Urban Wire Equity in innovation: Four principles to ensure the benefits of technological advancements are broadly shared
Emily Peiffer
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From how we work to how we communicate, technology is rapidly changing our society. But new advancements aren’t necessarily positive for everyone, and innovations can exacerbate the economic and racial inequities plaguing many US communities. We know little about how technological changes affect those inequities and cities’ goals of improving inclusion.

Researchers and practitioners are starting to fill these knowledge gaps. With that goal in mind, the Urban Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth hosted a summit on June 27 where city leaders, technology innovators, equity advocates, and researchers came together to discuss how we can harness technology to be a positive force for opportunity and inclusion.

“We need to better understand a broad range of technological innovations and their consequences for the well-being of people and places,” said Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute. “We need to find promising solutions, measure their impact rigorously, and help accelerate ideas that work.” 

She noted that technology is changing the way the Urban Institute works (through advancements in its Office of Technology and Data Science) and changing what the organization studies (from the future of work to access to opportunity). And discussions like the June 27 summit are adding to the conversation by offering real examples and diverse perspectives.

“Something all these panelists have in common is a focus on innovative solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our day—rising inequalities along lines of race and class in our communities,” Wartell said.

The panel discussion highlighted four principles that should guide future policies to ensure technological innovations don’t leave traditionally excluded communities behind, as well as examples of cities and companies adhering to those principles.

We must use technology to better understand inclusion challenges

Data generated by new technologies can reveal disparities in access to opportunity that may otherwise be difficult to detect.

ST Mayer, chief program officer of Code for America, discussed how her organization, through its Clear My Record app, identified barriers for people who wanted to clear their criminal records. Records can bar people from housing, employment, and educational opportunities, and many states have implemented laws allowing people to clear their records. But most people don’t take advantage of those avenues because of a difficult system, layers of complexity, and the need for a lawyer.

By developing an online system where people could easily fill out and understand forms, Clear My Record realized that a more efficient tactic would be to develop a system for local governments to clear eligible criminal records on a large scale. “We realized there was a role for government here that could accelerate this,” Mayer said. “Governments can present individuals with an opportunity for a fresh start.”

Even though Code for America’s Clear My Record app initially aimed to help people clear their own records, the organization found lingering barriers and a more efficient solution to the problem by pivoting to government-focused action.

We must create inclusive processes to shape technology development and deployment

Without strong engagement efforts, groups and communities that lack power or access to technology can be shut out of the planning process.

From L to R, Gustavo Velasquez, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, Joy Whitt, Economic Intelligence Analyst at Washington, DC's Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Ellen Hwang, Assistant Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology, and Rayid Ghani, Director of the Center for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Ellen Hwang, assistant director of strategic initiatives for the Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology, explained how Philadelphia took an inclusive approach to choosing where bikeshare racks would be placed. City leaders asked local residents to vote on where they wanted the bikeshare stations, and they consulted with urban planners to determine where commuters needed more diverse options for transportation.

Despite those inclusive planning efforts, ridership was still low in some areas because credit cards were required for payment and because some residents don’t know how to ride a bike. The city took steps to remedy those problems by offering bike riding and safety lessons for residents and by partnering with cornerstones to offer cash vouchers for bikeshare use.

“You might make mistakes and bad assumptions, but you have to figure out how to work in an agile way to address those challenges,” Hwang said.

We must be intentional about uses of technology that can drive inclusive outcomes

We can’t assume that technological innovations will benefit everyone equally. Intentional design for equity should involve inclusive processes and rethinking business practices to target efforts to marginalized communities.

Jimmy Chen, founder and CEO of Propel, wants to show that it’s possible for a mission-driven company to be profitable. Propel created the Fresh EBT app to make it easier for people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to check their balance and to access other services that can help them become more financially secure, including employment services and grocery coupons.

“Poverty is sticky. There aren’t a lot of support services stitched together,” Chen said. “There’s a bigger role that software and technology can play to help.”

Propel’s target users are low-income young mothers, and the company designed the app with them in mind. “What would it look like if we were a company that took the playbook and the tools and skill sets of Silicon Valley and applied that to solving the problems that low-income Americans face on a daily basis?” Chen said.

We must use technology to measure progress and learn about how we can do better

Evaluating technology’s impact should happen before, during, and after a program is launched to ensure each step creates equitable outcomes for all residents.

Rayid Ghani, director of the Center for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, highlighted the need for an equity audit for new technological initiatives. “How do we break it down into different components of equity, measure each component, identify gaps in equity, and be more efficient about it? We need to use data to provide more effective services and more equitable services.”

He emphasized that equity audits should also be made public to ensure transparency and to explain any biases that show up before implementation. “In order to have these services deployed, they need to meet these equity criteria.”

Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, added that all four of these aspects of inclusion must be interconnected and that technology is a means but not the end. “Technology alone does not erase structural barriers that drive economic and racial barriers. But it can be used to help reduce these barriers at the structural level.”

View the webcast of the Innovation for Inclusion Summit here.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Poverty Public and private investment Community and economic development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center