In the spring of 2017, the doors to a new type of community center swung open in Louisville, Kentucky. The Gigabit Experience Center, located in the city’s long underserved West End, provided a now critical 21st century public service: free high-speed internet access.
Although an estimated 94% of Americans have web access today, many low-and middle-income families are saddled with a slow and unreliable connection. The Gigabit Center not only alleviates this often overlooked digital inequity but also gives locals an inviting place to meet and share ideas about improving their community.
Located near the banks of the Ohio River, the facility is part of what Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation and technology has described as a citywide ‘digital inclusion strategy.’ By removing a barrier to high-speed connectivity, the city aims to provide underserved citizens with access to potentially life-altering opportunities online, such as applying for jobs, acquiring new job skills, and earning a degree. With the space, the city is also looking to leverage its local tech talent. At a civic hackathon last year, coders, designers, and urbanists tackled low voter registration and other problems.
Louisville’s Gigabit Center is an example of the types of local projects that are emerging around the globe to foster physical community and citizen engagement in an increasingly digital world. It’s not that city halls are shunning technology. On the contrary, municipalities from Athens, Greece, to Anchorage, Alaska, are fusing the best of analog and digital with the help of institutions such as Cities of Service. The New York City-based independent nonprofit supports mayors and chief executives in more than 235 cities in the United States and United Kingdom in their efforts to involve citizens in developing solutions to local problems. And its Engaged Cities Award, the winners of which will be announced this spring, is the organization’s first annual search for the best and most creative approaches.
“At its core, Cities of Service is focused on helping local leaders connect with their people to diagnose public problems and fix them,” says Myung Lee, executive director of Cities of Service. “Cities that effectively use technology as a tool to support this work are greatly expanding the impact of these efforts.”
ATHENS’S DIGITAL RESPONSE TO CRISES
The 2008 global financial crisis hit Athens like a wrecking ball. The Greek economy was decimated, and citizens throughout the country endured a combination of austerity measures, tax increases, and massive unemployment. In the immediate aftermath, 98% of Greeks believed government corruption was a major problem. Only 13% trusted their public institutions. Some wondered whether Greece would weather the storm, but a newly energized civil society bloomed. Unable to count on government for even basic services, Athenians stepped up.
“A new type of identity rose in the aftermath of the crisis,” says Amalia Zepou, Athens’s vice mayor for civil society and innovation. “It was defined by spontaneity and improvisation. Those people showed that some of their urgent needs were actually about a sense of ownership of their block or of the park across the street or of how they wanted to introduce visitors to the city.”
Eager to activate that grassroots energy, government officials developed synAthina. A Bloomberg Philanthropies 2014 Mayors Challenge winner, the online platform enables citizen groups to submit projects to a central server where they connect with like-minded groups and the corresponding government agencies. The resulting programs are then tracked on a publicly accessible map.
“We’ve collected almost 3,000 activities on synAthina,” Zepou says. “You can immediately see what citizens are doing in the city, whether that’s beautification projects or cleaning up a park. And the city isn’t just collecting the projects, it’s facilitating them and supporting them.”
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