By: Ellen Foreman, Abbas Sabur, and Laura Goddeeris of ICMA
A small but passionate ICMA crew joined the thousands of participants at SXSW2018, especially to engage with local government visionaries for the government track sessions and the Cities Summit, which kicked off on Sunday and ran through Tuesday. As coffee break hosts, we met folks doing some amazing things like:
- HealthCode running the MillionMileMonth aimed at keeping cities healthy. Here’s the current leaderboard.
- Citizen.e researching how residents feel about smart city technologies, including the balance between privacy and the need to share information for effective service delivery. You can see the live data they are collecting here.
- DigitalTown sharing its vision on how blockchain technology can help grow local businesses and build community. And it’s already happening in thousands of smart city initiatives all over the world.
- Citymart working to transform the way cities solve problems, connecting them through open challenges to new ideas from residents and entrepreneurs.
- Becky McCray of SaveYour.town- sharing a website with resources specific to small towns and communities that include practical steps and toolkits.
- Cognitive Edge introducing an award-winning Cynefin framework for decision making and mitigating conflict in communities.
While the conference has a history steeped in tech, additional overarching themes featured prominently in 2018 included the political animosity around trust and privacy, equity and inclusion, and placemaking.
As social media becomes more influential in every generation in the U.S., local governments will need to "fall into" the rising wave. Trust in search and social media are declining along with trust in government. The average social media user has become skeptical because of the filtered experience they believe they get. As skepticism rises, transparency has become the currency of trust.
SXSW sessions encouraged local governments to use smart cities technologies to: collect and share data, engage with residents, address information imbalances that exacerbate other forms of inequity within communities, and reduce various forms of friction from daily life. Open communication and performance management systems attentive to all aspects of inequality in local communities will benefit residents and build trust. And don’t ignore the importance of meeting people where they are—sometimes the low-tech methods of community engagement are called for too).
Throughout the conference, the specter of the elimination of privacy and the encroachment—through smart cities technologies, including surveillance—prevailed. Professor Maya Wiley of the New School revealed the ease of accessing personal information through basic data (gender, zipcode, Twitter profile, etc.) as a growing danger in the wrong hands. Private sector companies and local governments demonstrated ways to provide the services residents need while protecting their security and privacy.
Beyond its focus on tech, SXSW is undeniably a celebration of culture and placemaking. Cities Summit sessions explored this theme as well. Urban designer and former municipal staffer Gia Biagi challenged local governments to consider how public spaces and other civic infrastructure can be redesigned to promote community wellness and engagement. The Kresge Foundation introduced Asheville, North Carolina, and East Harlem, New York, examples from its investment in local food system projects that foster economic development, cultural expression, and health.
Finalists from across the globe pitched tactical urbanism projects uniting art, tech, and social interaction, infusing the public realm with music, light, play spaces, and even friendly robot drinking fountains. The city of Austin, Texas, demonstrated how choreography was used to engage residents in creating a materplan for the city's public swimming pools.
While we saw lots of mayors, we didn’t catch many ICMA members at SXSW. We may be able to get some deep discounts for ICMA members in 2019. Let us know whether you think this would be an event you’d consider attending.