Increasing Access: the Inclusive Urban Innovation Panel

64 million. That’s the number of Americans who do not have access to broadband internet or 1 in 5 Americans.

With this in mind, the OpenGov Hub, the Harvard Alumni for Education, and the Harvard Club of DC convened some of the leading figures working to combat this problem for a special panel event. Chike Aguh (CEO of EveryoneOn), Aaron Saunders (founder of Luma Lab), DC Councilmember Brandon Todd, and Nneka Ezenwa (VP of Public Policy & Government Affairs at Verizon) participated in “Inclusive Urban Innovation: Can Tech Promote Opportunity & Civic Engagement?,” moderated by Hub Manager Nada Zohdy. The discussion was far reaching, addressing how to increase access to internet and tech, the role of education and cross-sector partnerships between the private and nonprofit sectors, how to diversify innovation, and more.

What does lack of access actually look like? Chike Aguh, whose nonprofit EveryoneOn works to close the digital divide in this country, spoke about how he sees lack of access manifest itself. He’s sees students doing their homework going from McDonald’s to McDonald’s just to use wifi; he’s sees men and women, just out of prison, applying for jobs out in parks with wifi. Granting access is a fundamental starting point that opens the door to all sorts of economic, educational, and civic engagement opportunities, Aguh said.

All of the panelists agreed that the issue of access to technology is a complicated, systemic challenge. Some barriers include cost, not having sufficient buy-in from local partners, and a lack of awareness of services to those who would most benefit.  

Ezenwa noted, “If technology is a lever [for opportunity and change], we still have to ask, who gets to pull the lever?” A potential answer to that may be underway. D.C. Councilmember Brandon Todd discussed the recent creation of a task force within the D.C. government that will be looking into the feasibility of providing free, citywide wifi. This potential increase in access, coupled with the work of nonprofits like EveryoneOn, would better enable innovation to take root. Todd also mentioned his efforts to diversify the channels he uses to communicate with his varied constituents, including seniors and millennials alike. In his words, “People need access to the information that’s important to them.”

The next hurdle the panel discussed is how to create change through tech innovation. Innovation is a reaction to a problem. But what happens when those that are able to innovate only represent part of the population due to limited access? “Are we only innovating around rich people’s problems?” Chike Aguh asked the crowd of programmers, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit organizations. Instead innovation should be redefined and look more like America, Aguh stated. "We’ve missed opportunities to reimagine systems; rather we just apply technology on top of what was done," Aguh said. Eventually the market of current problems will stagnate, Aaron Saunders said, and new problems and new innovation from other people need to be found to keep the market afloat.

Things are, however, slowly begin to change in that direction. Citing a recent study, Nneka Ezenwa spoke of the diversity of innovation creators with 35% of innovation coming from people who were born outside of the United States, with another 10% being first generation. Despite the important role of immigrants in innovation, US-born minorities, while making up 32% of the total population, only make up 8% of innovators. Within D.C., Aaron Saunders is working to change that with his educational tech incubator Luma Labs, which teaches programming and product management to children and young adults, particularly to those on the other side of the digital divide..

Saunders emphasized that social capital is needed to spur innovation opportunities within underrepresented groups. “A lot of people of color don’t have the social capital to get the financial capital; it just makes the situation even worse.” Without funds, incubator spaces for minorities, like Saunders’ Luma Labs, have limited impact.

Relationships with local partners need to be created as well, says Aguh, in an almost community organizing fashion, so that the most trusted actors within communities can help promote these opportunities. Coordination between public and private sectors can amplify these efforts and accelerate inclusive innovation.

While red tape and systemic social issues still present barriers to radical change, significant progress is being made to increase access to the internet and tech for underrepresented groups. Increased access through these means creates more access to information, economic, and civic opportunities, which can generate a virtuous cycle of further opportunity.

Kristi Arbogast is the Summer Fellow at the OpenGov Hub.