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Words from Charlie

Each year the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convenes a roundtable to consider the impact of information and communications technologies on some aspect of our social landscape. In 2015, the Roundtable on Information Technology met in San Francisco to consider the impact of networks and networking on cities. Thirty leaders and experts from local and the federal governments, businesses, non-profits, academia and philanthropy met for an intensive two days to address the topic from technological, economic, social, cultural and policy viewpoints.

In the resultant report, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance,” author David Bollier captures the essence and nuances of the group’s discussions. Just as businesses are finding that the rapidly changing digital environment pushes them to become or use platforms in their various ecosystems, the Roundtable found that the best way for cities to think of themselves going forward in this atmosphere is as a platform. That is, cities can leverage digital and network technologies, tapping the expertise of its many citizens and stakeholders, to work for solutions to urban problems, co-create new activities, and engage citizens more directly in the city’s work and play. They can use open data, crowdsourcing and urban prototyping to enhance both government services and enjoyment of local life in the city.

The movement to networks, digital technologies and the gig economy has created problems, though, as well as solutions. Most significant of those is the rising inequality among citizens, and the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs now and into the future. The Roundtable and the report tackles some of these issues, at least highlighting some approaches that governments might take to promote safety nets for those “left behind.”

Finally, the report sets out a way of thinking about how governments should react by adopting policies in four asset areas: infrastructure, people, technology and data. While specific policy proposals are not offered, there are a number of topic areas where thoughtful local policy-makers might start.

We thank David Bollier, our rapporteur, for pulling together various strains of dialogue into a coherent treatise on the City as Platform. We also want to acknowledge McKinsey & Company, our senior sponsor, and other attendees who have contributed as corporate partners to the Communications and Society Program, making the roundtable possible: Microsoft, the Markle Foundation, and the Kunzweiler Family Foundation. Finally, I want to thank Rachel Pohl, Project Manager, and Tricia Kelly, Assistant Director, for their work on the conference and bringing this report to fruition.

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