban landscape in nearly every dimension. The goal was to learn how open networks, online cooperation and open data can enhance urban planning and administration, and more broadly, how they might improve economic opportunity and civic engagement. The conference, the 24th Annual Aspen Roundtable on Information Technology, also addressed the implications of new digital technologies for urban transportation, public health and safety, and socio-economic inequality.
The two-day gathering on July 16 and 17, 2015 at the Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito, California, brought together a formidable group consisting of top technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, social justice advocates, an architect, educator and librarian, and foundation officials (see Appendix for a list of participants.)Charles M. Firestone, Executive Director of the Communications and Society Program, moderated the six sessions of discussion. David Bollier, the conference rapporteur, prepared the following report as an interpretive synthesis of the salient topics discussed.