We Have to Drive Tech Innovation to Drive Social Mobility

Yesterday, I participated in a great mini-conference held by Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston on how technology innovation could help increase social mobility. (In full disclosure, I sit on the Institute's advisory board.) Throughout, we heard a range of ideas and examples about how technology can drive changes in civic engagement, government responsiveness and education. We also heard about tech and jobs.

The most interesting content to me, though, came in what we heard on the margins. Technology innovation can help improve social mobility. For that to happen, however, we have to invest like we want it to.

First, to give some context. "Social mobility" generally refers to someone's ability to move up and down income, asset and/or opportunity ladders over time. Since most people prefer not to move down those ladders, social mobility has become, in general parlance, loosely synonymous with upward mobility. As for "technology innovation," the two terms combined seem to focus people on the internet, high-tech, computing, social media and mobile technologies.

When groups of people get together for half a day to talk about improving social mobility, the focus is, not surprisingly, on those with relative social immobility now. In Boston, for example, that means low-income residents of color in a set of zip codes that experience chronic poverty, vulnerability and crime, along with struggling schools, battered infrastructure and a history of political marginalization. Most major American cities have just such a set of zip codes.

According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, Boston ranks 7th on the nation's mobility ladder for low-income families. The top ten include several other large cities, such as San Francisco, Washington and New York, as well as a few seemingly unlikely candidates, including Salt Lake City and Newark. In all of the top ranked cities, however, your chances of making the top 20 percent if you start in the bottom are somewhere around 11 percent, give or take. If you are born in a poor neighborhood, poverty can get even "stickier," especially if you are a person of color.

With that context in place, conference speakers told us technology innovation holds promise for increasing social mobility. Much of this promise revolves around employment. Whether you call it the "knowledge economy," the "innovation economy" or the "technology economy," for example, giving people computing, internet and mobile technology skills improves job prospects. When cities invest in fostering start-ups, including the hot field of technology start-ups, they increase the chances of creating new jobs for their residents. Further, a number of cities around the country are investing in mobile technologies that improve civic engagement and enfranchisement, especially for low-income families. Living Cities, for example, helps invest the resources of 22 foundations in just such initiatives.

We heard all of this at the conference. On the very last panel, however, when given the opportunity to reflect openly, we heard a few other things, too. Nigel Jacob, head of Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics -- one of the more innovative civic technology organizations in the country -- pointed out that we tend to apply technology innovation to the easier problems because the harder ones are, well, hard. People living in bottom-quintile neighborhoods mostly live in those hard places.

Chris Jones, Executive Director of DSNI, recipient of one of the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhood investments, said right off the bat, "Race and class matter." Then he repeated it. Mobil technology penetration is arguably higher among teens of color than white teens. But, as UT Austin researcher S. Craig Watkins notes, "... access to technology does not mean access to the same forms of capital and opportunities to leverage technology in particular kinds of ways including, for example, civic engagement and economic or educational opportunity."

At the very end of the day, Jacob and economist Ed Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, noted that capital tends to follow technology innovations with easily defined and tracked market-based solutions, start-up investments are geared toward the type and pace of scaling that for-profit companies do, rather than nonprofit or governmental entities, and regulatory environments can make innovation difficult in the best of circumstances, let alone for those with limited access to capital, social networks and political power. We also heard one speaker remind us that, while technology can support education in radical new ways, kids also need environments that send them to school ready to focus on using such technology to learn.

These "riffs" on the day's lessons made me realize, too, that no one there had focused particularly on the prospects of non-internet based technologies for improving social mobility. For example, how could 3-D printers or innovations such as MIT's sewable computer parts create new small-scale manufacturing centers in urban neighborhoods? How could urban farming technologies eliminate food deserts while creating income opportunities for low-income urban residents? Work is happening in all these spaces, but focus and investment remain at least marginal when compared with the affair capital seems to have with "high" tech innovations and their relatively enfranchised entrepreneurs.

The obvious take-aways from this conference on innovation and mobility, then, were that people need access to technology and related skills for social mobility. Further, today's technology innovations offer whole new ways for children to learn, citizens to participate and leaders to respond responsibly and effectively to local needs. Lastly, the new businesses that technology can foster create job opportunities and new incomes for those who work in them.

Less obvious, but just as important to me, however, were the messages about what kinds of technology innovations get mind share, who and what get capital investment and how easy or hard it is for those already marginalized to access, learn and use technology to their advantage.

Technology innovation can help drive social mobility. But that doesn't happen in a vacuum. Real choices about resources, regulations, access -- and even what we define as innovative -- help or hinder. We have to drive innovation towards driving mobility.