One of my favorite films is Spike Jonze’s 2013 American science fiction ‘Her,’ set in a futuristic Los Angeles that resembles today’s skyscraper-filled Shanghai. In the film, technology pervades everyone’s lives and people are constantly connected to the digital world. But you no longer see what the majority of today’s cities grapple with: homelessness, traffic, or inequality. Films that try to depict cities of the future often lack homeless people, or people on the less fortunate end of the income spectrum. Instead, everyone is well-dressed in clean, bright clothes, all seamlessly connected in a technological web through their devices. But given the current mass displacement of people of color and low-income folks as a result of the technological boom and increased development across cities, we must ask: Will there be room for low-income people of color in the smart cities of our technological future? Or will the digital divide leave them high and dry?
The short answer is: yes, but only if we are willing to do the work to make it a reality.
Three in 10 adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone. More than four in 10 don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer. And most lower-income Americans don’t own a tablet. By comparison, these technologies are nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year. This gap between folks who have access to technology and those who don’t is known as the “digital divide,” and it significantly affects communities of color.
According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, 25% of teens whose family income is less than $30,000 a year do not have access to a home computer, compared with 4% of those whose annual family income is $75,000 or more. Roughly 41% and 38% of African-American and Hispanic households with school-age children earning less than $30,000 per year lack access to high-speed internet service. The digital divide threatens the advancements low-income communities of color have made in past decades because it deprives them of access to the tools necessary to thrive in today’s tech-driven economy.
Low-income people of color need to be equitably integrated into technologically-driven Smart cities, and it starts with giving them the tools needed to flourish in them.
The possibilities for truly smart cities within the U.S. are getting closer, as legislation which would aid in promoting these cities has already been introduced to Congress. The most promising legislation for these technologically-driven cities is authored by Reps. Suzan DelBene of Washington Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, and Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who jointly re-introduced the Smart Cities and Communities Act to promote the advancement of Smart Cities.
The Smart Cities and Communities Act was initially introduced in 2017 but stalled in committee.
The revived bill aims to improve federal coordination of Smart City programs, help local governments interested in Smart City technologies, build the workforce’s technology skills to support Smart Cities, and improve Smart City technology’s quality, performance, and safety. The bill would also authorize $200 million for Smart City investments over five years.
While Smart Cities and Communities Act’s goals are laudable, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the digital divide and needs to be upgraded to ensure that communities of color receive the same benefits as their white counterparts. The bill should strive to ensure racial equity, establish specific workforce targets to ensure communities of color are being served and benefited by Smart City infrastructure, and establish federal audits for workforce development programs to ensure they focus on low-income communities of color.
Sasha Bernhard, one of Rep. DelBene’s staffers working on the bill, agrees that these changes need to be seriously implemented. Mason Graham, also working on the bill as a staffer for Rep. Luján, agrees that the bill should tackle the lack of technology literacy as well as the lack of affordable high-speed broadband for low-income communities of color.
As the era of technology-driven cities arrives, we need to implement a racial equity lens over its development so technology can be a bridge between misfortune and opportunity for low-income communities of color.
The success of our societies must include the success of everyone living and working within them, not just those at the top.
Jason Barajas is Greenlining’s Technology Equity Summer Associate.