Accelerating Innovation for Inclusion

The digital revolution is changing the way people move, work, and interact with information and services. Governments can leverage new technologies to create more inclusive communities by developing systems that ensure benefits and services are accessible to all residents who need them. This will require that leaders design new systems built around equity and inclusion. But important questions remain about how and where new technologies can contribute to equity and inclusion and how to build upon existing systems without recreating the disparities of the past.  

Supported with a grant from the Mastercard Impact Fund, in collaboration with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Urban Institute will fill critical knowledge gaps on what the digital transition means to cities and states in the US. Urban’s experts will develop tools that policymakers can use to target investments aimed at reducing inequities and increasing pathways to upward mobility.

Our research will focus on four “keys” to the inclusive city: 

  1. Adaptive Tools to Promote Economic Mobility: With access to tools that take advantage of new and extensive data on economic indicators such as housing markets, consumer spending patterns, and business development, cities can promote policies and encourage investments in ways that support more inclusive and effective community economic development and economic mobility. 
  2. Modernized Benefits Delivery: By leveraging technology and advances in data analytics, cities can improve access, usage, and disbursement of government benefits, with a focus on increased equity and inclusion.
  3. Digitized Service Delivery: Through increased digital capacity and data analytics, cities and states can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their service delivery while ensuring more equitable access and usage.
  4. Integrated Systems for Physical Mobility:  By integrating non-traditional transportation technologies like electric scooters, docked and dockless bikes, car sharing, and ridesharing into existing public transportation networks, cities can help to promote more equitable and inclusive access to job opportunities, education, child care, and other critical services to close gaps created by geography and legacy infrastructure.

Learn more about this effort here.

Affiliated Researchers

Richard Ezike, Erika PoethigSolomon Greene, Brett Theodos, Kathy Pettit, Mark Treskon, Tina Stacy, Kristin Blagg, Alena Stern, Graham MacDonald,Khuloud Odeh, Heather Hahn, and Rayanne Hawkins

Reports, blog posts, and events

Amid stay-at-home orders and other tactics to stem the spread of COVID-19, millions of Americans’ daily lives have shifted online. Many employees work from home, students take online classes, and city officials rely on livestreams and social media to disseminate information. But the sudden shift to an online-based life has highlighted the inequity of access to reliable technology for many US households.

To understand how city officials are addressing technology equity gaps to meet their residents’ needs, the Urban Institute surveyed Chief Technology Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Innovation Officers, and Digital Inclusion Leads in cities across the country. Our survey received responses from 14 representatives constituting of 11 cities. From the responses, we found four main takeaways:

  • Internet access has expanded, but the digital divide is more harmful than ever. Most respondents indicated that since COVID-19 began to spread in the US, low-cost or free internet, access to internet connected devices, and digital literacy training had all expanded. For most of the responding cities, these steps were the result of accelerating pre-existing programs. Several cities also focused on students, partnering with school districts to set up hotspots and distribute devices. City representatives also said the virus clarified the magnitude of the digital divide, with one remarking, “internet isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity.”
  • With new tools, cities are reaching more residents than ever before. Every city representative who responded indicated that they were using new tools to reach residents, and most also said their cities had also expanded live-streaming of government meetings. Although these tools have expanded access to more residents, there is still potential for low-income and other marginalized communities to be left out because of the digital divide.
  • Cities are collecting real-time information and moving services online. Most city representatives indicated that COVID-19 informational pages were one of the most in-demand city services, with many respondents also indicating that information about safety net programs was wanted. Many respondents noted that city services such as building permitting had also moved online for the first time during the pandemic.
  • Cities are leveraging relationships and new authorities to deliver services. To serve residents during the pandemic, most city representatives said it has been necessary to obtain new legal, administrative, or procurement authority. With these expanded authorities, city staff were able to purchase devices for students and sometimes deliver cash to residents.

Steps to help cities expand technology access for more residents

Although local governments have responded quickly to increase technology access during the pandemic, many city representatives indicated that there were still barriers hindering their ability to deliver access to all residents. For one, city leaders expressed a need for localized data about their residents’ ability to access city services. Without this data, it’s difficult to make evidence-based decisions.

Most respondents also indicated that discounting internet and providing hot spots were insufficient long-term fixes, and one said that “free access” is what is really needed. To that end, city representatives expressed that greater legal authority is needed in many cities to expand public broadband networks. Even if city leaders have the data to understand where gaps are and what quality equipment could fill those gaps, they might lack the authority to do so.

This survey shows that cities are attempting to address inequities in technology access but still face barriers to closing the digital divide, and that more data are needed to understand how these increased services are benefiting underserved communities.

How Cities Are Leveraging Technology to Meet Residents’ Needs during a Pandemic

Racial and economic inequities in the US are growing, and rapid technological change can either promote inclusion or widen this divide. City leaders can use technological innovations to manage infrastructure and improve services, communicate with constituents, and make better decisions. But they must also be aware of the challenges that come with the disruptive force of new technological advancements. This report, which is based on a literature review and interviews with experts, explores trends in four areas of technological change: smart infrastructure, shared mobility, civic technology, and technology-enhanced data analytics. We identify how those trends could exacerbate or mitigate inequality in cities, and we provide examples of cities that are leveraging these trends and innovations to advance equity goals. We also synthesize cross-cutting themes and recommend principles to guide local efforts to harness technological innovation and create more equitable cities.


Technology and Equity in Cities

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps millions of households with low or no incomes purchase food. Households currently access SNAP benefits using electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards. With new payment technologies available and with the growing need for online purchasing options amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that SNAP benefit delivery evolves to ensure participants can purchase food in the same manner as other customers. We interviewed national SNAP experts, state officials, consumer advocates, and representatives of food retailers, EBT processors, and related technology companies to understand the current EBT system and how future benefit delivery could be more equitable and inclusive.

Access for All: Innovation for Equitable SNAP Delivery